Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1796

From 1794 to 1797, Thomas Jefferson operated as the informal leader of what would become the nation's first opposition political party, the Democratic-Republicans. This party vocally challenged Hamilton's political views. When Washington declined to run for a third term in 1796, Jefferson allowed his name to be nominated by a caucus of Democratic-Republican leaders who were against John Adams's run for the presidency. Adams served as vice president under Washington. As was the aristocratic custom of the day, neither Adams nor Jefferson personally campaigned. Rather, the campaign battles were waged between the political party newspapers, a propaganda device rooted in the anti-British pamphlets of the American Revolution. These publications mercilessly criticized their respective opposing candidates.

All attention was on the mid-Atlantic states because it was clear that Jefferson would carry the South while the New England states would certainly go to Adams. In those days, most southern states chose presidential electors to the electoral college by direct vote. In the mid-Atlantic states, however, state legislatures selected the presidential electors, and the election of 1796 would be decided by the political scheming within those assemblies. In the electoral college balloting, Jefferson came in second to Adams (71 to 68 votes), principally because Adams had won the behind-the-scenes battle for the New York legislature. While the vice president received only two electoral votes south of the Potomac, Jefferson won only eighteen votes outside of the South, thirteen of which came from Pennsylvania.

In those days, the candidate receiving the second-highest vote became the vice president. In a scheme to deny Adams the presidency, Alexander Hamilton influenced South Carolina's Federalist electors to withhold their votes from Adams. This would have made Adams's running mate, Thomas Pinckney, President, with Adams as vice president. But New England Federalists, learning of the scheme, withheld their votes from Pinckney to counter Hamilton's ploy. As a result of the Federalist intraparty conflicts, Jefferson compiled more votes than Pinckney for second place and became vice president.

Although Jefferson strained under the largely ceremonial duties of the vice president, he fulfilled his responsibilities as presiding officer of the Senate efficiently and fairly. In his spare time, Jefferson wrote A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which remained the guiding text for congressional meetings for years to come. He also pursued his renaissance interests in architecture, astronomy, botany, animal husbandry, mechanical engineering, gardening, natural history, classical languages, and book collecting.

Most importantly, Jefferson—although vice president—did little to inhibit, and in fact encouraged, the growing Republican opposition to the Adams administration. When Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, designed to curb Republican opposition to his foreign policy, Jefferson authored the Kentucky Resolution of 1798. Jefferson's statement presented a compact theory of the Constitution, challenging these federal laws enacted under Adams as unconstitutional. James Madison joined Jefferson by writing a similar resolution adopted by Virginia. Both resolutions established the states' rights position that was employed in the nineteenth century to oppose high tariffs, the Second Bank of the United States, and the abolition of slavery. By the end of Adams's term of office, a raging debate, which was presented in brutal and uncivil political cartoons and newspaper articles, swept over the land. It was in this atmosphere of undeclared political war that Jefferson sought and won the presidency in the 1800 election.

The Campaign and Election of 1800

Jefferson approached the 1800 presidential election well organized for victory and determined to win. One factor that elevated Jefferson's chances of becoming President was the general mood of the country. During the Adams presidency, public discontent had risen due to the Alien and Sedition Acts, a direct tax in 1798, Federalist military preparations, and the use of federal troops to crush a minor tax rebellion led by John Fries in Pennsylvania. Consequently, Jefferson enjoyed quite a lot of popular support for his opposition to Adams's policies.

The Federalist candidate, the incumbent John Adams, led a split party. Many of his party's members opposed his candidacy because of his refusal to declare war on France—when a naval war did occur, Adams used diplomacy to end it when many Federalists would have preferred the war to continue. Jefferson understood that to win he would have to carry New York, thus his running mate, Aaron Burr of New York, was brought onto the ticket. When the New York legislature turned out its Federalist majority in 1799, prospects looked good for Jefferson.

Given the intense rivalry and conflict involved, it is not surprising that the 1800 election reached a level of personal animosity seldom equaled in American politics. The Federalists attacked the fifty-seven-year-old Jefferson as a godless Jacobin who would unleash the forces of bloody terror upon the land. With Jefferson as President, so warned one newspaper, "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes." Others attacked Jefferson's deist beliefs as the views of an infidel who "writes aghast the truths of God's words; who makes not even a profession of Christianity; who is without Sabbaths; without the sanctuary, and without so much as a decent external respect for the faith and worship of Christians."

The luckless Adams was ridiculed from two directions: by the Hamiltonians within his own party and by the Jeffersonian-Republicans from the outside. For example, a private letter in which Hamilton depicted Adams as having "great and intrinsic defects in his character" was obtained by Aaron Burr and leaked to the national press. It fueled the Republican attack on Adams as a hypocritical fool and tyrant. His opponents also spread the story that Adams had planned to create an American dynasty by the marriage of one of his sons to a daughter of King George III. According to this unsubstantiated story, only the intervention of George Washington, dressed in his Revolutionary military uniform, and the threat by Washington to use his sword against his former vice president had stopped Adams's scheme.

When the electoral votes came in, Jefferson and Burr had won 73 votes each. Adams and his running mate, Charles C. Pinckney, the brother of Thomas Pinckney who ran in 1796, won 65 and 64 votes respectively. No one had expected these results, although the possibility was perfectly plausible—if all Republican electors cast their votes in unison for the two Republican candidates, which they did in this case, the result would be a tie. In those days, the U.S. Constitution contained no means for electors to differentiate between their choices for President and vice president, yet in 1804, the nation ratified the Twelfth Amendment, which required electors to vote separately for President and vice president.

With no clear majority, the vote was thrown into the Federalist-controlled U.S. Congress. After much intrigue and arguing, and thirty-five ballots, Alexander Hamilton, who despised Burr as an unprincipled scoundrel, convinced a few Federalists who had supported Burr in the balloting to turn in blank ballots rather than vote for either Republican candidate. This move on Hamilton's part gave the victory to Jefferson. Hamilton's support for Jefferson, his old enemy, enraged Burr. Several years later, Burr killed Hamilton with a shot to the chest during a duel over mutual insults.

The Campaign and Election of 1804

In his first inaugural address in March 1801, Jefferson pleaded for national unity, insisting that differences of opinion were not differences of principle. Then he said, with much hope, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." His landslide 1804 reelection suggested that his words were more prophetic than wishful. Largely due to a relatively peaceful first term on both the domestic and foreign scenes, along with prosperity, lower taxes, and a reduction in the national debt, it appeared to most astute observers on the eve of the election that Jefferson was unbeatable.

In February 1804, more than 100 Republican congressmen met in Washington and nominated Jefferson and George Clinton of New York by acclamation. It was the first official nominating caucus in the nation's history. The Federalists, demoralized and too disorganized to hold a caucus, agreed informally to back Charles C. Pinckney, the vice-presidential candidate in 1800, and Rufus King, the Federalist senator from New York.

Jefferson called the Federalists a prigarchy, a play on the words "prig" and "aristocracy," because of their unwillingness to open the party to populist elements. The Federalists denounced Jefferson's immensely popular Louisiana Purchase (see Foreign Affairs section) as unconstitutional. They also desperately exposed the President's alleged relations with his slave, Sally Hemings, as a national scandal. Jefferson kept a public silence on his relationship with Hemings.

The avalanche of presidential electors voting for Jefferson returned him to the White House with 162 votes to Pinckney's 14. Only Connecticut, Delaware, and two Maryland electors stood firm against the wave of republicanism. Jefferson was overjoyed. He wished only that George Washington had lived to see the day when the divisive factions of party had become a new unity of mind and politics for the nation.