Election of 1796

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Historians have often stressed the dramatic, transforming character of the election of 1800 as the first peaceful electoral transition from an administration of one party and set of principles to that of another in modern history. They have even, with some help from Thomas Jefferson, labeled the election the Revolution of 1800. But however transforming 1800 may have been, the election of 1796 was America's first national electoral competition for political power, both between individuals and political organizations.

Everything about the election of 1796 was unprecedented, except for its complex legal mechanism, carefully laid out in Article II of the Constitution: In sixteen state contests for sixteen sets of electors (selected in whatever fashion each state chose), each elector would submit two names for president, with no preference given to either name. The person gaining the most votes would be elected president, and the second–most popular person would be elected vice president. This system had been used twice before but had not been truly tested, because George Washington was the first choice of every presidential elector both in 1788 and 1792, and John Adams's selection as vice president in those years had generated neither much controversy nor much enthusiasm.

By 1796, however, much had changed. The fiscal policies of Alexander Hamilton and the foreign policy of all Federalists, including President Washington, had begun to polarize the nation. When Washington announced his determination to retire from public life in September 1796, a two-month campaign to elect men who would defend, or alter, the Federalist worldview began in earnest.

This was not, however, like any modern presidential campaign, nor indeed any campaign that followed it. It presented to the nation two strong, and recently labeled, national factions, but no real parties. There were two coordinated attempts to present two competing tickets—John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina for the Federalists, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and Aaron Burr of New York for the Republicans—but some states were far more receptive to these tickets than were others. Washington himself gave not the slightest hint of his personal preference for any candidate or either faction until every elector had cast his vote and Adams's election seemed assured in late December 1796. This left national political figures from every region to decide whether to push one of the supposed tickets or to advance other combinations, especially Jefferson and Pinckney, or to ponder whether they should, or even could, exert any influence at all.

In such a campaign, divisive national issues were often subordinated to considerations of local interest or of individual relations to a host of potential candidates. Nevertheless, the campaign was spirited, conducted by letters, newspaper essays, and public addresses. The correspondence between various public figures, and sometimes from a public figure to a known or probable presidential elector, was of two kinds: confidential (not meant to be shared widely, if at all), and quasi public (intended to be shown to others, and occasionally even to be published, usually anonymously). Most of the potential candidates for the presidency or vice presidency, however, refrained entirely from campaigning, and declined even to announce their willingness to serve. Adams and Jefferson stayed at home for the entire contest and said virtually nothing to any visitors that could be used to much effect. It was, however, clear that they were willing to serve, and only a public declaration that they would not serve would have discouraged most, but not all, of their supporters. To this there was one exception. Aaron Burr campaigned openly and energetically for Jefferson but was widely considered to be campaigning for himself.

The end result of the election fully reflected its pre-party (or at most, proto-party) character. Adams won narrowly in the electoral college (not in the House of Representatives, as he had believed he would in the late winter of 1796), gaining 71 electoral votes to Jefferson's 68, with the remaining 133 votes spread among Pinckney, Burr, and nine other candidates, including Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. The efforts of both Federalists and Republicans to promote clear tickets had failed. John Adams won by doing well in most of the middle states, where Jefferson ran poorly, and by winning one elector each from Federalist-leaning districts in Virginia and North Carolina. Jefferson, unable to secure every Virginia and North Carolina vote, became vice president.

See alsoAdams, John; Democratic Republicans; Election of 1800; Federalists; Jefferson, Thomas; Washington, George .


Cunningham, Noble. The Jeffersonian Republicans: The Formation of Party Organization, 1789–1801. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.

Dauer, Manning. The Adams Federalists. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Ferling, John. John Adams: A Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

Freeman, Joanne B. "The Presidential Election of 1796." In John Adams and the Founding of the Republic. Edited by Richard Alan Ryerson. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2001.

Kurtz, Stephen. The Presidency of John Adams: The Collapse of Federalism, 1795–1800. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1957.

Richard Alan Ryerson