Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1796

Throughout Washington's presidency, Vice President Adams regarded himself as the heir apparent. Indeed, that alone explains his willingness to endure eight years in the vice presidency, an office devoid of power. When Washington, in his Farewell Address, published in September 1796, announced his intention to retire, the nation faced its first contested presidential election. The Federalist members of Congress caucused and nominated Adams and Thomas Pinckney, a South Carolinian who had soldiered and served President Washington as a diplomat, as their choices for President. The Democratic-Republicans in Congress likewise met and named Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr of New York, who had served in the Continental army and as a United States senator early in Washington's presidency, as their choices. Each party named two presidential candidates, for under the original Constitution, each member of the electoral college was to cast two ballots for President. The winner of the presidential election was the individual who received the largest number of votes, if it constituted a majority of the votes cast. The person receiving the second largest number of votes, whether or not it was a majority, was to be the vice president. In the event that no candidate received a majority of votes, or that two candidates tied with a majority of votes, the House of Representatives was to decide the election, with each state, regardless of size, having a single vote.

When the contest began in full force in the late summer of 1796, only Aaron Burr, out of the four candidates, waged an active campaign. Supporters of the four candidates, however, campaigned vigorously. The Federalist press labeled Jefferson a Francophile, questioned his courage during the War of Independence, and charged that he was an atheist. Adams was portrayed as a monarchist and an Anglophile who was secretly bent on establishing a family dynasty by having his son succeed him as President.

Adams also had trouble in his own camp. Rumors swirled that his chief rival for leadership among the Federalists, Alexander Hamilton, secretly favored Pinckney, as he would be more malleable than Adams. Many believed that Hamilton sought to have some Federalist electors withhold their votes from Adams so that Pinckney would outpoll him.

In the end, Adams won by a three-vote margin. Although virtually all of Adams's votes came from northern electors (while virtually all of Jefferson's were from southern electors), Adams won largely because of the votes of two southern electors. A Virginia elector, from a county with a strong tradition of opposition to planter aristocrats, voted for Adams, as did an elector from a commercial district in coastal North Carolina. Jefferson received the second largest number of votes, making him the vice president. Thus, the nation would have a President from one party and a vice president from the other party.

Seven states permitted popular voting in this election. In the remaining nine states, the state legislatures elected the members of the electoral college. Thus, popular opinion is difficult to fathom in this vote, although Adams appears to have received some support in recognition of his long and sacrificial service during the American Revolution. The northern states also thought their time had come to have a President, as a Virginian had held the office during the new nation's first eight years. In addition, the vocal support for Jefferson by the French minister to the United States probably swung some electoral ballots to Adams.

It fell to John Adams, the vice president and presiding officer of the Senate, to count the ballots cast by the electoral college delegates. When he finished his count, he announced that "John Adams" had been elected to succeed George Washington. The final electoral college tally was 71 votes for Adams to 68 for Jefferson.

The Campaign and Election of 1800

Adams faced a difficult reelection campaign in 1800. The Federalist Party was deeply split over his foreign policy. Many had opposed his decision to send envoys to Paris in 1799, some because they feared it would result in national humiliation for the United States and others because they hoped to maintain the Quasi-War crisis for partisan ends. Furthermore, early in 1800, Adams fired two members of his cabinet, Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, and James McHenry, the secretary of war, for their failure to support his foreign policy. Their discharge alienated numerous Federalists. In addition to the fissures within his party, the differences between the Federalists and the Republicans had become white-hot. Jeffersonians were furious over the creation of a standing army, the new taxes, and the Alien and Sedition Acts.

As in 1796, the Federalist members of Congress caucused in the spring of 1800 and nominated Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, an officer in the Continental army, a member of the Constitutional Convention, and a part of the diplomatic commission that Adams sent to France in 1797. The Federalists did not designate a choice for the presidency but asked their presidential electors to cast their two votes for Adams and Pinckney. The Democratic-Republicans meanwhile nominated Jefferson and Burr, their candidates in the previous presidential election, but designated Jefferson as their choice for President.

In the campaign that followed, the Federalists depicted Jefferson as a godless nonbeliever and a radical revolutionary; he was often called a Jacobin, after the most radical faction in France during the French Revolution. His election, it was charged, would bring about a reign of terror in the nation. The Republicans cast Adams as a monarchist and the Federalist Party as an enemy of republicanism, including the greater egalitarianism promised by the American Revolution. The level of personal attack by both parties knew no bounds. At one point, Adams was accused of plotting to have his son marry one of the daughters of King George III and thus establish a dynasty to unite Britain and the United States. The plot had been stopped, according to the story, only by the intervention of George Washington, who had dressed in his old Revolutionary War uniform to confront Adams with sword in hand. Jefferson, meanwhile, was accused of vivisection and of conducting bizarre ritualistic rites at Monticello, his home in Virginia.

One of Adams's greatest foes in this election was Alexander Hamilton, a member of his own party. In October, Hamilton published a pamphlet in which he argued that Adams should not be reelected. He charged that the President was emotionally unstable, given to impulsive and irrational decisions, unable to coexist with his closest advisers, and generally unfit to be President. It is unlikely, however, that Hamilton's attack cost Adams any electoral votes.

Failing in that endeavor, Hamilton schemed to elect Pinckney. He worked to persuade all the Federalist presidential electors from the North to vote for the party's two nominees, Adams and Pinckney, while he tried to convince some southern electors to withhold their vote for Adams. That would enable Pinckney to outpoll Adams.

Hamilton's scheme failed, however. Not only did numerous New England Federalists, who were pro-Adams, withhold their second vote from Pinckney but the Federalist ticket was outpolled by their Democratic-Republican rivals. Pinckney finished fourth in the balloting, and Adams stood third in electoral votes, while Jefferson and Burr tied for first place with seventy-three votes each.

The nation had divided once again along sectional lines. Eighty-six percent of Adams's votes were cast by northern electors; nearly three-fourths of Jefferson's votes were from the South. Party discipline was much improved over that of the election of 1796. In the 1796 election, nearly 40 percent of electors had refused to adhere to the recommendations of their party's caucus. In 1800, however, only one elector broke ranks—a New England Federalist elector withheld his second vote from Pinckney.

Public opinion in 1800 is difficult to gauge. Only five states—down from seven in 1796—permitted the qualified voters to elect the members of the electoral college. State legislatures made the choice in the remaining eleven states. Moreover, several states abandoned the election of electors in districts and instituted a winner-take-all system. Virginia adopted the at-large format, enabling Jefferson to win all twenty-one votes from his home state; had the election been by district, Adams likely would have won up to nine votes. In addition, Adams was the first presidential candidate to be victimized by the infamous three-fifths compromise agreed to in the Constitutional Convention. That decision, which permitted the counting of 60 percent of the slave population for purposes of representation in the House and the electoral college, enhanced the clout of the South—Democratic-Republican territory—in this contest. Had no slaves been counted, Adams likely would have defeated Jefferson by a 63-61 margin. Ultimately, the election turned on the outcome in New York. The Democratic-Republican Party won control of the New York legislature in the May elections of that year, principally by winning every contested seat in New York City. Control of the assembly meant that Jefferson would receive all twelve electoral votes from New York, whereas Adams had won those votes in 1796.

Jefferson's victory in 1800 also stemmed from the disunion of the Federalist Party and, more importantly, the superior party organization of the Democratic-Republicans, which enabled the party to capture both the presidency and Congress. The Democratic-Republicans started several new newspapers and created committees of correspondence to direct the distribution of campaign literature and plan meetings and rallies. Their victories were due to four years of party organizing, sophisticated political campaigning, and the shaping of a party machine that responded to the temper and mood of the electorate.

With the election a tie, the decision was remitted to the House of Representatives, as specified by the Constitution. Every Democratic-Republican delegation in the House stood by Jefferson; however, some northern Federalists favored Burr, whom they found more palatable than their longtime nemesis from Virginia. After thirty-five ballots and five days of voting, the House was deadlocked. Each vote had ended with Jefferson receiving eight votes to Burr's six. The delegations from two states, Vermont and Maryland, were deadlocked and could not cast a ballot. Burr refused to step down even though it was understood that he had run as a vice presidential candidate in the general election.

Throughout the long battle, Alexander Hamilton had urged the election of his old rival, Jefferson. He viscerally disliked Jefferson and objected to his democratic and egalitarian principles, but he feared and mistrusted Aaron Burr as an unprincipled opportunist. In the end, however, the outcome in the House appears to have hung on Federalist bargaining with both Jefferson and Burr. In return for their vote, Federalist House members sought a commitment from one or the other to preserve Hamilton's economic program, keep the enhanced Navy intact, and leave Federalist officeholders in their jobs. Burr appears to have refused to bargain. Jefferson, ever after, denied making such a bargain, although several Federalists claimed that he had agreed to their terms. The truth can never be known. What is clear is that on the thirty-sixth ballot, a sufficient number of Federalists broke from Burr and gave their votes to Jefferson. The final House vote was Jefferson with ten states and Burr with four states while two states (South Carolina and Delaware) abstained. With that, Jefferson became the third President of the United States.

When Jefferson assumed office, his opponents stepped down peacefully. This return to domestic tranquility established a powerful precedent for the future. Although it is true that Adams tried to entrench Federalist power in the new administration by appointing Federalist judges in the last weeks of his term, this was viewed as acceptable politics by most observers, yet Jefferson's refusal to honor these last-minute "midnight appointments" led to the landmark Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison.