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John Adams represented the federalist side of American politics in 1796, standing for a strong central government.

Colonial Williamsburg

John Adams represented the federalist side of American politics in 1796, standing for a strong central government.

Thomas Jefferson championed a smaller, more decentralized idea of governance by independent yeomen−citizens.

Colonial Williamsburg

Thomas Jefferson championed a smaller, more decentralized idea of governance by independent yeomen−citizens

President Washington relinquished power and gave up office.

Barbara Lombardi

President Washington relinquished power and gave up office.

Abigail Adams knew before others of his pending retirement.

Library of Congress

Abigail Adams knew before others of his pending retirement.

Fisher Adams foresaw a fierce contest in the 1796 election.

Barbara Lombardi

Fisher Adams foresaw a fierce contest in the 1796 election.

Alexander Hamilton warned of the dangers of faction.

Barbara Lombardi

Alexander Hamilton warned of the dangers of faction.

Aaron Burr might have gained the vice presidency in 1796, but Thomas Jefferson assumed the office.

Wikimedia

Aaron Burr might have gained the vice presidency in 1796, but Thomas Jefferson assumed the office.

Thomas Pinckney might have gained the vice presidency in 1796, but Thomas Jefferson assumed the office.

Wikimedia

Thomas Pinckney might have gained the vice presidency in 1796, but Thomas Jefferson assumed the office.

The Twelfth Amendment specified separate electoral ballots for president and vice president to avoid a divided leadership.

National Archives

The Twelfth Amendment specified separate electoral ballots for president and vice president to avoid a divided leadership.

A Great Deal of Noise, Whipping and Spurring

America's First Disputed Presidential Election

by Jack Lynch

Early America produced documents and declarations that upset traditional notions of statecraft—the Declaration of Independence, with its insistence on human equality and inalienable rights; the Constitution, with its scheme to govern a large nation on republican principles; the Bill of Rights, with its explicit limits on the government’s powers. In the eyes of contemporaries, though, one of the most surprising must have been George Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he announced that, after eight years in office, he would be stepping down from the presidency.

Such things were not done. The modern world had no instances of a head of state choosing to step down, making room for a successor. Even the framers had not seriously contemplated it. Washington could have served as many times as he wanted—before the ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment in 1951, nothing prevented a president from standing for election every four years until he died in office. After that, his vice president, who could then be the presumptive favorite in the next election, would succeed him. The United States could easily have ended up with a system hard to distinguish from monarchy, with presidents serving life terms and a pro-forma electoral ratification of the succession every four years. With the Farewell Address, though, American politics went in an unexpected direction.

No one else could have played the role Washington did in the early years of the Republic. He won the elections of 1788–89 and 1792 not just overwhelmingly but unanimously. By the time he published the Farewell Address on September 19, 1796, though, things were different. Washington’s retirement had been rumored. His health was declining; the burden of office weighed on him. The country, moreover, was more divided than in the aftermath of the Revolution. Western farmers protested against the government’s tax policies in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791. Relations with Great Britain, improving after 1783, took a turn for the worse. The French Revolution prompted Americans to split over whether to support British or French interests abroad. Negotiations over the Jay Treaty of 1794 had gone badly.

Washington himself lost some of his luster, and the press made scurrilous accusations that would have been unthinkable a few years before. Philip Freneau’s National Gazette attacked the “monarchical farce” of the public celebrations of Washington’s birthday. The New-York Journal attacked Washington’s “aristocratical blood,” accusing the “horrid swearer and blasphemer” of having spent his youth “gambling, reveling, horseracing and horse whipping.” Thomas Paine, once an admirer, now called him a “patron of fraud,” “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life.” Benjamin Franklin Bache wrote in the Aurora:

If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American Nation has been debauched by Washington. If ever a nation has suffered from the improper influence of a man, the American Nation has suffered from the influence of Washington. If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American Nation has been deceived by Washington. Let his conduct, then, be an example to future ages. . . . Let the history of the Federal Government instruct mankind, that the masque of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest designs against the liberties of a people.

Washington had guided the country through its first eight years, but now he wanted out. It was time for the nation’s first succession of power.

The elections of 1788–89 and 1792 were barely elections at all, at least as we understand them. In 1796, though, the presidency would be contested. The Constitution’s provisions for elections would be tested for the first time.

In some respects, the presidential election of 1796 was alien to modern sensibilities. The candidates, convinced that campaigning was beneath their dignity, left the speeches and editorials to supporters working behind the scenes. It was also a brief election season. The Farewell Address appeared in the middle of September; the whole campaign took about seven weeks. It was nothing like a modern election. In other respects, though, 1796 was the beginning of modern electioneering. It was the first time the nation had to contend with political parties, hotly contested races, ideological differences between the candidates, gutter journalism, and a transition of power at the presidential level.

It was one of the first great clashes between constitutional theory and reality. The Framers provided for elections between candidates, but they had not considered the possibility of party politics—or, more accurately, they considered it obvious that the young nation would avoid parties. “Party” was synonymous with “faction”: parties put the interests of the few above those of the many. To call someone a party man was always an insult. As one writer put it in 1776, “The powers of government raised by faction indulge and favour the side of party to which they owe their existence; and the contrary party is tyrannized over and oppressed.” Alexander Hamilton had advice like this in mind in Federalist No. 9: “A firm Union,” he wrote, “will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection.” His partner James Madison followed up in No. 10 with a definition:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Washington’s Farewell Address warned against “the danger of parties in the State.”

Despite calls to avoid faction, though, parties were coalescing during the Washington administration, as two loosely organized groups began advancing opposing principles. One side, the Federalists supported most of the policies of Washington’s administration. They hoped for a government modeled closely on Britain, with a strong federal government and a respect for social hierarchy. The other group, eventually called Democratic-Republicans, supported the anti-monarchical Jacobins in Revolutionary France against the interests of Britain. They envisioned the United States as an agrarian nation with a weak central government.

The parties had participated in the congressional elections of 1792, but neither had the nerve to challenge Washington for the presidency. With Washington retired, they would be front and center on the national stage. As Fisher Ames told Oliver Wolcott a week after the Farewell Address was published, Washington’s announcement “will serve as a signal, like dropping a hat, for the party racers to start, and I expect a great deal of noise, whipping, and spurring.”

The Philadelphia Aurora noted September 20 that it “requires no talent at divination to decide who will be candidates for the chair. THOMAS JEFFERSON & JOHN ADAMS will be the men.” They were right. On the Federalist side, Washington’s vice president, John Adams, was the presidential candidate; Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, fresh off a success negotiating the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain, was to be his vice president. The Republicans advanced Thomas Jefferson for president and New York Senator Aaron Burr for vice president. Jefferson had resigned as secretary of state on the last day of 1793 and vowed never to return to public office, but was willing to return to public life.

Washington played no visible part in the campaign, but there was no doubt where his sympathies lay: the Federalists promised to continue his policies. Though he never actively supported their cause, he did give them an advantage by letting them know of his intention to retire as early as January 1796. “In perfect Secrecy between You & me,” Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, on January 7, “I must tell you that I now believe the P. will retire. The Consequence to me is very Serious and I am not able as yet to see what my Duty will demand of me.” He recognized that he was the obvious candidate and, in another letter to Abigail, said, half in jest, “I am Heir Apparent, you know, and a Succession is soon to take place.”

Though much that we expect in elections had to be worked out, the parties mastered one element in this first contested election: negative campaigning. Historian Howard R. Ernst calls the election of 1796 “one of the most virulent and personally abusive campaigns in the history of modern American politics.” To hear the Federalists tell it, Jefferson was an atheist, a threat to organized religion, a supporter of mob rule eager for another war with Britain. The Republicans said that Adams was a monarchist, a snob, and a monocrat, ready to sell out the gains made in the Revolution.

Both sides resorted to the kind of doomsaying that viewers of modern attack ads recognize. The Aurora urged readers, just a week before the election, to favor the Republicans:

JOHN ADAMS, the advocate of a kingly government and of a titled nobility to form an upper house and to keep down the swinish multitude, as one of his brethren calls you— JOHN ADAMS, who would deprive you of a voice in chusing your president and senate, and make both hereditary— this champion for kings, ranks and titles is to be your president unless you will turn out on Friday the fourth day of November, & by your votes call forth Thomas Jefferson, the friend of the people, a republican in principle and manners, whose talents will bear a comparison with those of any man of the United States.

On the other side, John Fenno wrote in the Gazette of the United States

If Mr. Jefferson is elected President of the United States, all the present officers of government will be put out of office. . . . In 15 months we will be involved in a ruinous war, which will terminate in the fall of the present fabric of government, and a disunion of the states.

Adams and Jefferson themselves struggled to remain cordial through all the mudslinging. Their friendship of long-standing was tested.

The election was in early November, with a complicated mix of systems: electors were appointed by popular vote in some states and by legislatures in others. Under the Constitution, the candidate who got the most votes was to be president; the candidate who finished second was to be vice president. Though no one knew the outcome until the official results of the Electoral College were reported, everyone knew it would be close. Before a joint session of Congress on February 8, 1797, the sealed ballots were opened, and Adams, as president of the Senate, read the results aloud. Adams got 71 electoral votes, Jefferson 68. Pinckney followed with 59, Burr with 30. Other candidates got a total of 48.

Opponents Adams and Jefferson won the two highest offices; the rivals were to serve together. What makes sense in a nonpartisan world—the public is best served by its top two choices working together for the common good—seems less rational when those top choices represent very different, even bitterly opposed, conceptions of the role of government.

Some recognized these problems early. On January 6, 1797, before the Electoral College met, Rep. William L. Smith of South Carolina introduced a resolution to amend the Constitution to allow slates of candidates to run against one another, avoiding the problem of divided administrations. The resolution failed. Adams, the next day, said in a letter to Abigail, “It will be a dangerous Crisis in public affairs if the President and Vice President shall be in opposite Boxes.” When it dawned on him that he might end up serving another four years as Jefferson’s vice president, he vowed to quit and seek a seat in the House of Representatives.

This problem would not be fixed until 1804, when the Twelfth Amendment allowed electors to vote for president and vice president separately. That was too late to help Adams and Jefferson, who were obliged to serve together for four years—the only time that situation arose in United States history. Hamilton wrote: “Mr. Adams is President, Mr. Jefferson Vice-President. . . . The Lion and the Lamb are to lie down together.” Adams hoped for a kind of unity government, with the two parties seeking common ground. The president and the vice president tried to work together for the first few days of their administration, but it was in vain: they differed on too many fundamental questions. Quickly, they abandoned all pretense of consulting one another, and went off in different directions.

The election of 1796 produced its share of confusions— though not nearly so many as the famously chaotic election of 1800, an even more bitter rematch in which Vice President Jefferson beat President Adams on the tie-breaking thirty-sixth ballot in the House. “As to President,” wrote Fisher Ames in 1796, “never was there a more embarrassing state of things.” The “transmigration” of power, as he called it, came at a price. The election, if it is remembered at all, is remembered for this embarrassing outcome.

But it deserves to be remembered for its successes rather than its failures. Historian Page Smith wrote: “It might well be argued that the election of 1796 was the most important in our history.” Adams had similarly grand thoughts about his victory: he told Abigail that his inauguration was “the sublimest Thing ever exhibited in America.” These claims may be extravagant, but there is something to them. The election was, in Smith’s words, “the first time in modern history that the elected chief executive of an independent nation had surrendered office of his own volition in accordance with a preconceived plan.” It was the first orderly transfer of power in the history of the country—proof that such a thing was possible. After the American Revolution, in the very midst of the French Revolution, when it was easy to think that governments were incapable of peaceful transitions, such proof was sorely needed.

Despite the pettiness, the rise of political parties, and the inconvenience of having rivals sharing the President’s House on Market Street in Philadelphia— despite the noise, whipping, and spurring— the Constitution’s provisions worked. The candidates may have been frustrated, but the succession of the presidency went off without a hitch. The leadership of a large nation had passed from one person to another without hereditary succession on the one hand or violent revolution on the other.



Jack Lynch, author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park (Walker & Co., 2009), is professor of English and associate dean of arts and sciences at Rutgers University. He contributed to the Summer 2011 journal an article on prisons and prison reform.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (New York, 1993).
  • John Ferling, “1796: The First Real Election,”American History 31, no. 5 (Dec. 1996): 24–28, 66–68.
  • Yanek Mieczkowski, The Routledge Historical Atlas of Presidential Elections (New York, 2001).
  • Larry Sabato and Howard R. Ernst, Encyclopedia of American Political Parties and Elections (New York, 2006).
  • Arthur M. Schlesinger, ed., History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–1968, 2 vols. (New York, 1985).


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