The presidential election of 1796 was the first real election for president that the United States had. In the first two elections, the elections of 1789 and 1792, everyone knew that George Washington was going to win. He had no opposition and it was simply inconceivable that anyone would run against him. Washington’s second term was not as successful as his first, especially in foreign policy. The young nation was being pressured to take sides in the war between Great Britain and Revolutionary France, and Washington’s insistence that the United State was neutral pleased neither side. The British would not respect American sovereignty while the French ambassador tried to undermine the government. Washington sent John Jay to Great Britain to negotiate a trade treaty and to deal with these issues. The resulting treaty was greatly to the advantage of the British and was very unpopular, especially among the supporters of Jefferson. This affected Washington’s popularity and in the second half of his second term, Washington faced more public opposition than he had before as president.
Still, if George Washington had wanted a third term, he would have gotten it. He didn’t want it. Washington was feeling old and tired. He was 64 years old and had lived a hard life. He was also aware that the men of his family tended to die young. Washington wanted to return to Mount Vernon and spend a few years in retirement.
As soon as it was clear that Washington would not serve a third term, the race was on. The first party system had begun to develop in George Washington’s second term. The party organizations were still rather rudimentary, however and there were none of the primaries, caucuses, or nominating conventions that were a feature later on in American politics. Instead the leader of each party met informally and chose candidates. Both parties decided to balance their tickets geographically with one candidate from the north and one from the south, in order to appeal to the whole country.
The Federalists picked John Adams to be their candidate for president. He had served as vice-president for eight years under Washington and many felt that he deserved the top job. Adams was known to be capable and honest and was a good choice. For vice-president, the Federalists chose Thomas Pinckney from South Carolina. Pinckney is not well known today. He had fought in the Revolutionary War and had served as governor of South Carolina from 1787 to 1789. He was Washington’s minister to Britain in 1792 and had negotiated the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain. In fact, the Federalist Party leader, Alexander Hamilton preferred Pinckney to Adams and tried to arranged for him to get more electoral votes.
The Democratic-Republicans chose their party leader, Thomas Jefferson. For vice-president they decided on Aaron Burr from New York. This might seem a strange choice considering Burr’s later notoriety, but Burr was also a Revolutionary War veteran and a prominent attorney. He was also the leader of the Democratic Republican Party in the state of New York.
The rules for electing the president were different before the passage of the twelfth amendment. The electors were selected in November either by state legislatures or in some states by popular vote. When the Electoral College met, each elector had two votes which he cast for two different men. The candidate with the most votes was elected president while the runner up got to be vice-president. This system worked well enough in the first two elections, when everyone knew Washington would be president. It did not work so well in the election of 1796 and caused a crisis in the election of 1800.
The first contested election was fiercely fought. Adams and Jefferson took no part in the campaign, it wasn’t considered seemly to actively campaign in those days, and they remained friends. Their partisans, however, attacked each other mercilessly. Adams was accused of being a monarchist who planned to make himself king and his sons lords. Jefferson was attacked as a fanatic Jacobin and atheist who wanted to import the French Revolution to America. When the votes were cast, Adams won by a narrow margin. He got 71 electoral votes, winning all of New England along with New York and New Jersey. Jefferson had 68 electoral votes, winning the entire south including the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee and also won Pennsylvania. In the states of Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia, one elector had voted for Adams, while Maryland was split with seven votes for Adams and four votes for Jefferson.
In both parties the plan had been for all but a few electors to cast their second vote for their party’s choice for vice president, thus allowing either Pinckney or Burr to be in second place. This didn’t work out because of the slow speed of communications at the time, so the electors’ second votes were distributed among a variety of men. Thomas Pinckney got 59 votes, fewer than Jefferson. Burr was a distant fourth with only 30 votes. So John Adams, the Federalist was elected president with Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic Republican as his vice president. This might be a little like Barack Obama having John McCain as his vice president.
Despite the differences in party, Adams and Jefferson expected to work well with each other and Jefferson was gracious in defeat, saying, “Adams has always been my senior from the commencement of my public life”. Maybe he had an idea of just how rough the next four years were going to be.
- Role Reversal: the Origins of the Democratic and Republican Parties (fsu.uloop.com)
- A Founder of Nothing Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg (nomocracyinpolitics.com)
- An Eighteenth Century “Oops” (joshuaziefle.net)
- Top 10 Controversial US Presidential Elections (toptenz.net)