Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

The Election of 1796: Jefferson vs. Adams

The Election of 1796: Jefferson vs. Adams

Author’s note: I’ll be away for most of the month of July. As such, I will not be able to follow the presidential race, to say nothing of write about it. Therefore, before I left, I sent my editors a series of four columns. This series will take a brief look at each of the first four elections in presidential history. I have two goals with these. First, I’d like to chart the rise of presidential partisanship, from its nonexistence in 1789, to its conception in 1792, to its birth in 1796, and finally to its maturation in 1800. Second and similarly, I’d also like to show that partisan vitriol is nothing new; there was just as much in 1800 as there is in 2012.

Click here for Part I and here for Part II of the series.

In 1792, it seemed as if the only thing Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had agreed upon as President Washington’s chief advisors was to push him toward a second term. Once that mission was a success, they quickly returned to divisiveness. Strife filled Washington’s second term in his steadily disintegrating cabinet. Still, one could argue it could have been worse for Washington; in 1793, France’s chief executive, Louis XVI, was guillotined. In comparison, a divided cabinet didn’t seem so bad.

While this election may mark the turning point of American presidential politics from its established, passive process to the more familiar contested election, some residual characteristics from its predecessors remained. There was still no formal nomination process like there is in the primaries of the 20th and 21st centuries. Instead, influential party members would meet and discuss who their candidate should be in the upcoming election.[1] The Federalists naturally gravitated toward Vice President John Adams, who had been President Washington’s vice president for nearly eight years and had always been central in the fight for independence and good government. The 1796 Election also gave presidential politics the first taste of geographical balance for a vice presidential candidate. In hopes of retaining both positions, Federalists coupled Adams with South Carolinian Federalist Thomas Pinckney in hopes of garnering southern votes, a weakness for Adams four years earlier.

The Democratic-Republicans predictably countered with Thomas Jefferson, one of the most popular figures in the country and, with fellow Virginian James Madison, one of the lead architects of the party. They, too, considered geographical balance when deciding on their second choice and selected New York Senator Aaron Burr.

Many planks of the parties’ platforms were polar, similar to modern campaigns. As they had been doing since their parties first coalesced earlier in the decade, the Federalists pushed a strong central government while the Republicans championed states’ rights. The Federalists boasted, close to accurately, that they had the support of the still extremely popular President Washington.[2] They criticized the Republican ideology as borderline anarchy, similar to the terror-filled reign of counterrevolutionaries seen across the Atlantic in revolutionary France. The Republicans, in defense and offense, continued to draw a parallel between Federalists and the British monarchy, an entity from which both Adams and Jefferson, twenty years earlier, famously pushed for dissolved political bands.

Born from these two polar platforms were the first personal attacks in the history of presidential politics. Since the vice presidency was an undeniably weak position, with legislation rarely attached to it, John Adams’s record as vice president was relatively unblemished. Though Adams the man was eventually criticized, Adams the elected official was rather impervious. Therefore, the path to diminish Adams’ credibility went, at times, through President Washington, which would have been a shocking notion just a few years earlier. For example, Jefferson and the Republicans fervently opposed Hamilton’s national bank, as they did the controversial Jay Treaty of 1794, which many Republicans considered too friendly to the British. President Washington heartily accepted both, which gave the Republicans fodder against the administration.

Perhaps the most notorious attacks came from Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of the famous Founder. Bache led the anti-Adams charge with a new pro-Republican newspaper, Philadelphia’s General Advertiser, later the Aurora. Lambasting the Jay Treaty only eight days after Washington signed it, Bache compared President Washington to a certain absolutist across the Atlantic—King Louis. Bache relentlessly criticized the President. He insisted that Washington had “debauched” the nation. Another prominent Republican and co-editor of the Aurora, William Duane, thought Washington’s final address to the nation was “fraught with incalculable evils” and the President was stricken with a “sick mind.”[3] The American Mercury levied the first “elitist” charge in the history of American presidential politics, asking, “Does the President fancy himself the grand Lama of this country that we are to approach him with superstitious reverence or religious regard?”[4] Later, the Mercury proclaimed, “We have been guilty of idolatry for far too long.”

With such attacks, it is no wonder President Washington could finally feel comfortable stepping down.

As the election neared, Bache’s Aurora, fresh off its castigation of Washington’s record, turned to personal attacks on the President’s heir apparent. “His Rotundity,” the Republicans called Adams, not only conjuring up the days when he pushed for a regal title for the presidency, but also alluding to Adams’s “sesquipedality of belly.” A low blow in any era.

The Republican paper derided Adams and his ideology. Bache championed Jefferson as a sort of Messiah, here to eradicate the evils of Federalism. As such, Bache was ruthless in his attacks against Adams, claiming that he “would deprive you of a voice in choosing your president and senate, and make both hereditary.” Bache questioned his readers if they wanted, “this champion of kings, ranks, and titles to be your president.”[5]

The Federalists, however, were not to be outdone. In their attacks of Jefferson, they commonly referred to him as atheistic, anarchistic, and cowardly, claiming he’d rather plunge the country into bloody French chaos then push forward with a strong central government. A famous Federalist description of the Jeffersonians proclaimed that they were “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin,” which, frankly, makes a Bain Capital attack look like a warm hug.

When it came time for the election, the flaws of the original electoral process became apparent. The method of electors each choosing two candidates worked splendidly when Washington was supposed to win, and the best anyone else could have hoped for was finishing in second, consequently becoming vice president. However, once two parties each ran two men for two available spots—meaning four candidates total—the plot considerably thickened. One man would win the presidency, one the vice-presidency, and two men would win nothing. Importantly, the top two men did not necessarily have to be of the same party.

To the delight of political bloggers everywhere, that last scenario manifested. John Adams won a narrow, three-vote victory in the Electoral College, but that three-vote margin was over Jefferson.[6] Therefore, under the rules of the era, the runner up of the election, Jefferson, would have to serve as vice president under the victor, John Adams. President Adams’s vice president turned out to be a member of the opposing political party.

The Election of 1796 was ultimately a preview of its successor. It was an assumption that Adams and Jefferson would have a rematch in 1800, and it was also assumed that the rematch would be as rancorous as this one, if not more so.[7] Jefferson, however, was still expected to serve under Adams for four years, including during their next contest. How this would play out was anybody’s guess. What they certainly did not know was that the Election of 1800 would display strategies of presidential politics that campaigns would emulate for the next two hundred years.

Next week, the conclusion: The Election of 1800.

[1] We can basically assume these rooms were smoke-filled.

[2] Accurate insomuch as he did share their ideology, but not accurate to the point where he publically endorsed Federalism. His timeless farewell address, after all, warned of partisanship. And since that speech also warned against running up a national debt and messing around in other countries’ business, you can see that we took our first president’s words straight to heart.

[3] The Republicans were desperate; attacking Washington was roughly the equivalent of attacking a demigod.

[4] Can’t you see Republicans using that line against President Obama?

[5] As an example of Adams’s monarchical leanings, Bache warned that if Adams were elected, his son, John Quincy, would later become President, too. (Lucky guess.)

[6] Pinckney 59, Burr 30. Fifth place Sam Adams and eight others combined for 48 electoral votes.

[7] Foreshadowing!