America’s Long Journey: The Election of 1796

Many features of presidential balloting that we take for granted came to us only as the result of trial and (sometimes painful) error. We have seen that the election of 1800 showed the necessity of amending the Constitution to take political parties into account. It astonishes us that the founding fathers, with all their extensive theoretical and practical knowledge of government, should fail to foresee the rise of political parties. But think what else they had to learn the hard way. Take, as a good example, the election of 1796.

It was the first election without Washington, who was finishing his eight years of servitude and looking forward with longing to retiring to Virginia. Toward the end of the year he had published his final advice to the nation, which we will look at in the next section. But who could replace the father of his country?

The obvious candidates had been friends for 20 years, and for all that time they had been serving their country well. The rotund New Englander and the tall red-headed Virginian had many points of political difference, and each was at the head of a pack of snapping partisans who took every opportunity to try to establish or widen a breach between the two. In this first contested presidential election, the hounds didn’t quite succeed, but there were many straws in the wind, for those with clear prevision, or for us looking backward.

The election wasn’t held all on one day. That wouldn’t happen for decades. In 1796, voting among the 16 states stretched for more than a month, from Nov. 3 to Dec. 7. And the voting wasn’t what we’re used to, either. The Constitution said that presidential Electors should be chosen by the state legislatures, but it didn’t say how. Different states chose different methods. Some chose them by statewide election; other states were divided into districts, with voters choosing one per district; in others, the state legislature appointed them. Their world was much more local and independent than ours. To us, it seems an incredible hodge-podge.

And – what strikes us as even crazier — in these pre-12th-amendment days, there was no way to designate who was running for president and who for vice-president, so each of the two new parties had to run more than one candidate for president, hoping to win the top slot with their preferred candidate and bag the vice-presidency with their second-favored candidate. But this was tricky. If electors all voted for the party’s two candidates, you’d wind up with a tie, as indeed happened one election farther down the line. So the idea was that all the party’s electors would cast their vote for the man who was supposed to win, and a couple of them (but only a couple of them) would throw away their second vote on someone who couldn’t win, so that hopefully the result would be a one-two sweep in the right order. Politicians then being as trustworthy as politicians now, nobody quite knew if anybody (let alone everybody) would live up to his promises.

The Democratic-Republicans put up the same ticket they would win with in 1800, Jefferson and Burr, along with minor candidates Samuel Adams (Governor of Massachusetts), George Clinton (ex-Governor of New York), and John Henry (U.S. Senator from Maryland).

The Federalists named John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina. Also running but with no chance of winning, were not one but two justices of the Supreme Court, Oliver Ellsworth (Chief Justice) and James Iredell. Also John Jay (Governor of New York); Samuel Johnston (a former U.S. Senator), and Charles Pinckney, U.S. minister to France and the brother of Thomas Pinckney.

If one emotion fueled the campaign, it was fear. What became the Federalist Party feared French-sympathizing Republicans as the enemy within the gates, to be trusted neither with domestic tranquility nor with preserving independence from the French. The Republicans, in turn, said that the Federalists wished to re-establish monarchy and aristocracy, and were not to be trusted to maintain the county’s interests against the British Empire they held in so much awe.

On election day, Adams received 54% of the vote, and Jefferson 46%, a clear decision. The vote divided pretty neatly geographically, with Adams carrying every state north of the Potomac River except Pennsylvania, and none below the river.

But the electoral count was muddled, as a result of Hamilton’s machinations.

Hamilton evidently suspected that Adams might be hard to manage. He convinced the eight South Carolina electors whose first choice was Jefferson to cast their second votes for Pinckney, hoping that Pinckney’s total would surpass those of Adams. But when word of the scheme got out, many Adams electors withheld their second vote from Pinckney, hoping to foil Hamilton’s scheme.

They sure did. The final electoral count was 71 for Adams, 68 for Jefferson, 59 for Pinckney, and 30 for Burr, with the remaining 48 electoral votes spread among the nine minor candidates. Thus Jefferson, rather than Pinckney, would go on to be vice-president under Adams. (That Hamilton, he was some shrewd politician, wasn’t he?)

It wasn’t yet as bad as 1800, when after another four years of fear and counter-fear the country seemed on the verge of civil war, but it was bad enough. And — what can be hard for us to remember at the end of so many decades — each of these early elections seemed the more perilous because there had been so few of them. It was all new. Could it be maintained? The people remembered Ben Franklin’s words on the day the delegates had voted to submit the Constitution to the voters. A woman stopped him on the street and said, “And what kind of government have you given us, Doctor Franklin?” “A republic, madam,” he said, “if you can keep it.”

In 1796, they were a long way from knowing if they could keep it.

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