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Monday, February 18, 2008

Presidential Campaign History: 1796

(Editor's Note: This is the conclusion to today's earlier post about the first three presidential elections in American history. To read about the elections of 1789 and 1792, click here. Check back in the weeks and months to come for future installments.)

Part 2: Adams v. Jefferson I (1796)

The residue acrimony from the 1792 vice-presidential fight carried into the presidential election of 1796. At times, this election looked both familiar and unfamiliar to modern contests.

There was no formal nominating process like the familiar primaries of the 20th and 21st centuries. Instead, influential party members met and discussed who should be their candidate in the upcoming election. The Federalists naturally gravitated towards Vice-President John Adams, who had been President Washington's #2 for nearly eight years, and had always been central in the fight for independence and good government. The 1796 election even gave the American people the first whiff of geographical balance for a vice-presidential candidate, as the Federalists coupled Adams with South Carolinian Thomas Pinckney in hopes of garnering southern votes for the election.

The Republicans naturally countered with Thomas Jefferson, one of the most popular figures in the country and one of the lead architects of the Democratic-Republican Party. They, too, considered geographical balance when deciding on their running mate for the Virginian, and selected New York Senator Aaron Burr.

With this being the first contested election, campaigning for a particular candidate was now acceptable and appropriate, but neither Adams nor Jefferson themselves were expected to join the fray. Many planks of each party's platform were polar, similar to modern campaigns. The Federalists pushed a strong central government while the Republicans championed states' rights. The Federalists boasted, close to accurately, that they had the support of the still extremely popular President Washington. They criticized the Republican dissension as border-line anarchy, similar to the constant revolts seen across the Atlantic in revolution-plagued France.

The Republicans, in defense and offense, countered with a drawn parallel between the Federalists desire for a strong central government with the British monarchy, an entity with which Adams and Hamilton, approximately twenty years earlier, famously pushed for dissolved political bands. This was also the first case of a challenging party bringing up the record of the previous administration in an attempt to score political points. For example, Alexander Hamilton's national bank was fervently opposed by Jefferson and the Republicans, as was the controversial Jay Treaty of 1794, which many considered too friendly to the British. Both the national bank and Jay's Treaty were heartily accepted by President Washington.

Verbal attacks in presidential campaigns also trace their lineage to the 1796 election. Since the vice-presidency was an incredibly weak position, with legislation rarely attached to it, John Adams' record as VP was relatively unblemished. Therefore, the path to diminish Adams' credibility went, at times, through President Washington. For example, Benjamin Franklin's grandson, Benjamin Bache, a Republican, insisted that Washington had "debauched" and corrupted the nation. Another prominent Republican, William Duane, thought Washington's final address to the nation was "fraught with incalculable evils," and openly wished Washington had stood aside after his first term.

The Federalists were not to be outdone. In their attacks of Secretary Jefferson, they commonly referred to him as atheistic, anarchistic, and cowardly, claiming he who would rather plunge into bloody French chaos then push forward with a strong central government. A famous Federalist description of the Jeffersonians proclaimed that they were "cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin," which, frankly, makes "Bush-Cheney light" look like a warm hug.

When it came time for the day of the election, the flaws of the original electoral process became apparent. The method of 69 electors each choosing two candidates was fine when Washington was supposed to win and the best anyone could have hoped for, or desired, was finishing in second, and thusly becoming Vice-President. However, once two parties each ran two men for two available spots, the plot considerably thickened. One man would win the Presidency, one the Vice-Presidency, and two men would win nothing.

Despite winks and nods from the 69 electors, to say nothing of brokering and backstabbing from Alexander Hamilton, the result was an Adams victory, but Jefferson received the second highest total. (Presidential trivia: Adams is one of only three incumbent Vice-Presidents to be elected President after their boss completed two terms.) Therefore, under the rules of the time, the runner up of the election, Jefferson, would have to serve as Vice-President under the victor, John Adams, who was a member of the opposing political party. Imagine that scenario now.

The most interesting facet of the outcome, perhaps, is how it was ultimately just a prelude to the next presidential election. It was an assumption that Adams and Jefferson would have a rematch in 1800, and it was also assumed that the rematch would be as rancorous as this one, if not more. Jefferson, however, was expected to still serve under Adams for four years, including during their next contest. How this would play out was anybody's guess.

But that's for another time...


Back to this in a few weeks. Back to modern presidential politics tomorrow. See you then.

1 comment:

Saj said...

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