While scholars have justifiably given the election of 1800 much attention, the contest of 1796 deserves its own share of scholarly interest as Stephen Kurtz, Joanne Freeman, and John Ferling have demonstrated. Not only was it the first truly contested election involving political parties but it also signaled, as Kurtz observed, the beginning of the end of the Federalist Party. Strong personalities, the emergence of two political factions involved in a national campaign, blatant foreign interference, and behind-the-scenes maneuvering make the election of 1796 a fascinating study in early American politics.
As early as January 1796 there was a growing sense that President Washington would not seek a third term. Increased party strife, the inability to attract first-rate individuals to key administration positions, and the vitriol directed toward him from partisan Republican newspapers such as the Philadelphia Aurora had taken their toll on the American Cincinnatus. Indeed, he had wanted to retire to Mt. Vernon in 1792, even directing Madison to write a Farewell Address to the nation at that time. Only the separate entreaties of Jefferson and Hamilton persuaded him to remain in office for the sake of the country and his own reputation. Now there would be no turning back. Both Hamilton and Jefferson had left the administration, their places taken by second-rate administrators. The heated debate over Jay’s treaty and the public’s reaction to it emphasized the deep divide that existed in the country. As Adams, who saw himself as the logical successor, noted in his correspondence with Abigail, Washington had aged considerably since he first assumed office in 1789, the pressures of the presidency clearly visible on his countenance.
Nevertheless, as winter gave way to spring and spring to summer, there was no formal announcement of Washington’s plans. The emerging crisis with France, exacerbated by the ratification of Jay’s treaty, gave hope to some Federalists that Washington would remain in office at least long enough to see the country through the danger. It was not to be. On September 19, Washington made his retirement from public life official. On that day his Farewell Address, Hamilton’s reworking of Madison’s earlier draft and Washington’s notes, was published in Richard Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser and later circulated in newspapers throughout the country. As Fisher Ames perceptively noted in a letter to Oliver Wolcott, the Farewell Address was “a signal, like dropping a hat,” marking the real beginning of America’s first contested presidential campaign.
With electors of each state scheduled to meet in their respective capitals to cast votes for president and vice-president on December 7, less than three months remained for the parties to make their cases to the American people. This was by design. Hamilton, the unchallenged leader and strategist of the Federalist Party, held onto the Address as long as possible for political purposes. Not knowing if Washington in fact was retiring, Republicans would have a more difficult time putting together an effective campaign strategy. It was one thing to attack John Adams, the presumptive Federalist presidential candidate, whose political tracts Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America and Discourses on Davila as well as the ill-fated title campaign in his early days as vice-president made him an easy target for ridicule. It was quite another thing to go after Washington, who, despite a conspicuous increase in personal attacks since the debate on Jay’s treaty, remained extremely popular in every section of the country.
Despite the lingering uncertainty of Washington’s decision, plans were being formulated for what would become a contentious battle for the presidency. Neither Republicans nor Federalists questioned who would lead their respective tickets. In January 1796 Madison wrote to Monroe that there was no one but Jefferson who would gain the support of the party for the presidency. This was confirmed in the June caucus of Republican congressmen when Jefferson’s name was placed at the head of the ticket. The question was who would be the second man to be endorsed by the caucus. Desiring someone who could attract votes in the northern states, the Republicans considered three New Yorkers: former-governor George Clinton, Chancellor Robert Livingston, and Senator Aaron Burr. In the end, Burr was chosen despite lacking the support of many southern Republicans.
The Federalists also had a relatively easy time choosing the man who would lead their ticket. Despite his quirky personality and controversial political tracts, Adams was always considered the logical successor to Washington. His revolutionary credentials were impeccable, he was a loyal supporter of the Washington/Hamilton agenda, and, perhaps most importantly, he was the favorite son of New England, which held a significant number of electoral votes. Although he was not close to Adams and expressed concerns about the New Englander’s independent spirit, Hamilton had no objection to Adams’s being placed at the top of the Federalist ticket. As with the Republicans, the Federalists’ main problem was finding a viable second candidate, and it is here that we encounter the so-called “Pinckney Conspiracy.”
According to Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, electors in the several states were to meet and cast ballots for two persons, one of whom had to be from a different state. When all the votes were tabulated, the person with the highest number of votes would be the president provided that he received a majority of the votes cast; the person with the second highest number would be the vice-president. Until the twelfth amendment was adopted in 1804, electors did not vote for a president/vice-president ticket. They simply voted for individuals without designation of office. Thus, it was certainly possible for two men with opposing political views to be voted president and vice-president. It was also entirely feasible that a caucus’s clear choice for president could be denied the office by the ticket’s number two man should that individual somehow receive more votes. It was this loophole in the Constitution that Hamilton tried to exploit.
Thomas Pinckney, former governor of South Carolina and the negotiator of the popular San Lorenzo Treaty that opened up crucial navigation on the Mississippi, was not the first choice of Federalists to join Adams on the presidential ticket. Wanting a southerner who could counteract Jefferson’s regional appeal, Hamilton encouraged Virginia Federalists to seek out the American Demosthenes, Patrick Henry, who had belatedly embraced the Constitution. Only when he declined the offer to be a presidential candidate did the Hamiltonians look to South Carolina’s favorite son. There was much to recommend Thomas Pinckney. A member of the powerful Rutledge-Pinckney coalition, Pinckney would be assured of countering the South Carolina votes that Jefferson would win. Moreover, the popularity of the San Lorenzo Treaty in the frontier regions would make Pinckney an attractive candidate in Kentucky and Tennessee. Perhaps as important for Hamilton was Pinckney’s character. Unaccustomed to politics on the national level, Pinckney lacked the savvy and confidence to make independent decisions, thus making him more malleable than Adams.
When Pinckney agreed to run, Hamilton devised a plan that would place Pinckney, not Adams, in the presidency. Assuming that Pinckney would outpoll Adams in the South while being competitive with Jefferson, Hamilton set his sights on the North. If he could convince the electors to name the South Carolinian on all second ballots, Pinckney would surge past both Adams and Jefferson and into the president’s chair. Hamilton spent countless hours campaigning for Pinckney, imploring the faithful to vote along party lines and not to waste their second ballots on other candidates. The Pinckney Conspiracy would have worked had it not been for the New England Federalists. Hamilton failed to understand how deep loyalty to Adams was in the region. His leadership in the American Revolution, his sacrifices in the interest of the country, and his protection of New England interests in the Treaty of Paris won Adams the respect and support of his fellow Yankees. Simple calculation told them that giving their second ballots to Pinckney would result in a Pinckney presidency. Aware of what Hamilton was attempting, eighteen New England electors refused to comply with his wishes and instead deliberately wasted their second ballots on others. Eleven electors gave their votes to Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, five voted for John Jay, and two supported Samuel Johnston. So transparent was the Pinckney Conspiracy that even Republicans were aware of it as Jefferson noted in a letter to Madison. In fact, it appears that Adams was one of the last persons to comprehend what Hamilton was doing. How could the New Yorker intrigue against one who had supported his program and in the process risk a Jefferson presidency? Once he realized that the conspiracy was real, Adams raged against Hamilton, who quickly became his archenemy, the equal of Franklin in terms of immorality and deceit. In a December 12 letter to Abigail, Adams vowed to diminish Hamilton’s power and influence within the Federalist Party. The Adams-Hamilton fallout as the result of the election of 1796 greatly impacted the Adams administration and his chances for re-election as it set in motion the schism that split the party.
Campaign intrigue, however, was not solely the province of the Federalists. While, in the tradition of eighteenth-century politics, Adams, Jefferson, and Pinckney did not actively seek votes, allowing surrogates to do the campaigning for them, Burr spent six weeks in the North soliciting votes, ostensibly for Jefferson, but, as most suspected, realistically for himself. Such action concerned southern Republicans, particularly Virginians, who never trusted the New York senator. They speculated that he was trying to secure the presidency for himself. If he could out-poll Jefferson in the North and southern electors voted a straight Republican ticket, Burr could win the presidency. Thus, there was a concerted effort in Virginia to ensure that electors withhold their second ballot from Burr. Just as New England electors wasted votes, so too did Virginia electors. Nineteen electors failed to support Burr, with fifteen giving their second ballots to Samuel Adams. The Virginia betrayal would not be soon forgotten by Burr, whose reluctance to defer to Jefferson in the tied vote of 1800 can be traced to bitter feelings stemming from the 1796 election.
While New England and Virginia showed that party loyalty was not as strong as sectionalism, Pennsylvania offered a glimpse into a future when a strong party organization could dictate the results of an election. John Beckley, clerk of the House of Representatives, close associate of Jefferson and Madison, and master strategist of the Republican Party, nearly propelled Jefferson to the presidency by his shrewd Pennsylvania strategy. Pennsylvania was one of seven states that used the popular vote to determine the electors who would choose the president and vice-president in December. At a time when there was general lethargy regarding national politics, Beckley realized that the best way to interest voters was to provide a slate of electors who had name recognition. In a secret September caucus in Carlisle, a slate of fifteen Republican electors was chosen, headed by Governor Thomas Mifflin and Judge Thomas McKean. William Maclay, John Smilie, and Peter Muhlenberg were other prominent Pennsylvanians who were selected. Even when Mifflin declined to run, the Republican slate was still filled with a who’s who of Pennsylvania Republicans. The fact that the Republican slate was not announced until October gave the Federalists little time to match such a prominent group of electors. While voters could theoretically choose any fifteen men from the complete list of twenty-nine names submitted by Republicans and Federalists (Samuel Miles, who replaced Mifflin on the Republican slate, was also on the Federalist slate), the vast majority voted a straight ticket. As a result, Jefferson won fourteen out of fifteen votes in a northern swing state. Beckley’s 1796 strategy would become the model for Burr in New York in 1800, effectively handing Republicans the presidency.
Another reason for Republican success in Pennsylvania was a series of diplomatic notes by French minister to the United States Pierre Adet published in the Aurora between November 2 and November 21. These pieces included a decree from the French Directory, published on November 16, expressly directed against the United States. The message was clear: A vote for the Federalist candidate meant a vote for war with France; only the Republican candidate Jefferson could mollify the French government and assure peace. Adet’s brazen attempt to influence voters was not the act of an overly zealous individual. The minister was acting under the direction of the Executive Directory and the minister of French Foreign Relations, Charles-Francois Delacroix, who in his missives directed Adet to do everything in his power to ensure a Jefferson victory in the December election. Such an overt interference of a foreign power in an American presidential election has seldom if ever been duplicated. While the effectiveness of Adet’s work might be questioned in terms of the outcome of the election, there appears to be no doubt that Pennsylvania’s Quakers were moved to vote for Republican electors in response to the French decrees, as Adams noted in his December 12 letter to Abigail.
By Christmas 1796, as results from New Hampshire and South Carolina arrived, Adams could take a deep breath assured that he would be the next president of the United States. When, in his role as president of the Senate, Adams announced the official results of the election in February 1797, it was revealed that he had won 71 votes to Jefferson’s 68. Pinckney received 59 votes and Burr only 30. Hamilton’s scheme to place Pinckney ahead of Adams failed miserably. In refusing to support Pinckney on the second ballot as a way to protect Adams, the eighteen New England electors not only thwarted the attempt to put Pinckney ahead of Adams but also handed the vice-presidency to Jefferson, Hamilton’s nemesis. In a final note of irony, Adams’s ascendancy to the presidency was sealed in the South. Although he won only two votes south of Maryland, those two votes—one each from Virginia and North Carolina—made the difference in such a closely contested election.
In the histories of the early Republic, the significance of the election of 1796 has been generally underappreciated, which is unfortunate. While demonstrating that the change of power in a republic could occur in a peaceful and orderly way, the election also exposed inherent flaws in the manner of selecting president and vice-president as prescribed in the Constitution, something that would be resolved only after the tumultuous election of 1800. Sectionalism and partisanship were both on display in 1796, foreshadowing the deep divide in the country that would grow ever greater in the following years. Moreover, the seeds of future party turmoil were sown in the fall of 1796. The Adams-Hamilton conflict would culminate in Hamilton’s infamous letter of October 1800, in which he questioned Adams’s character, sealing both his own political fate and that of the Federalist Party. Meanwhile, the Burr-Jefferson dispute would play out in the contested 1800 election and continue to fester throughout the Jefferson administration.