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National Elections of 1792

National Elections of 1792


Washington Returns. At age sixty, weary of the political disputes between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and their respective supporters in Congress, President George Washington looked forward to retirement. The only point that Hamilton and Jefferson could agree on was that national harmony depended on Washingtons reelection. Neither Federalists nor Republicans were ready for the permanent division of the United States into two opposing political parties. As in the election of 1788, there were no nominations, party labels, or campaign speeches by presidential candidates in 1792. Electors from fifteen states now in the Union unanimously cast 132 electoral votes for George Washington. This apparent unanimity and nonpartisanship is, however, somewhat misleading. The selections of a vice president and members of Congress showed unmistakable though rudimentary signs of party politics. In this sense the elections of 1792 were a transitional phase in the development of party politics. By the election of 1796, when Washington chose not to run for reelection, two competing parties had come into existence with clearly articulated ideologies, party leaders, and national political candidates.

The Vice Presidency. The Federalists quickly united behind incumbent vice president John Adams, but the Republicans engaged in a more complicated process of nominating their vice presidential candidate. Although the Republicans did not hold a national convention or go through a formal process of nomination, Virginias Republican leaders James Madison, James Monroe, and John Beckley used letters and personal visits to urge New York Republicans to support New York governor George Clinton over Sen. Aaron Burr. At a meeting in Philadelphia attended by Beckley, Melancton Smith of New York, and Pierce Butler of South Carolina the Republicans decided, in Beckleys words, to exert every endeavor for Mr. Clinton. Having informally nominated their candidate, Republican leaders used their influence within their respective states to unite support behind Clinton, with positive results. Washington was again chosen unanimously, but, unlike the elections of 1788, when thirty-five of the sixty-nine votes on the second ballot were scattered among ten candidates, in 1792 party solidarity resulted in seventy-seven votes for John Adams and fifty of the remaining fifty-five votes for George Clinton. Adams carried all of New England, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, fourteen of Pennsylvanias fifteen electoral votes, and seven of South Carolinas eight votes. Clinton carried New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia and received one vote in Pennsylvania. The recently admitted state of Kentucky cast four votes for Thomas Jefferson, and South Carolina cast one vote for Aaron Burr. Victory in the electoral college went to Washington and Adams, but the growing Republican opposition in Congress meant that political harmony would not prevail during their second term.

Congressional Races. The continuing distaste for party politics was evident in the unwillingness of Federalists and Republicans to declare their affiliations openly through nominating conventions or party tickets in the elections of 1792. But the Republicans took other steps to mobilize support for their positions and their candidates. James Madison wrote a series of anonymous essays in the National Gazette, which, by highlighting the differences between Federalists and Republicans, served as a kind of Republican party platform. Behind the scenes, Republicans organized support for candidates. Foreign policy debates over the French Revolution and Jays Treaty increased Republican strength in Congress, but the parties were fairly well balanced during Washingtons second term. Both Federalists and Republicans began to send letters to their constituents explaining their respective partys positions and contributing to a sense of party identification among voters. Republican leaders in Congress held caucuses and appointed congressional committees to organize a unified vote on legislation. By 1796, when Congress was debating the Jay Treaty, nonparty voting had dropped to 7 percent. The existence of party caucuses and voting blocs in Congress, the use of party newspapers and constituent letters to attract voters, and the coordinated efforts to choose candidates for national office are several features of modern party politics, but one essential element was missing. When Federalists called Republicans Anti-Federalists and Jacobins, and when Republicans called Federalists monarchists and British agents, they demonstrated that neither party had accepted the idea that political opposition was legitimate or desirable. Yet, even as they lamented the evils of parties, Federalists and Republicans were taking steps that would eventually establish the two-party system as one of the most important institutions of republican government.


William Nisbet Chambers, Political Parties in a New Nation: The American Experience, 17761809 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963);

Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 17881800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993);

Eugene H. Roseboom and Alfred E. Eckes Jr., A History of Presidential Elections, fourth edition (New York: Collier, 1979);

Charles Warren, Jacobin and Junto or Early American Politics as Viewed in the Diary of Dr. Nathaniel Ames (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931).

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