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American History: The First Real Two-Party U.S. Presidential Election in 1796

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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On the day in April 1789 that he took the oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City as the first president of the United States, George Washington noted in his diary: 'I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity, and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express.

Washington, who embodied the virtues exalted by his generation, had been given the unanimous vote of the new nation's electors. He had done nothing to promote himself as a candidate for the presidency and had agreed to undertake the mammoth task with the utmost reluctance. Whatever his personal misgivings, Washington's first term in office went smoothly. It was so successful, in fact, that in 1792 he once again received the electors' unanimous endorsement.

Such smooth sailing of the ship of state could not be expected to last, however, and during President Washington's second term, the United States–and thus its chief executive–began to experience the kinds of problems that plague any government. Relations with the former mother country deteriorated until it seemed that another war with Great Britain might be inevitable. And on the domestic front, groups of farmers, especially those in the westernmost counties of Pennsylvania, protested and rebelled against the Washington administration's excise tax on the whiskey that they distilled from their grain, eventually rioting in the summer of 1794.

The hero of America's revolution also suffered personal attacks on his character. Rumors had it that Washington was given to gambling, reveling, horseracing and horse whipping and that he had even taken British bribes while he was commanding American troops.

During the last weeks of 1795, reports spread through Philadelphia–then the national capital–that Washington planned to retire at the conclusion of his second term. It was true that similar rumors had circulated three years before, as the end of his first term drew near, but this time it appeared that he was determined to step down. Nearing his mid-sixties–a normal life span for a man in the eighteenth century–the president longed to retire to the tranquility of Mount Vernon, his beloved home in Virginia.

Although Washington said nothing to John Adams regarding his plans for retirement, his wife Martha hinted to the vice president near Christmas 1795 that her husband would be leaving office. Ten days later, Adams learned that the president had informed his cabinet that he would step down in March 1797.* You know the Consequences of this, to me and to yourself, Adams, aware that he might become the second president of the United States, wrote to his wife Abigail that same evening.

Adams's ascension to the presidency would be neither automatic nor unanimous. Before achieving that high office, he would have to emerge victorious from America's first contested presidential election.


* The March 4 date for the beginning of new terms of office went back to tradition begun under the Articles of Confederation and codified by Congressional legislation in 1792. The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1933, specified that henceforth Congressional terms would begin on January 3 and that an incoming president and vice president would take their oaths of office at noon on January 20 of the year following their election.

Eight years earlier, in September 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had considered numerous plans for choosing a president. They had rejected direct election by qualified voters because, as Roger Sherman of Connecticut remarked, a scattered population could never be informed of the characters of the leading candidates. The delegates also ruled out election by Congress. Such a procedure, Gouverneur Morris stated, would inevitably be the work of intrigue, cabal and of faction. Finally, the convention agreed to an electoral college scheme, whereby Each state shall appoint in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress. Presidential selection, therefore, would be decided through a state-by-state, rather than a national, referendum.

Each elector chosen by the voters or the legislature of his state would cast votes for two candidates, one of whom had to come from outside his state. The electors' ballots would be opened in the presence of both houses of Congress.

If no one received a majority of the votes, or if two or more individuals tied with a majority of the electoral college votes, the members of the House of Representatives would cast ballots to elect the president.* Once the president had been decided upon, the candidate from among those remaining who had received the second largest number of electoral votes became the vice president.


* Not since 1824 has the winner of a presidential contest been decided by the House of Representatives. In that year, John Quincy Adams gained the presidency when one more than half of the members of the House cast their ballots in his favor, giving him the necessary majority.

The framers of the Constitution believed that most electors would judiciously cast their two ballots for persons of real merit, as Morris put it. Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist 68–one of a series of essays penned by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to encourage ratification of the Constitution in New York State–that it was a moral certainty that the electoral college scheme would result in the election of the most qualified man. Someone skilled in the art of intrigue might win a high state office, he wrote, but only a man nationally known for his ability and virtue could gain the support of electors from throughout the United States. Indeed, the electoral college plan worked well during the first two presidential elections in 1788 and 1792, when every elector had cast one of his ballots for Washington. But by 1796, something unforeseen by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had occurred; men of different points of view had begun to form themselves into political parties.

The first signs of such factionalism appeared early in Washington's presidency. On one side were the Federalists who yearned for an American society and national government established on the British model. Skeptical of the growing democratization of the new nation, the Federalists desired a centralized national government that would have the strength both to aid merchants and manufacturers and to safeguard America's traditional hierarchical society.

By 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Congressman James Madison–both, like Washington, from Virginia–had taken steps to fashion an opposition party. Jefferson became the acknowledged leader of the new Anti-Federalists, a group soon known as the Democratic-Republican Party because of its empathy for the struggling republic that had emerged from the French Revolution of 1789. This party looked irreverently upon the past, was devoted to republican institutions, sought to give property-owning citizens greater control over their lives, and dreamt of an agrarian nation in which government would be small and weak.

Members of both parties ran candidates in congressional and state races in 1792, but they did not challenge President Washington. Partisanship, however, did surface that year in the contest for the vice presidency. Some Republicans acted behind the scenes in support . . . of removing Mr. A, as the clerk of the House noted, mainly because Adams's writings on government included positive statements about the British monarchy. The movement came to naught because it did not have the support of Jefferson, who had known and liked Adams for nearly twenty years. Other Republicans rallied behind George Clinton, the newly elected governor of New York.

The activity of the Republicans threw a scare into the Federalists. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the acknowledged leader of the Federalists, was so worried that he urged Adams to cut short a vacation and campaign openly against those who were–as he said–ill disposed toward him. Adams, who regarded electioneering with contempt, refused to do so and remained on his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, until after the electors had cast their ballots.

By March 1796, when Washington finally told his vice president that he would not seek reelection, Adams had decided to run for the office of president. His decision was no light thing, he said, since he knew that as president he would be subjected to obloquy, contempt, and insult. He even told Abigail that he believed every chief executive was almost sure of disgrace and ruin. While she had mixed emotions about his decision, she did not discourage him from running. In fact, she told him that the presidency would be a flattering and Glorious Reward for his long years of service. Ultimately, Adams decided to seek the office because, he asserted, I love my country too well to shrink from danger in her service.

As he began his quest, Adams expected formidable opposition, especially from Jefferson. He foresaw three possible outcomes to the election: he might garner the most votes, with Jefferson running second; Jefferson might win and John Jay of New York, long a congressman and diplomat, could finish second; or Jefferson might be elected president, while he was himself reelected vice president. That last scenario was not one Adams was prepared to accept. He decided that he would not serve another term as vice president; if he finished second again, he declared, he would either retire or seek election to the House of Representatives.

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Adams considered himself the heir apparent to President Washington, having languished in the vice presidency–which he described as the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived–for eight years, awaiting his turn. Furthermore, he believed that no man had made greater sacrifices for the nation during the American Revolution than he. In addition to risking his legal career to protest British policies, he sat as a member of the First Continental Congress for three years and served abroad from 1778-88, making two perilous Atlantic crossings to carry out his diplomatic assignments. During that ten years, his public service had forced him to live apart from his wife and five children nearly ninety percent of the time.

Jefferson often proclaimed his disdain for politics, even though he held political office almost continuously for forty years. As 1796 unfolded, he neither made an effort to gain the presidency nor rebuffed the Republican maneuvers to elect him to that office. When he resigned as secretary of state in 1793, Jefferson had said that he did not plan to hold public office again and would happily remain at Monticello, his Virginia estate. But, while he did not seek office in 1796, neither did he say that he would not accept the presidential nomination. Adams –and most Republicans–interpreted Jefferson's behavior as indicating that he wanted to be president.

The Constitution said nothing about how to select presidential nominees. In 1800, the Republican Party would choose its candidates in a congressional nominating caucus; in 1812, the first nominating conventions were held in several states; and the first national nominating convention took place in 1832. But in 1796, the nominees seemed to materialize out of thin air, as if by magic. In actuality, the party leaders decided on the candidates and attempted to herd their followers into line.

The Federalists' support centered on Adams and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina. Pinckney, who had recently negotiated a successful treaty with Spain that established territorial and traffic rights for the United States on the Mississippi River, was chosen for the second slot on the ticket by the party moguls–without consulting Adams–in part because as a Southerner, he might siphon Southern votes from Jefferson.

On the Republican side, Madison confided to James Monroe in February that Jefferson alone can be started with hope of success, [and we] mean to push him. The Republicans also endorsed Senator Aaron Burr of New York.

All this transpired quietly, for Washington did not publicly announce his intention of retiring until the very end of the summer. Not that the parties' plans were a mystery. Before Washington finally informed the nation of his decision on September 19, 1796, in his Farewell Address–which was not delivered orally but was printed in Philadelphia's American Daily Advertiser–the keenly partisan Philadelphia Aurora declared that it requires no talent at divination to decide who will be candidates. . . . Thomas Jefferson & John Adams will be the men.

But Washington's address, said congressman Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, was a signal, like dropping a hat, for the party racers to start. During the next ten weeks, the presidential campaign of 1796 was waged, as Federalists and Republicans–with the exception, for the most part, of the candidates themselves–worked feverishly for victory.

Adams, Jefferson, and Pinckney never left home. While their parties took stands on the major issues of the day, these men embraced the classical model of politics, refusing to campaign. They believed that a man should not pursue an office; rather, the office should seek out the man. They agreed that the most talented men–what some called an aristocracy of merit–should govern, but also that ultimate power rested with the people. The qualified voters, or the elected representatives of the people, were capable of selecting the best men from among the candidates on the basis of what Adams called the pure Principles of Merit, Virtue, and public Spirit.

Burr alone actively campaigned. Although he did not make any speeches, he visited every New England state and spoke with several presidential electors. Many Federalist and Republican officeholders and supporters spoke at rallies, but most of the electioneering took place through handbills, pamphlets, and newspapers.

The campaign was a rough and tumble affair. The Republicans sought to convince the electorate that their opponents longed to establish a titled nobility in America and that Adams–whom they caricatured as His Rotundity because of his small, portly stature–was a pro-British monarchist. President Washington was assailed for supporting Hamilton's aggressive economic program, as well as for the Jay Treaty of 1795, which had settled outstanding differences between the United States and Britain. The Philadelphia Aurora went so far as to insist that the president was the source of all the misfortunes of our country.

The Federalists responded by portraying Jefferson as an atheist and French puppet who would plunge the United States into another war with Great Britain. They also charged that he was indecisive and a visionary. A philosopher makes the worst politician, one Federalist advised, while another counseled that Jefferson was fit to be a professor in a college . . . but certainly not the first magistrate of a great nation. Newspapers such as the Gazette of the United States and Porcupine's Gazette asserted that Jefferson's election would result in domestic disorder.

Behind-the-scenes maneuvering included a plan by Hamilton, who felt that Pinckney could be more easily manipulated than Adams, to have one or two Federalist electors withhold their votes for Adams. Hearing rumors of the ploy, several New England electors conferred and agreed not to cast a ballot for Pinckney.

Even the French minister to the United States, Pierre Adet, became involved in the election by seeking to convey the impression that a victory for Jefferson would result in improved relations with France. As one historian has noted: Never before or since has a foreign power acted so openly in an American election.

Sixteen states took part in the balloting. The 138 electors were chosen by popular vote in six states and by the state legislatures of the remaining ten. Seventy votes were required to win a majority.

Adams expected to receive all of New England's 39 votes, but he also had to win all 12 of New York's votes and 19 from the other middle and southern states to win. He concluded that was impossible, especially after learning of Hamilton's machinations. On the eve of the electoral college vote, Adams remarked privately that Hamilton had outgeneraled all the other politicians and stolen the election for Pinckney.

The electors voted in their respective state capitals on the first Wednesday in December, but the law stipulated that the ballots could not be opened and counted until the second Wednesday in February. And so for nearly seventy days, every conceivable rumor circulated regarding the outcome of the election. By the third week in December, however, one thing was clear, Jefferson could not get seventy votes. Although 63 electors were Southerners, the South was a two-party region, and it was known that Jefferson had not received a vote from every Southern elector. In addition, because the Federalists controlled the legislatures in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, it was presumed that Jefferson would be shut out in those states.

Beyond that, nothing was certain. Many believed that Pinckney would win, either because of Hamilton's supposed chicanery or because all the Jeffs, as Ames called the Southern Republican electors, supposedly had cast their second ballot for the South Carolinian in order to ensure that a Southerner succeed Washington. A good number of Americans fully expected that no candidate would get a majority of the votes, thus sending the election to the House of Representatives.

By the end of December, better information arrived in Philadelphia when Ames informed Adams that he had at least 71 electoral votes. On December 28, Jefferson wrote Adams a congratulatory letter and at Washington's final levee in 1796, the First Lady told the vice president of her husband's delight at his victory. Persuaded that he was indeed the victor, an ebullient Adams wrote his wife at year's end that he had never felt more serene in his life.

Finally, on February 8, 1797, the sealed ballots were opened and counted before a joint session of Congress. Ironically, it was Vice President Adams, in his capacity as president of the Senate, who read aloud the results. The tabulation showed that Adams had indeed garnered 71 votes. Every New England and New York elector had voted for him. The tales about Hamilton's treachery had been untrue; ultimately, the former treasury secretary found the prospect of a Jefferson administration too distasteful to risk the subterfuge necessary to defeat Adams, who also got, as expected, all ten votes from New Jersey and Delaware. And in a sense, Adams won the election in the South, having secured nine votes in Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Jefferson, who finished second with 68 votes, automatically became the new vice president.* One Federalist elector in Virginia, the representative of a western district that long had exhibited hostility toward the planter aristocracy, voted for Adams and Pinckney, as did four electors from commercial, Federalist enclaves in Maryland and North Carolina. Whereas Adams secured enough votes in the South to push him over the top, Jefferson did not receive a single electoral vote in New England or in New York, New Jersey, or Delaware. Pinckney, not Adams, was the real victim of Hamilton's rumored duplicity. To ensure that the South Carolinian did not obtain more votes than Adams, 18 Federalist electors in New England refused to give him their vote.


* This first contested presidential election demonstrated a flaw in the Constitution's electoral college scheme since the country now had a Federalist president and a Republican vice president. Four years later, the two republican candidates, Jefferson and Burr, each received 73 electoral votes. Although it was clear during the election campaign that Jefferson was the presidential candidate and Burr the vice presidential, Burr refused to concede, forcing a vote in the House of Representatives that brought Jefferson into office. To correct these defects the Twelfth Amendment, which provided for separate balloting for president and vice president, was adopted in 1804.

Had Pinckney received 12 of those votes, the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives. Instead, he finished third with 59 electoral votes. Burr polled only thirty votes. Southern Republicans–perhaps sharing the sentiment of the Virginia elector who remarked that there were traits of character in Burr which sooner or later will give us much trouble–rejected him.

Even among the enfranchised citizens, few bothered to cast ballots in this election. In Pennsylvania, a state in which the electors were popularly chosen, only about one-quarter of the eligible voters went to the polls. But the contest in Pennsylvania was an augury of the political changes soon to come. The Republicans swept 14 of the state's 15 electoral votes, winning in part because they outpoliticked their opponents by running better-known candidates for the electoral college and because Minister Adet's intrusive comments helped Jefferson among Quakers and Philadelphia merchants who longed for peace. Many voters had rejected the Federalist Party because they thought of it as a pro-British, pro-aristocratic party committed to an economic program designed to benefit primarily the wealthiest citizens.

And what occurred in Pennsylvania was not unique. Jefferson won more than eighty percent of the electoral college votes in states outside New England that chose their electors by popular vote. In an increasingly democratic United States, the election of 1796 represented the last great hurrah for the Federalist Party.

On March 4, 1797, America's first orderly transferal of power occurred in Philadelphia when George Washington stepped down and John Adams took the oath as the second president of the United States. Many spectators were moved to tears during this emotional affair, not only because Washington's departure brought an era to a close, but because the ceremony represented a triumph for the republic. Adams remarked that this peaceful event was the sublimist thing ever exhibited in America. He also noted Washington's joy at surrendering the burdens of the presidency. In fact, Adams believed that Washington's countenance seemed to say: Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest.

This article was written by By John Ferling and originally published in the December 1996 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!

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6 Responses to “American History: The First Real Two-Party U.S. Presidential Election in 1796”


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