1796, John Adams Defeats Thomas Jefferson: Surviving America’s First Election Between Competing Political Parties – Guest Essayist: Professor Joerg Knipprath
Six months before his retirement from the presidency, George Washington gave a farewell address to the nation. Among several memorable passages is his warning about the evils of the spirit of party, particularly as it manifests itself in republican forms of government. “This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature having its roots in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments…; but in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.”
There must have been more than a small measure of regret in that message. Washington had striven to govern as a president of all, above the pettiness of partisanship. Events and the “natural inclinations of men” so prominently borne by politicians denied him success. Indeed, the passage of time in office corrodes every presidency and, for an increasing portion of the population, turns familiarity into contempt for the occupant. This malignancy affected even Washington by 1796. Toward the end of his term, the President was frequently attacked in speeches and writings. Jefferson wrote to a friend, deriding “men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the Council” whose heads had been “shorn by the harlot England.” The letter conveniently found its way into print, where the readers readily understood his reference to Washington, Hamilton, and Adams. The reliably partisan Jeffersonian organ, the Philadelphia Aurora, edited by Madison’s Princeton University classmate Philip Freneau, rejoiced on the occasion of Washington’s retirement that “this day ought to be a Jubilee in the United States…for the man who is the source of all the misfortunes of our country, is this day reduced to a level with his fellow citizens.” Jefferson’s machinations behind Washington’s back almost persuaded the exasperated President earlier in his term to fire Jefferson, with the latter resigning in time. Washington, who knew how to carry a grudge, never spoke to Jefferson again.
How had it come to this? The first term of the Washington administration had been consumed with domestic policy concerns, primarily establishing the new union on a firm economic and constitutional footing. That had been largely achieved with the adoption of Hamilton’s domestic program and the settlement of the location of the new capital city. As well, Washington’s personal propriety and political sobriety had established sound precedents for his successors about the constitutional dimensions of the presidency and the appropriate conduct in office of a republican head of government. There had been difficulties with the British and French due to the incipient political turmoil of the French Revolution, which had stirred some passions among Americans. Moreover, British policy regarding the Indian tribes and the retention of border forts along the old northwest frontier were irritants and, for some, a mark of humiliation. All things considered, however, by most marks the country in 1792 was more stable than it had been since independence was declared from the mother country in 1776.
The second term of the administration was dominated by foreign events, a trend that even intensified after Washington left office. The government was, to put it mildly, an unwilling participant in these affairs; the nation was, to put it bluntly, woefully unprepared to participate.
But participate they must, and those events fractured America’s political system along the lines of the conflicting personalities and visions of Hamilton and Jefferson.
European big power politics rose to another dimension in 1793, with the beginning of the revolutionary Reign of Terror in France, the French declaration of war against Britain and Spain, and the arrival of “Citizen” Genet as French minister to the U.S. As Genet made his way around the U.S., he founded Jacobin Clubs and was feted by the pro-French Jeffersonians. Much to the dismay of Washington and the shock—feigned or real—of the Anglophile Hamilton, Genet agitated openly for Americans to pressure the administration into active support for France. On the other side, the British navy seized American merchant ships, precipitating calls for war from pro-French factions. Ideological fervor seized the American populace. Still, admiration or disdain for the respective European powers was not just based on views about revolution, but was also tied to extraneous regional and local interests and rivalries. While the emerging commercial North favored Britain and the agrarian South, suspicious of “stock-jobbers” (as Jefferson described the financial interests), favored France, local interests broke up the pattern.
President Washington responded with his “Neutrality Proclamation” in April, 1793. The administration’s opponents in Congress argued that this was not a constitutional power of the president, and that Washington had usurped Congress’s powers. Writing pseudonymously as Pacificus, Hamilton promptly published seven essays in support of the proclamation. He urged not only that it was the “duty of the executive to preserve peace” until Congress exercised its constitutional power to declare war. Rather, he claimed a broader implied power for the executive to act for the interest of the country unless the Constitution clearly prohibited him from doing so or assigned the role to another branch, a position that has been enduringly popular with presidents since then. Jefferson wanted to respond, but, as a member of the cabinet, believed it better to enlist James Madison’s services. Madison was extremely reluctant to participate, but eventually penned five responses under the name Helviticus.
Popular reaction against the Whiskey Rebellion by western Pennsylvania farmers over the excise tax on alcoholic spirits, as well as Jefferson’s reluctance to distance himself decisively from the French Revolution as news of the Terror reached American shores, helped produce a Federalist victory in the1794 congressional election. Soon thereafter, as the terms of the recently-negotiated Jay Treaty with Great Britain were debated in the halls of Congress and in the press, political passions reached a peak. The treaty was generally favorable to the United States in that it prevented a war with Britain that the Americans could not afford and also brought relative peace to the Northwest frontier. It was founded on a bilateral optimism about the future of the parties as trading partners.
However, some critical issues about compensation for slaves and payment of sequestered debts were left unresolved and to be settled by future commissions. Led by their philosophical leader, the Republicans saw this, as Jefferson wrote, “as a treaty of alliance between England and the Anglomen of this country, against the legislature and people of the United States.” In reality, what stung the opponents was that the treaty embodied a rejection of their foreign policy and, by extension, their ideological premises. Matters were certainly not improved for them by the fact that the terms of the treaty itself were the work of Alexander Hamilton, supported by the diplomatic skill of John Jay.
Opposition to the Jay Treaty galvanized what had been a loose faction, primarily in Congress, into an organized political party. They took the name Jefferson had given them informally, “Republicans,” to imply that their opponents were monarchists. The Federalists followed suit. Their designation came from Hamilton’s desire to cast his faction as defenders of the Constitution and his opponents as Antifederalists. Over the next two years, both sides organized local clubs and set up friendly newspapers. The Jeffersonians, especially, were aware of the need to move beyond their base in the South and courted politically disaffected groups in the North and West.
The election of 1796 pitted Vice-President John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina for the Federalists against Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and Aaron Burr of New York for the Republicans. Alexander Hamilton, who had left the cabinet in 1795, believed himself to be the proper leader of the Federalists. He had Washington’s favor and managed to place his associates in several cabinet positions. As well, his many connections broadened his influence. Under the voting rules of the time, each presidential elector cast two undifferentiated votes. The winner (assuming this constituted a majority of the electors appointed) became president, and the runner-up was vice-president.
Adams’s intellect and personal honesty were generally acknowledged. But there was a perceived flaw. Benjamin Franklin had characterized him as “always honest, often great, but sometimes mad.” More likely, Adams simply lacked the “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” that Hamilton once had warned against in the Federalist Papers concerning the selection of the president. Adams’s dislike of the capital’s society and his propensity to pomposity did not help. The debacle of Adams’s proposal for a sonorous and expansive formal title for the president had made him a laughing-stock and tagged him with the title “His Rotundity.”
Hamilton believed Adams to be emotionally unstable and, hence, unsuited for the office. He maneuvered to place Pinckney in the presidency, instead. He expected the northern electors to vote for the party ticket, but bargained with Edward Rutledge, a Jeffersonian politician, to have the South Carolina electors vote for Jefferson and Pinckney. The plan became known. Enough northern electors voted for Adams and not-Pinckney that Adams narrowly won, 71 votes to 68. Unfortunately, Pinckney was third. Adams’s erstwhile and future friend, Jefferson, was second and became vice-president. Their current positions as heads of opposing parties did not bode well for amicable government. Worse, for the Federalists, the unifying Washington was gone, and the ambitious Hamilton nipped at Adams’s flanks. The clouds that had appeared on the political horizon in the previous election now had gathered. If and when the storm broke, and how severe the deluge would be, would have to await the next election.
An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.com/.