In 1796 the United States experienced its first truly contested election. Just what was the significance of the election of 1796 and how did it impact the trajectory of the nation?
The bitterly-fought election of 1796 marked an end to George Washington’s time as president. Although Washington’s leadership held the nation together during its early years and helped instill more confidence in the new Constitution, by the end of his service even he was not immune to the increasingly partisan and divided populace.
In his stead, two diametrically opposed, newly-formed political parties vied for the presidency: The Federalists and their primary candidate John Adams, and the Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson.
The election was truly a toss-up and without precedent. Just who would win the election of 1796 and would the opposition accept the results? The continuity of the nation hung in the balance over the highly-anticipated results.
Who Won the Election of 1796?
In the pivotal election of 1796, Federalist John Adams defeated Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson by a slim margin, becoming the second President of the United States.
However, in the absence of the Twelfth Amendment (ratified in 1804), the Vice Presidency went to the candidate with the second most electoral votes. As Jefferson gained 68 electoral votes to Adams’ 71, Jefferson became Vice President—the first and only time in US history that a President and Vice President came from separate parties.
Jefferson carried the south and the key state of Pennsylvania, while Adams dominated the New England states and earned just enough votes in the mid-Atlantic states to eke out a victory. Key issues of the day included:
- Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain
- Whiskey Rebellion
- State of the frontier following the Treaty of Greenville
- The French Revolution
- Washington’s neutrality proclamation
The election was full of first-time events, from the formation of political parties, to potential conspiracies, to direct foreign election interference, and many others. The parties were very disorganized with loose affiliations, leading to a haphazard process of coordinating votes. In short, these parties were nothing like how modern-day political parties operate.
Adams and Jefferson had drastically different visions for leading the nation. As a Federalist and from New England, Adams favored closer relations with Great Britain, a strong central government, and a merchant- and trade-based economy.
Jefferson and his followers became known as Democratic-Republicans, or Jeffersonian Democrats. Jefferson was enamored by his Enlightenment and revolutionary ideals and beliefs of an agrarian republic where a limited central government was best to preserve liberty and independence. Jeffersonians distrusted Britain and preferred closer relations with their long-time ally France.
Although Adams won in 1796, just four years later the same two candidates would meet again for a rematch.
The Significance of the Election of 1796
The significance of the election of 1796 lies in how it was the first peaceful transition of power in the United States, the first election featuring political parties, the only election resulting in a President and Vice President from different parties, and how it featured blatant foreign interference in the election process.
Although educators often gloss over the election of 1796 in favor of the following critical election of 1800, it is still incredibly important in its own right. The election helped to highlight the growing divide in the US as citizens and leaders slowly organized to help ensure their political ideology became reality.
First Peaceful Transition of Power
The first significant aspect of the election of 1796 was how it became the first peaceful transition of power in United States history. It seems trivial in the modern day, but it cannot be understated how unusual this was for the time period.
In an age of monarchs and despots, a leader voluntarily relinquishing power was virtually unheard of. Despite the US Constitution’s guarantee of a four-year term for President, his opponents believed first President George Washington might attempt to establish a monarchy.1
This fact was not lost on Washington either, who greatly feared the possibility of dying in office, leading his successors believe the presidency was a lifetime appointment.
Despite the claims, Washington did step down issuing his important Farewell Address in September 1796. As Washington abhorred political parties he made no endorsement for his successor, though given his policies it is likely he aligned more towards the Federalist cause.
Indeed, Federalist candidate John Adams was his Vice President for eight years and largely sought a continuation of Washington’s policies. This fact was not lost on his opponents who claimed Washington released his Farewell Address just two months before the electors met as a partisan tactic to help influence the election.
Despite these partisan claims, it was actually prominent Democratic-Republican James Madison’s original suggestion in 1792 of a September release date for the address: “the middle of September or perhaps a little earlier, would seem to be a convenient date for the act.”2
As the election ensued with Adams declared the winner by an incredibly narrow margin, Jefferson and his followers did indeed accept the election results—a historic milestone.
The Jeffersonians disagreed vehemently with Adams’ policies, but still accepted status as a minority party once again, a significant feat cementing the peaceful transition of power.
First Election With Political Parties
Another significant aspect of the election of 1796 was how it was the first election that featured political parties.
At the time, prominent men of stature largely avoided affiliation with political parties. Political pundits believed official parties were a bane to republican governments and would eventually destroy republican values such as liberty.
Indeed, one of the three main warnings in Washington’s Farewell Address regarded political parties and how they threatened to destroy the union. Therefore, although the election featured political parties for the first time, they were very loosely affiliated and largely disorganized.
Even the act of actively campaigning for President was frowned upon. Both Adams and Jefferson declined to publicly campaign, rather allowing their followers and media outlets to campaign for them. Of the four major candidates for President and Vice President, only Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr from New York actively campaigned for himself.3
The parties were not only hobbled by the frowned-upon nature of their existence, but also the limitations imposed by communication channels of the day. It took a long time for messages to travel throughout the nation, so coordination efforts could be slow due to travel and correspondence times.
Despite the challenges, early efforts at organizing in hopes of influencing the election proceeded. Prominent Democratic-Republicans identified key swing states like Pennsylvania and New York and focused their efforts there.
In Pennsylvania the party organized 50,000 handwritten ballots to be distributed statewide with handbills featuring the names of Democratic-Republican candidates so voters would vote Republican. In what was considered a split state 14 of the 15 electors chose Jefferson over Adams.3
Although efforts in New York failed, Aaron Burr ran a well-campaigned electioneering operation which laid the groundwork to flip the New York Senate which aided Jefferson in election of 1800.3
Only Election With Different Parties as President and Vice-President
Perhaps the greatest significance of the election of 1796 was how the result led to the only election in history where the President and Vice President came from different parties.
In that era, there was no differentiation between President and Vice Presidential votes. Each state elector received two votes, and the top two receiving votes became President and Vice President respectively.
While Adams (71) and Jefferson (68) finished close in total votes, their running mates, Federalist Thomas Pinckney (59) and Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr (30) finished third and fourth.
Due to the disorganized nature of the nascent political parties, the Federalists won the presidency, but failed to properly coordinate their electors’ second votes to give Pinckney enough votes to become Vice President.
The Federalists’ lack of coordination can partly be explained by infighting within their ranks. Leader of the so-called “High-Federalists” Alexander Hamilton disliked Adams and believed Thomas Pinckney to have a better chance to become President.
Some historians believe that Hamilton schemed with southern Federalists to have Pinckney total more votes and deny Adams the presidency. In fact, this is exactly what Adams believed, and he thus coordinated with his strong New England supporters to have them vote for candidates other than Pinckney with their second votes.4
Despite the claims, it is possible that Hamilton’s motives were not nearly as nefarious. Adams was not very popular outside of his New England base, while Pinckney hailed from South Carolina and was generally seen as a “compromise candidate” by Democratic-Republicans given his moderate views.4
Even Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did not have objections to a potential Pinckney presidency. Hamilton thus wanted to ensure a Federalist victory and threw his support behind Pinckney.
Regardless of motives, had the 18 New England electors who threw their second votes to Federalist candidates other than Pinckney voted for him instead, Pinckney would have beaten both Adams and Jefferson for the Presidency.4
Even with a President and Vice President from different parties, the parties became even more divisive leading to irreconcilable differences.
Foreign Interference in the Election Process
A key aspect of the election of 1796 was how it was the first election in US history to feature direct, blatant foreign interference in the election process. The key player in the affair was the official French foreign minister to the United States, Pierre-Auguste Adet.
Adet’s mission as minister to the US beginning in 1795 was first to help influence leaders to not sign the controversial Jay Treaty. The French saw the Jay Treaty as disastrous towards their goals and did everything in their power to prevent its passage.
Adet obtained and leaked the contents of the Jay Treaty to the public to provoke outrage and also organized public demonstrations against the treaty. When he failed in his task, Adet moved to organize demonstrations against Washington himself, believing it was in France’s best interests for francophile Thomas Jefferson to become President.5
Coordinating with other prominent Democratic-Republican leaders, Adet targeted Pennsylvania to help swing the election to Jefferson. Just one week before Pennsylvania electors were due to meet, Adet published a series of letters in Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Aurora, suggesting that war between the United States and France was inevitable should Jefferson lose the presidency.5
The blatant interference in the election process from a foreign agent likely helped swing Pennsylvania’s voters to Democratic-Republicans. In what was considered a 50/50 swing state with an election decided by popular vote, Pennsylvania’s electors cast 14 of their 15 votes for Jefferson.
Though Adet’s interference may have helped in Pennsylvania, it may have lost him key votes in other states like Maryland whose electors went 7-4 in favor of Adams. France’s interference in the election was the exact warning that Washington had just given in his Farewell Address, and it did not sit well with many Americans.5
As in the modern day, citizens were concerned that Jefferson would be a mere puppet of France, given its desperate attempts to have him elected. This instance was just the first of many attempts by foreign powers to influence elections in the United States.
To recap, the historical significance election of 1796 lies in how it was the:
- First peaceful transition of power
- First election featuring political parties
- Only election with different parties as President and Vice-President
- Featured foreign interference in the election process
With Adams’ victory came a rocky term as President that featured great foreign and domestic issues. The scandalous XYZ Affair led to a surge in anti-French sentiment, though Federalists may have misinterpreted the support as their fortunes changed following their passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Jefferson and his followers pounced on the opportunity, coordinating the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions to use as a party platform in advance of the critical election of 1800.
Democratic-Republicans rode the wave to victory in 1800 and would never again lose the presidency to the Federalists.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Tagg, James D. “Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Attack on George Washington.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 100, no. 2, 1976, pp. 191–230. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20091053.
2) Heidenreich, Donald E. “Conspiracy Politics in the Election of 1796.” New York History, vol. 92, no. 3, 2011, pp. 151–65. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23185122.
3) Ross, Robert E. “Federalism and the Electoral College: The Development of the General Ticket Method for Selecting Presidential Electors.” Publius, vol. 46, no. 2, 2016, pp. 147–69. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24734657.
4) Scherr, Arthur. “The Significance of Thomas Pinckney’s Candidacy in the Election of 1796.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 76, no. 2, 1975, pp. 51–59. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27567304.
5) Conlin, Michael F. “The American Mission of Citizen Pierre-Auguste Adet: Revolutionary Chemistry and Diplomacy in the Early Republic.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 124, no. 4, 2000, pp. 489–520. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093399.