The 1796 Presidential Election – “Placing us in a Point of Opposition to Each Other”

“The public and the public papers have been much occupied lately in placing us in a point of opposition to each other.” So wrote Jefferson to Adams about the 1796 Presidential Election, America’s first with two candidates with true campaigns.  The letter didn’t reach its recipient, the opposing candidate of a party; the old friends became political figures and their letters potential weapons as opposing sides had gelled too much.  The 1796 Presidential Election was America’s first with two candidates with true campaigns.  Before it was over there would feature negative ads, misconstructions of candidate statements, foreign interference and backlash to that interference, and election count disputes.

TRANSCRIPT (via machine):

It was America’s first contested election, and unlike today, the issues that were discussed in public were about great questions of public policy and statesmanship like this guy Jefferson.

Did he use a swivel chair or stationary chair like the rest of us? Was he whirling around like a Philosopher or did he sit like a man?

And there was no foreign interference in elections, no disputes about counting votes after the votes were in. Except for those few things…we’ll get into it.

The seventeen ninety six presidential election is really the first one, it’s the first contested one. George Washington is president. He is elected in seventeen eighty eight, seventeen ninety two. He’s re-elected. There’s no competition. So you get to that possibility of a third term. And there’s this talk. And of course, George Washington is telling people he wants to retire. He’s tired of the bad press. He’s getting tired of the injury that this term that he’s serving in government might do to his reputation and time to get back to Mount Vernon. But he doesn’t immediately in the early part of the year of seventeen six, let anyone know partisans are spoiling for a fight. There’s definitely two sides, administration, anti administration, some would call them like Democrats or Republicans who are in opposition. They’re centered around Thomas Jefferson.

He’s not necessarily leading everything. In fact, James Madison is the leader of this faction in Congress. And the big issue that’s going to separate people in 1796, not that it hasn’t been boiling up on other fronts, is the treaty because the treaty with Britain, John Jay, goes over there, negotiates it, and many feel that it’s a capitulation. It’s basically making America subject to Britain. Certainly the French interpret this way. We’re going to talk about that. But that issue sparks a controversy in Congress, a fight with even President Washington, some bad press for Washington partisans are spoiling for a fight, at least getting antsy about the prospect of the other side taking over the presidency after Washington’s gone. A Benjamin Franklin Bache.

Washington’s Retirement

He has a popular newspaper, the Aurora. And he says it’s to be regretted that the Washington’s determination to retire has long since been communicated to his confidential friends. The public generally should be in the dark respecting it.

Now, Bache’s a partisan, he’s attacked Washington before and Washington’s read his paper and hates it, but on the other hand, he’s not wrong. Because Washington is deliberately saving that retirement notice so that there’s limited time for opposition to his government to develop, we know this because there’s a letter between Washington and Hamilton where Washington asks Hamilton’s advice. And Hamilton says that he thinks it’s better to wait till the absolute last moment before the election, like two months before the Electoral College meets. I mean, could you imagine these days if that’s when a presidential campaign started yet as we’re going to discover, a presidential campaign did start and it was very robust, the arroyos further, the president was stepping down.

It announces it in its newspaper, even without his own announcement, and has required no talent nor imagination to know that the contenders were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Each had their admirers, each had written works of great praise, but also these same works were sources of political embarrassment, especially when mangled for Jefferson. It was notes on the state of Virginia, a celebrated work which argued to some people in France who had misconceptions about America, various points.

But he also goes on on a few tangents, on racial tangents, on just some speculative guesses on science and things that can be made fun of. The Jefferson in this document also condemns the institution of slavery that’s going to be used against him.

Adams writes his defense of the Constitution of the United States. Now, his defense of the Constitution is a book written to defend in a similar way the state constitutions that America has developed in the various states to the nations of Europe in the world, and also to provide a kind of Toolbook for those who are building constitutions, both a national constitution and constitutions, and in their states. It defends checks and balances and other procedures in various state constitutions. But at the same time, he includes a lot of materials. It’s almost like a workbook. There were some accusations of plagiarism, but I believe his intention was more to create kind of a workbook of sources. In the course of that, Adams is creating a lot of things that can be quoted and used against him. This is the situation as Washington releases his farewell address.

In the words of Fisher Ames, a prominent federalist and speaker was like a pistol shot start the race.

Philadelphia: Street Election

Probably some of the most interesting developments that are happening is in the state of Pennsylvania, because they’re going to have a popular vote and Pennsylvania at this point has a very strong federalist, you know, pro administration, pro Washington, pro Hamilton presence. They’re going to support national banking.

They’re going to support better relations with Britain, friendly relations with France, but not, you know, not not to the extent that Jefferson and Madison and the French republic, once with Federalists, but a normal, friendly but normal relationship. Pennsylvania is a strong state for them. They feel really good about it. Philadelphia is controlled by what’s called a junto, which is a group of federalists who just control the various outlets of government at this time. And Federalist usually win elections in the city of Philadelphia. They also have very strong communities in York and Lancaster, enough to build up margins to win the entire state. So what they’re going to do is propose a system where, look, let’s have Pennsylvania vote and the winners of that vote throughout the state that they’ll be extra at large electors for whoever wins the state votes. Federal’s think this will help them. This is actually a bold experiment in popular voting. The state of Pennsylvania, where the capital of the country currently is, is organized in ward s and politic down to the last partisan against him. It was a big deal in Philadelphia. There was to be a popular vote, really in all Pennsylvania, a popular vote. Public events dotted the city. People would crowd around the voting areas. Men persuaded one another in streets and in taverns and talked about the election. Mobs would form with French and American flags and roam the streets shouting. And you didn’t have exit polls. But in Pennsylvania to the federalist eer the pro Adams ere the shouts were chilling. It was all Jefferson,



and no King, no King!!

That seemed to outnumber any federalist shouts that were out there.

There really wouldn’t have been pro Adams shouts. No one was shouting for John Adams, at least not in Pennsylvania. If there were any, it would have been anti Jefferson. Most of the campaigning that occurs in Pennsylvania, the federalist part, don’t mention John Adams. He’s got a bad reputation. He’d written the defense of constitutions. And out there in the country, there are people miss reading it. We think only today that people’s words are misread and any passage that Republicans can pull out that might constitute a defense of monarchy are used.

The Hatter – Hater

You’ve got people going out in the country and singing the praises of Jefferson, but also pointing out all the bad things that Adams plans to do. Handbills would fill the streets of Philadelphia listing the electors to vote for also on the bottom, they had out of context quotes of Adams defense of constitutions. One Adams hater and a member of a local Jefferson Club from Philadelphia writes 600 miles around the state, speaking to as many people as I can, almost personally trying to elect Jefferson on his back. I was on my horse before the sun rose for three weeks, John Smith He is a hatmaker from Philadelphia. Yes he is a hatter-hater. But he’s positive about Jefferson. He distributed thousands of handbills. No crowd was too small for him. If he saw three people in a town, he would go speak to them.

He saw a crowd for a funeral in Northampton County in a church. And before the congregants were dismissed, he got up and spoke about Jefferson. Smith also followed two Federalist riders that were distributing handbills for their ticket and as they left it town, he would pick those handbills up. So when you hear about lawn signs being stolen today or posters being defaced, billboards being defaced, just know that it has a long history in the American republic.

Some states like Pennsylvania had votes. Others like New Jersey or South Carolina or New York, they just had the legislature pick the electors, but it was busy.

And some Americans like Oliver Walcott Federalist is already reporting that people I’ve known for a long time were acting differently during the election period.

But it’s also a national election, and so there are separate campaigns for votes in the state of Virginia, the state of Maryland, we’ll talk about that. And also South Carolina and South Carolina is an interesting place to be, a swing state. You normally think of Jefferson in that Republican early Republican Party of having the South, but actually in seventeen ninety six presidential election, South Carolina is what we might call a swing.

Gets a little complex because at this time when the Electoral College meets before the 12th Amendment, electors are going to vote for two people, not specifically vote for president and a vice president.

So that’s going to have interesting effects in both this election and the next one. South Carolina is very much a swing state, the Federalists control the planter community, the wealthy elite, the areas around Charleston, very strong federalist connections, but they also have ties to Jefferson, especially through a South Carolinian, Edward Rutledge.

They also are participating in a plan that Alexander Hamilton has concocted that perhaps if they support Thomas Pickney recent a governor of South Carolina, very popular there, and recent ambassador to England.

If they support him, maybe Federalists can actually get Pickney elected instead of Adams, who is supposedly the candidate of Federalists. It is from South Carolina, where the imagined Jefferson presidency hoped to get its eight votes and then perhaps eight second votes for another Republican attack comes, which can only be described as an 18th century hit piece. William Loten Smith, congressman, pamphleteer. Very strong in his opinions, he’s also what we would call a race baiter who would sink in to two low levels in his political warfare. He would go on political tirades, opposing Quakers and abolitionists. He’s a congressman. Father in law was Ralph Izat, a South Carolinian who is an Adams friend. Very strong. Federalist Smith is going to do something which is very common in this period. He’s going to both invest in US securities and serve as a congressman and support the assumption of Revolutionary War debt, which is going to help those securities is attacked, is a little dandy even by other Federalists in South Carolina. Portrayed as a ‘Mouthy’ congressman by Republican opponents, he always struck back and he not just argued with other congressmen in the chamber, but if he was out on the streets of Philadelphia or Charleston, say, and he saw just the average person reading the opponent’s newspaper, the National Gazette or the Aurora, he would actually get in their face and tell them that the source of news they were reading was biased and more and more than that, it made them stupid. I can only imagine, of course, criticism of a news media is nothing new there. Right. But I can only imagine.

Well, I guess there’s been examples of congressmen doing that on on Twitter and other places.

Attack Ad

He creates a very acid pamphlet we would. He would call Thomas Jefferson many insults, and it’s called the Pretensions of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency of the United States. He actually writes it in seventeen ninety two, thinking Jefferson will run then and he revises it for seventeen ninety six. He attacks Jefferson. In several ways that are not going to be helpful to him getting votes, particularly in South Carolina, he accuses the former secretary of state of being a visionary.

Now, you have to understand in these days that’s like someone being a victim of hallucinations or an unstable, crazy man or something like that. You can’t separate the dream world from the real they didn’t see visionary in the same light that modern Americans do. And he was ambitious. That was another accusation. We like that now. But as I talked about at length in a podcast about don’t run for president, that wasn’t something that they liked then. He was responsible for all the partisan politics in the land do by William Law, Smith’s pen, his words, Jefferson’s words may have started the French Revolution, the revolution and all the blood that was Jefferson’s offspring. After all, he was their ambassador to France. I mean, there’s absolutely nothing to support these allegations. He also says he was a he’s a fake scientist with a knack for mechanics, a philosophical patriot. That’s another thing philosopher that wouldn’t be too positive for a lot of like, say, hardworking, industrious businessmen.

Smith had a little closer with some criticisms that we might even you might even see made of Jefferson today, that his all his talk about democracy was just a flimsy veil. And compared to the evidence of aristocracy that he lived in, his religious views or his irreligious views were attacked no one had ever seen. Smith said Jefferson in a place of worship. And if he’s elected to the presidency, Tom Paine, who was a prominent atheist and wrote books at this time, would be at his table. He would be back in the house of government again. He even made fun of his looks. He said that Jefferson looked like a curious, tall and awkward bird which hides its head behind a tree and supposes itself unseen. But the reference to his appearance and again, that Jefferson is the source of all partisan politics in all of this, they attacked the chair that Jefferson Citzen. See? Jefferson was using kind of a whirling chair. This is the same swivel chair that we used today where we go. But I’m recording in one of them.

But this time it was a big convention and oh, how pretentious he was in his chair rolling around. It would allow the person to move without moving his tail. So forget the fact that this wonderful chair Smith is making fun of is something that Washington had to.

Jefferson got one after he saw that Washington had one. And then Smith engaged in his usual race baiting as well. He said that Jefferson had dared to write a letter to Benjamin Buttermaker. This is a African-American architect and city planner.

And Smith quotes his letter that he’s praising him. So it’s like Jefferson’s a hypocrite. He’s also a dangerous radical. Everything’s in this pamphlet. And of course, he both attacks Jefferson a bit for his views on race so abolitionists North can read it, who might be federalist. And then for those Southerners, he says, well, you know what’s going to happen if you elect Jefferson president? He’s going to use his alleged influence with French radicals in Paris, the same ones that started the revolution in the island that we now know is Haiti. Even though these people in Paris had nothing to do with it, he’s going to use the same influence to do that to the south. They’ll be a slave rebellion here. Jefferson is elected then attacking his term as governor of Virginia. He fled from safety from a few light horsemen. Well, that’s OK, if Jefferson was getting attacked, so was Adams. Opponents were pulling apart his defense of the US Constitution and finding things that were said like a limited monarchy is still a republic. Wealth, birth, family pride form the best men. Kingly government is best. Of course, this was a passage where John Adams was attacking tyrannical kings like tyranny versus more kingly government. But they pulled this little line out. The English constitution was a blessing. Let’s see. It was a blessing before you had anything else. He wasn’t comparing it to America. The poor, destined to labor rich, must be preferred in office. Men of property are finest for service. These were all quotes that are going around that they’re pulling from from Adam’s work.

Yeah, one other event stands out in seventeen ninety six and this could have a historical analog. I talked about it a while ago, but it’s worth repeating and that is the letter of Pierre Auguste Adet. The French ambassador to the United States.

Foreign Interference

Now, he really shouldn’t be getting involved in elections, but he does. And he sends a letter to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, different from that presidential candidate. This is Pickering. But secretary of state.

But. First, he actually sends it to a newspaper in Philadelphia, the Aurora, this is a Republican or pro Jefferson newspaper, and he says, look, the United States has done a treaty with Britain. This is the treaty. And you’ve basically made yourself subject to your you’re not neutral anymore. You’ve given up to them. So I’m letting you know as the French ambassador that we’re going to subject you to the same things that you’re going to be subject to from Britain. We’re going to mess with your shipping. We’re going to mess with your sailors and all of these things. Your rights aren’t going to be protected. But if the American government were to change in this election, I’m sure France might think differently. Pickering is going to write a letter back to him, he’s a federalist, he’s pro treaty, he’s going to tell them where to go. But for many people, this message is getting out to the citizens of Philadelphia and it’s rallying some and scaring others appeals not only to the fears, but also to the previous Franco American relationship.

I mean, going to ignore for the moment that he’s now in a government that’s revolutionary and the government that supported America was a monarchy this government has overthrown. But here, he says, men still exist. Who can say an Englishman slaughtered my father, where my wife tore her bleeding daughter from the hands of an unbridled Englishman. Could just imagine, you know, this is Pierre Adet and I approve this message. It’s negative, but it really works. And so does the threat of war that he insinuates in in further letters. And he also tells French citizens in Pennsylvania to wear the Cockade in their hat and if they don’t, you know, sort of threatens them, they could lose their protections, the republic.

So, however, it’s more than just French citizens who do many of them do live in Philadelphia is a very popular city with the French people at this time, but also citizens in Pennsylvania who are sympathetic to the French and anti British where the cockade as well.

So you’ll see in the streets while people are voting, there is this there are people with these French flag cockade This is all enough to scare merchants who many of them are Quakers. Pacifists, don’t want a war, don’t want their business interrupted. Into voting for Federal’s, there’s an election just a month before with a federalist win statewide in this election, the presidential contest, the Republicans will win statewide. It’s a couple hundred votes, people having spoken.

All of the electors of Pennsylvania were pressured to vote for Jefferson. So today’s action is probably seen today as a horrible interference of a foreign government. Right now, it’s not without consequences, because in New England, where there is a little bit of a contest starting between Republicans and Federalists, they rally towards the Federalists and John Adams and he’s going to get the electoral votes of that region. The Connecticut current writes, The French have made their preference known. There should be no reason to vote for Jefferson. Now, in fact, some federalist call on Jefferson should resign because he’s obviously corrupted by this foreign government. Oliver Woolcott’s says he should abjure his candidacy for the presidency. Losing Pennsylvania was a big deal for John Adams and put him close to losing and there’s going to be 10 men that become important in saving him. And making him president, but Jefferson comes pretty close to being the second president in American history, and that would probably mean that John Adams wouldn’t get a chance again. So the first of those 10 men, let’s take seven of them, and they are the seven Maryland electors that vote for him. So it’s very important to note that Adams would not be elected without votes from slaveholding regions and slaveholding electors, because often we see that, you know, the advantage of Jefferson was that he had the support of slaveholders. Well, you know, Adams isn’t getting the presidency without the regions of Maryland where there there is slaveholding.

Maryland is split in Baltimore, where there are mechanics that can be organized. The Republicans have at Jefferson’s getting the electoral votes there on the issue of Maryland and in the areas around the capital or what is to be the capital, Georgetown. This is Adams Country.

Adams Has His Partisan

Adams gets a real break in the state.

William Vans Murray is a congressman from Maryland and he was also a law student in London when Adams was the minister there. And he was a frequent guest at John Adams House in London. And also he kept a correspondence with him. He’s a young congressman. He’s getting into politics. He’s a federalist. He believes in what John Adams does. And John Adams was something of a mentor to him. This is going to pay dividends in the 70 ninety six election because Murray is going to work hard for Adams. He’s going to write letters in several newspapers. Sometimes he uses different pen name so he can write two letters in the same newspaper. He’s going to write write in newspapers all over the state. He’s going to convince other electors to go along with Adams. He catches wind of a plot that Hamilton has to perhaps put Thomas Pickney in as president. Thomas pickaninnies like a nobody from South Carolina. But but Hamilton figures if he can get that South Carolina votes for him, he’ll actually get pickaninnies president instead of Adams. So it never comes to fruition.

But even if it does happen, Williams van Murray is on the case. He tells everyone to, again, just as the Virginia electors had done with Burr to throw away their votes, vote for a different candidate than pick any more than that, William Vans Murray is going to defend John Adams. He’s going to be the explainer. So all of that hate that’s going out about John Adams and his defense of Constitution. He’s writing letters in Maryland explaining like, do you realize that what he was writing about was state constitutions in America and defending them and defending that the Republican state constitutions that the country had developed after the revolution and their very systems of checks and balances?

He’s a Republican. He’s just not a Jeffersonian. And arguments like this and then also attacking Jefferson, do you realize that Jefferson is governor of Virginia, couldn’t even defend his home state from invasion during the revolution and had to retreat? The work of Murray and the votes of the Maryland electors are critical. Adams gets seven electors from Maryland and would not win without them. But when you look at the electoral map of a seventeen ninety six election, you’re always going to see something interesting. And that’s that states that go for Jefferson, three of them are going to have little circles in them that have one Adams elector each. So there’s three people that are actually significant, three electors for that. Seventeen ninety six election.

One is an elector from York, Pennsylvania, who, even though the state goes for Jefferson, it’s really is by a small margin. His area went for him as a federalist and a known Adams supporter. He votes accordingly. So that’s one vote. Then there’s an elector from Cape Fear area of North Carolina where there is a lumber business and it’s very important to trade with Great Britain in that business. He’s an avowed federalist. He votes for Adams. And finally, there’s an elector in the northern part of Virginia. The Alexander area that is a federalist does not like Jefferson, even though he’s the native son in that state. Northern Virginia being different politics than the rest of the state goes all the way back to the first contested election. Those three votes. Absent that, it goes to the House of Representatives and in the House of Representatives that was currently controlled by the Republicans and likely is a Jefferson win. So if you ever seen a literal map of seventeen ninety six, now, you know what you’re kind of looking at, of course, this fragile electoral result would collapse in eighteen hundred. He’s going to face down, Adams is going to face Jefferson again and the opposition will be better organized, BIRX is going to be better organized in New York, carry that state and the rest is history. Adams wins that seventeen ninety six election, but for someone who is Washington’s vice president and associated with him, it’s a Barwin. A narrow squeak is what Adams calls it.

Here’s what Jefferson says about the election result.

I never doubted the result. I knew it was impossible. Adams would lose a vote north of the Delaware.

He writes to another, It seems probable from the papers that the second call, meaning the vice presidency, will fall on me as between Adams and myself. The vote has been little different from what I expected.

But indeed, there are two elements of the seventeen ninety six election that do become very interesting and they’re really like kind of post election quirks and glitches, OK, and the first one and most important is what happens in Pennsylvania. So in Pennsylvania, they made that decision. We talked about that earlier that Federalist Starwood thought would benefit them, that whoever wins the entire state’s votes wins. And they knew they could pull up these huge majorities. And they do thousands of votes in law in York and Lancaster and the other areas of state are are Republican, but not well populated. But something changes and that’s that the Philadelphia city area and the Philadelphia County area, but particularly the city turns Republican unexpectedly.

That. And the western counties turns the election for Jefferson only about about three hundred votes in the state.

But what happens is it takes time for the western counties to come in and the electors are meeting and Thomas McFlynn, who’s the governor of the state, has a decision to make. You know, you’re really getting some notes of Bush v. Gore here. But the interesting thing is Mifflin is a supporter of Jefferson would be considered like a Republican at this point, but. He does not want to be seen as biased. He has a career in Pennsylvania, he’s not in the national elections, not his preference right now.

So using the vote totals that are in without those votes from Green County. In the West, federalists are ahead, so he decides to allow to at large electors in the two at large are assigned to the Federalists, then the results from Green County come in and it’s known one of them, Samuel Miles, decides now they now the votes from Green County come in and see Jefferson and won the states. He said, OK, I’m voting for Jefferson. The Electoral College, the other elector is a federalist and decides not to. This makes people mad on both sides. Want a federalist. Sees what Samuel Miles does that I did not know. He’s not there to think. He’s there to act. And this is a common quote about electors that if there’s ever a faith was elector situation, you’re going to see the other elector decides I’m a federalist, I’m just voting for federalism. That angers Jefferson. He’s like he’s almost tells a friend, like, we’re lucky that we lost the election because it would have been a very disagreeable question that might have arisen if this one federalist elector, the governor invited but shouldn’t have been there by the votes, voted Federalist. A very disagreeable question. There’s one other controversy. John Adams is vice president, counts the votes when they’re received in Congress as part of a joint committee of the House and Senate. So he’s presiding and the votes of Vermont are contested. What’s the reason? It’s it has to do with the way electors were chosen and that the authority for how Vermont chose its electors had expired per their constitution. And many Republican newspapers are pointing this out. Those votes go to Adams, but perhaps they shouldn’t because they’re disputed. That’s three votes.

Enough to turn the election.

Now, this is embarrassing for Adams, but what does help him is Jefferson writes a letter to Madison who’s in control of the Congress, who would make a big thing about this in opposition and says let the Intent and not the form of the law prevail in this case. A less generous person, and Jefferson is going to write several letters that make it clear maybe he didn’t want to be president, right. All of those things, a person that might be more ambitious in seeking the presidency might have made a much bigger deal about what happened. But so goes the election of 1796. I want to thank you for listening and thanks so much for supporting the podcast.