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National Elections of 1796

National Elections of 1796


Federalist Successor. President George Washingtons announcement that he would retire from office in September 1796 paved the way for the nations first contested presidential election. Federalist members of Congress publicly agreed on a party ticket of Vice President John Adams of Massachusetts as their presidential candidate and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, negotiator of the Pinckney Treaty with Spain, as their vice-presidential candidate. Unfortunately, Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution did not provide separate ballots for electing the president and vice president, so the Federalists had no guarantee that the electors would endorse their proposed ticket. In addition former secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who disliked Adamss moderate Federalism, not to mention his friendship with the Republican Thomas Jefferson, privately tried to arrange Pinckneys election as president. Hamilton suggested that northern electors give equal support to Adams and Pinckney, supposedly to prevent Jeffersons election. Since Hamilton expected southern electors to support Pinckney solidly, he believed that his plan would result in Pinckneys election as president. But Hamilton underestimated the support for Adams in New England, and his plan to deprive Adams of the presidency failed. Hamiltons political manipulations foreshadowed the intraparty factionalism that affected the Adams presidency and contributed to Republican electoral victory in the election of 1800.

Republican Presidential Ticket. Republican members of Congress informally nominated Thomas Jefferson of Virginia as their presidential candidate. They could not agree on a vice-presidential candidate, but Aaron Burr of New York was the presumed candidate. John Beckley, clerk of the House of Representatives and Republican Party leader, counted on support for Burr from Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Republican Partys control over the presidential electors, already weakened by the lack of separate ballots for president and vice president, was further weakened by the informal, assumed, and nonbinding choice of Aaron Burr as vice president. The energetic Beckley, assuming that most of the northern electors would choose Adams and confident of solid southern support for Jefferson, turned his attention to Pennsylvania. By 1796 Pennsylvania had a highly developed two-party system, but the Federalist-controlled legislature, confident of their support from voters, passed a measure providing that presidential electors be chosen on a statewide political basis instead of by districts. Unfortunately for the Federalists, the Republicans proved to be the superior politicians. The Republican slate of presidential electors consisted of prominent men with statewide reputations while the Federalist slate consisted of less distinguished men with mostly local reputations. The Republicans also distributed fifty thousand hand-written tickets to local political leaders a week before the election. Republican electioneering paid off in Pennsylvania, where fourteen of the fifteen electors voted for Jefferson. For their second choice twelve of the fifteen electors chose Burr. Beckley also proved correct in estimating southern support for Jefferson, but electors in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia were decidedly cool toward Aaron Burr.

A Close Race. The national elections of 1796 had many of the characteristics of modern party politics. Candidates for the presidency and vice presidency were clearly Federalists or Republicans, and each party used newspapers and pamphlets to promote its candidates and attack the opposition. Support for or opposition to the Jay Treaty and the French Revolution were campaign issues in both the presidential and congressional elections. Many of the presidential electors were chosen on a partisan basis, either by popular vote or by the state legislatures. Both parties, however, had a long way to go in establishing a two-party system. Neither Adams nor Jefferson campaigned for the presidency. Adams expected that his long, distinguished record of public service would ensure his election, and Jeffersons lack of public commitment to his candidacy made James Madison fear that he would withdraw his name altogether. Although many presidential electors were chosen on a partisan basis, they were not bound to any candidate, and, as the final election results show, they were certainly not bound to the idea of voting for a party ticket by dividing their votes between their respective partys candidates for president and vice president. Adams received seventy-one votes, overwhelmingly from the North, while Jeffersons

sixty-eight votes came primarily from the South. The failure to endorse the concept of party tickets may be seen in the vote for the vice-presidential candidates. Pinckney received fifty-nine votes, and Burr received only thirty votes, while forty-eight votes were scattered among other candidates. John Adams, a Federalist, was elected president, and Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, was vice president. The result was a damaged friendship between Adams and Jefferson and a contentious political administration. A divided administration, an increasingly partisan Congress, and divisions within his own party marred the Adams presidency and contributed to electoral defeat in 1800.


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

Joseph Charles, The Origins of the American Party System (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961);

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).

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