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Washington's third victory: the 1796 election

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George Washington was the most popular man in American history. He chose to step down after two terms as president.Washington would have won a third term without any problems. However, he worried about dying in office and stepped aside. Despite his retirement, Washington shadowed over the 1796 elections. His popularity elected Vice President John Adams and led to large Federalist gains in the House of Representatives.

President Washington won two uncontested election victories. The 1796 presidential campaign marked the first competitive election in American history. Washington had no opponents out of deference to his talent, ability, and status. The first president decided to step aside and backed Vice President John Adams for the position in 1796. Adams spent eight years trying to keep busy since the vice president exercised little power and had few duties.

John Adams ran against former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Secretary Jefferson led the opposition to Washington despite being a member of the administration. When confronted by the president, Jefferson claimed excruciating headaches. Additionally, Jefferson served an uninspired tenure as Virginia’s governor. On the other hand, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, served ably as Minister to France, and had impeccable revolutionary credentials.

Adams and Jefferson were friends and revolutionary partners, but the campaign turned nasty. The Democratic-Republicans backed Jefferson and accused Adams of attempting to install a monarchy. The charge was ludicrous, but Adams personality made the charge stick. They also lambasted Jay’s Treaty with Britain as surrender. On the other hand, Adams’ Federalist supporters attempted to tie the Jeffersonians to the violence in France. Federalists accused their opponents of being Jacobins. The Jacobin Party executed people en masse in the French Revolution. Additionally, the French ambassador ripped the Federalists on the eve of the election, which hurt Jefferson.

Nothing hurt Jefferson more than George Washington. Adams ties to President Washington overshadowed all other considerations. The vice president won a narrow election victory over his former friend and colleague. Adams defeated Jefferson in 9 of 16 states and collected 71 Electoral Votes to Jefferson’s 68. In a bizarre quirk, Jefferson won the vice presidency. Electors voted for president and vice president separately as opposed together. Therefore, the person with the most votes wins the presidency and the second place finisher is the vice president. Some Federalist electors withheld their votes for vice presidential nominee Thomas Pinckney to avoid a tie with Adams for the presidency. This allowed Jefferson to sneak into the administration. Pinckney finished with 59 Electoral Votes in third place.

The Adams-Washington victory dramatically assisted Federalist candidates for the House of Representatives. The party gained 10 seats in the 106 seat body. This represented nearly 10% turnover. The Federalists proved strong in New England and in the middle states. Democratic-Republicans polled well in the south and out west. Essentially, Washington’s popularity combined with Federalist economic programs led to the result. On a side note, a young Andrew Jackson won election from Tennessee. It marked the beginning of his national political career, which was put on hold for the military.

The Federalists did not do as well in the Senate elections. However, they did manage to pick up one seat to expand their majority to 21-10 over the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists gained Democratic-Republican Vice Presidential candidate Aaron Burr’s seat from New York. Alexander Hamilton’s candidate Philip Schuyler bested his opponent and provided the Federalists the additional seat. As a result, Hamilton and the Federalists embarrassed the Democratic-Republican ticket.

The 1796 elections were a near disaster for the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists won the White House, 10 seats in the House of Representatives, and a single Senate seat. The house elections represented a nearly 10% turnover. Also, the Democratic-Republicans lost the senate seat of their vice presidential candidate. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson managed to win the vice presidency because of a quirk in the Constitution. As a result, Jefferson’s party could take some solace in his bitter tasting victory. In the end, the Federalist victory provided one final testament to George Washington’s popularity. Adams might have lost without Washington’s support.



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