The Presidential Election of 1796

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

In this lesson, we'll look at the Presidential Election of 1796 and the many 'firsts' in American politics it saw. You'll then be able to take a short quiz to gauge what you learned.

An Election of Firsts

The Election of 1796 was the third election in U.S. history yet was an election of firsts. The race pitted eight candidates against each other, with the two front-runners as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Regardless of who ran, they would have big shoes to fill from the departing first president, George Washington. The election was also the first to feature voter support and candidates affiliated by political party. In this case, the parties were the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Finally, it was the first to see close competition for votes as well as the mudslinging that would later become a staple in American politics.

First to Replace Washington

The first president, George Washington, had led the nation through both independence and its infancy. After two terms (1789-1796), he decided to not seek a third one and move on. Many assumed that his vice president, John Adams, was the likely successor. But other people had different ideas.

The original Constitutional plan for elections called for the Electoral College to simply pick the best two candidates for president and vice president. The joint ballot that we are familiar with today would come later in 1804. This approach made it was possible that the final choices might not get along with each other.

Regardless of the outcome, the new president would have some big shoes to fill. After all, Washington had set a really high bar with both his military and executive leadership! He flexed his muscles on a number of issues, both locally and internationally, and whoever came after him would obviously have to live up the expectations he set.

First Political Parties

In his farewell address to the nation, George Washington warned against loyalty to political parties. He believed such pride would tear the nation apart. Why did he make this claim? Could he see into the future and witness the elections of the 21st century? Well, no. It was because the election of 1796 (which took place during the latter part of his second term), was the first time the political parties were on the front burner. Additionally, the results of the election would see a split between Americans based on political party support.

There were eight who ran in this election, three from the Democratic-Republican Party and five from the Federalist Party. The two front-runners were John Adams, part of the Federalist party, and Thomas Jefferson, part of the Democratic-Republican party. Also running were Aaron Burr and Thomas Pinckney since it was common to have multiple candidates from each party. Later, the Democratic-Republicans would shorten their name to simply Republicans.

Thomas Jefferson (l) and John Adams (r)
Adams and Jefferson

Each party represented not only different beliefs but different people and regions of the country. Adams had a great deal of support from the North, comprised of businessmen, merchants, and lawyers. Jefferson had support from the farmers in the North and West. The diagram included here gives a summary of the major beliefs of each party in the 1790s:

Major party beliefs, Election of 1796
Political Parties

First Words That Hurt

The Election of 1796 was also the first campaign that really used mudslinging. This is the use of insults and accusations to weaken the reputation of an opponent, something you're probably familiar with if you've seen those ads that pop up around election season. Back in 1796, it wasn't much different! For example, a New York newspaper claimed the Federalists (including Adams) were only out to turn this nation into a monarchy. That, of course, couldn't happen since the Constitution had just been ratified, and since the U.S. had fought off the King of England in the American Revolution. Adams was also accused of acting like he was superior to or better than the common man.

On the other side, a Philadelphia newspaper suggested that Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson had an affair with a slave. Another accusation was that Jefferson had been a coward during the American Revolution. Yet a third example claimed that Jefferson was out to make religion and morals less important to people.

The truth of these accusations didn't matter: it was about dirtying the other side, making them too unlikable to vote for.

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