What Problems Arose in the Election of 1796?

Federalist candidate John Adams was George Washington’s vice president.
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After two terms as president, George Washington had had enough. Since every member of the Electoral College had voted for Washington, the election of 1796 was the first time the country saw campaigns for the position. At that time, the Constitution allowed each of the newly developed political parties to nominate two candidates for president. The winner of the electoral vote became president, while the runner-up was the vice president. Most of the candidates did not campaign, but their parties worked hard on their behalf. John Adams received the most votes, and Thomas Jefferson became second-in-command. During the contentious election process, problems arose not only between parties, but also within them.

1 Party Problems

The Federalist Party believed in a strong central government. It was supported by the business class. Federalists nominated John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina. This party had dissent within its own ranks. Alexander Hamilton worked behind the scenes to get Pinckney elected, believing he could be controlled. However, Adams had overwhelming support in the North, so Hamilton’s plans fell apart. The opposing party, the Democratic-Republicans, was more cohesive. Common farmers and laborers, German, Scottish and Irish descendants, and wealthy plantation owners favored the Republicans. This party chose Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and Aaron Burr of New York as candidates.

2 The French Predicament

The French Revolution, which began in 1789, brought chaos, bloodshed and change to that country. It upset the status quo, a consequence feared by Americans with money and power. Federalists worried that Republicans might want a similar societal shakeup. Thomas Jefferson, a former minister -- or ambassador -- to France, was Washington’s secretary of state. In that position he supported the French in their new war against Great Britain. This long-term association with France gave Federalists a reason to associate Jefferson with the Reign of Terror waged against enemies of the French Revolution.

3 A Problem of Perception

Republicans believed that the Federalist Party favored monarchy and aristocracy, so the party of the working class repeatedly criticized Adams for not supporting democratic ideals. Following the Revolutionary War, many Americans detested Great Britain. However, before becoming vice president, Adams served as the first American ambassador to England. His connection to that country made some voters question his commitment to the new United States. In addition, rumors emerged that Adams was working in an undemocratic manner to place his son, John Quincy Adams, next in line for the presidency.

4 British Business

During the 1796 campaign, Federalists were criticized for supporting the Jay Treaty of 1794. Washington had sent the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, to Great Britain. He was charged with working out many issues that hadn't been resolved by the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. For example, American trade in Great Britain was hampered by restrictions and tariffs on imports. Great Britain didn't abandon some forts in the North like it had agreed to. In addition, Great Britain was forcing captured American soldiers into servitude and stealing military materials from ships. The final treaty was very unpopular in the U.S. Jay did get Great Britain to agree to leave forts and to open the country to more American goods. However, no other grievances were settled by the document. The many remaining problems were still to be negotiated.

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.