Inside America’s first dirty presidential campaign, 1796 style

National Constitution Center

Shocked by the discourse of this year’s presidential campaign? Wait till your hear what happened in 1796, when the U.S. had its first contested election for commander-in-chief.

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On October 19, 1796, a mysterious editorial from a writer named Phocion appeared in the Gazette of the United States, a popular Federalist newspaper in Philadelphia.

At the time, Vice President John Adams was pitted against another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, in a race to succeed George Washington as president. Phocion’s letter was what we would today call an “attack ad.”

The letter in the Gazette written by Phocion said, in terms understood by most readers, that presidential candidate Jefferson was having an affair with one of his female slaves.

Bestselling author Ron Chernow chronicled the incident in his biography of Phocion–the person also known as Alexander Hamilton.

In a Batman-complex moment, Phocion also accused Jefferson of running away from British troops during the Revolution, unlike his brave friend Alexander Hamilton.

Phocion also paid compliment after compliment to Adams and claimed Jefferson would emancipate all slaves if he were elected president.

The “slave” letter was one of several dozens written by Hamilton during the campaign, all attacking Jefferson.

The incident was one of the first instances where the “race card” was played in a presidential election.

It was the first presidential race in America with two political parties: the Federalists (led by Adams and Hamilton) and an opposing group, later to be called Republicans, or Democratic-Republicans (led by Jefferson and James Madison).

Washington was so popular that he won his two elections without meaningful opposition. But Washington said in September 1796 he wouldn’t seek a third term, giving Americans about three months’ notice to find a replacement.

Adams defeated Jefferson by three electoral votes in the short but nasty 1796 election, which shocked contemporaries in its use of dirty tactics and back-door maneuvering. Adams gained an electoral majority by just one vote.

The ever-scheming Hamilton, says Chernow, caused more problems for himself and Adams, even though Adams won the election by a narrow margin.

Adams wound up blaming Hamilton and Jefferson for his close victory, and he particularly targeted Hamilton for plotting Adams’ near-defeat by trying to funnel votes to a third candidate, Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina.

One theory advanced by historians is that Hamilton secretly lobbied in the South for Federalists to elect Pinckney as president by withholding just a handful of votes for Adams.

Bad election system leads to political parties, mud slinging

In the original election system set up in 1787, each elector cast two votes, and the top two candidates became president and vice president. Six states had direct popular elections, but 10 others let state legislatures choose the electors.

That would have made Pinckney the president and Adams the vice president, if several Federalists voted for Pinckney and another lesser candidate, like Samuel Adams.

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Instead, Hamilton’s secret was discovered by some in New England, a region that had many more Federalists. Some electors refused to cast their second vote for Pinckney. Others had turned on Pinckney, without knowing about the plot, because he was pro-slavery.

The result was that Adams became president and his former-friend-turned rival, Jefferson, became vice president.

Jefferson’s folks had been using their own “strong” campaign tactics in the fight against Adams.

Adams was accused of wanting to be king and starting a dynasty, and sucking up to England, too, in the process. He was also accused of being overweight.

In the Saturday Evening Post in 1976, the legendary columnist Jack Anderson wrote about response from Adams’ “people.”

“Adams’s opponent, Thomas Jefferson … was accused of being the son of a half-breed Indian and a mulatto father. Voters were warned that Jefferson’s election would result in a civil war and a national orgy of rape, incest, and adultery,” Anderson said.

The Adams folks also said Jefferson was godless and wanted to spread the French Revolution to America. They also said Jefferson’s supporters were “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amid filth and vermin.”

But in 1796, it was unsuitable for a candidate to actually campaign directly, and only one candidate did so, the lesser known Republican vice presidential candidate Aaron Burr. Surrogates were the first embryonic factions that soon evolved into political parties.

Many Americans weren’t happy with the discourse in the 1796 election, having never seen party politics in action before.

George Washington stated his disgust in his farewell address, given three months before the election.

“They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community,” he said.

“They are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Washington wouldn’t live to see his prediction come true in the 1800 presidential election, where an Adams-Jefferson rematch led to an unforeseen constitutional crisis—a tied election—fueled by deeply partisan tactics and more plotting by Hamilton, Jefferson, and Burr.

The result was the passage of the 12th Amendment, which changed the original presidential voting system passed in 1787. It was ratified in June 1804, just a month before Burr killed Hamilton in their famous duel.

Scott Bomboy in editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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