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.

View photo

.

adamsjefferson1776

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.

Recent Constitution Daily Stories

Mitt Romney takes lead in projected electoral vote count
Google Trends shows growing Romney interest among swing state voters
Romney’s ace could come from a mystery swing state

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.

Sorry you didn't like this comment. Please provide a reason below.

Are you sure?
Rating failed. Try again.
Request failed. Try again.
We will promote constructive and witty comments to the top, so everyone sees them!
Sorry, we can’t load comments right now. Try again.

    Recommended for You

    • The Latest: Trump changes course after denouncing protesters

      WASHINGTON (AP) — The Latest on President Donald Trump (all times EST):

      Associated Press
    • White House vows to fight media 'tooth and nail' over Trump coverage

      By Doina Chiacu and Jason Lange WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House vowed on Sunday to fight the news media "tooth and nail" over what it sees as unfair attacks, with a top adviser saying the Trump administration had presented "alternative facts" to counter low inauguration crowd estimates. On his first full day as president, Trump said he had a "running war" with the media and accused journalists of underestimating the number of people who turned out Friday for his swearing-in. White House officials made clear no truce was on the horizon on Sunday in television interviews that set a much harsher tone in the traditionally adversarial relationship between the White House and the press corps.

      Reuters 8 min ago
    • Missile failure off Florida? British leader won't say

      LONDON (AP) — The British government is being accused of concealing the failure of an unarmed ballistic missile launch ahead of a debate in Parliament over whether to refurbish the country's aging Trident nuclear launching system.

      Associated Press
    • Inauguration crowds are looking puny compared to Women's March crowds

      Sorry, Trump, but these Women's March crowds are YUGE. Ladies from around the world got in formation to take part in the Women's March on Washington following Trump's inauguration, and the crowds are downright bigly. With attendance projections for the D.C. March now at over 500,000, many can't help but compare today's attendance to Friday's underwhelming inauguration numbers. SEE ALSO: Who pulled the bigger crowd: Trump or Obama? While hundreds of thousands did show up to watch Trump be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States on Friday, visible empty bleachers and photos of Obama's packed 2009 inauguration ceremony,which had an estimated turnout of around 1.8 million, proved Trump's gathering was far from record setting. The March reportedly led to 1,000 more busses being booked than on Trump's big day, and photographs and video from today's events show D.C. bombarded with an overwhelming number of attendees. Though official inauguration numbers are unknown, the gorgeous sea of pink Pussyhats assembling at today's March certainly appeared to trump the president's crowds. If you want to see how massive the Women's March is, I'm standing at the back edge of the crowd, and I've marked the speaker's stage. pic.twitter.com/L47WgP2OuP — Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) January 21, 2017 #WomensMarch in #DC view from the roof of VOA towards #USCapitol pic.twitter.com/JBY4MAhep3 — Niki Papadogiannakis (@nikipapadog) January 21, 2017 @JoyAnnReid @puffin98 Let's compare crowd size of Trump Inauguration v D.C. Women's March...樂 Mr Trump...you can't comb over racism! pic.twitter.com/Lz9Tn8PpZp — Sissy Victor (@sissyvictor40) January 21, 2017 #WomensMarch Today vs. #Inauguration Yesterday pic.twitter.com/jFowSajc4Q — Austin Hunt (@AustinHunt) January 21, 2017 Photos of the Shady Grove Metro station currently. Hearing it's an hour wait to get on the train. O____o #WomensMarch pic.twitter.com/YOaaQ41v1s — Philip Lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) January 21, 2017 What the same DC Metro station looked like on Inauguration Day vs. what it looks like today pic.twitter.com/gi8GBoqni5 — Freddie Campion (@FreddieCampion) January 21, 2017 On my way to cover #WomensMarch in DC and have not seen this station this busy even at peak rush hour before. Pink everywhere. pic.twitter.com/kYhxy66ttj — Tal Kopan (@TalKopan) January 21, 2017 #WomensMarch We're not even in DC yet, and this metro station has a better crowd than the inauguration. pic.twitter.com/iXeJFqwtIJ — Emily Hecht (@emiblake) January 21, 2017 The fact that there are more people at the #WomensMarch than the #Inauguration gives me hope that we're all going to be alright. pic.twitter.com/GgNeEii2yB — David Thompson (@DavidMDT) January 21, 2017 Thanks to the National Mall Cam, a live video feed of the U.S. Capitol building, you can check out the huge crowds for yourself in real time. Inauguration Photo of Donald Trump's inauguration crowds on Jan. 20, 2017. Image: screengrab/earthcam Women's March Photo of Women's March on Washington crowds at 12:00 p.m. on Jan. 21, 2017. Image: screengrab/earthcam Uh oh, Trump. Looks like the women of the world are giving you some serious competition. BONUS: Trump's 2017 vs Obama's 2009: A brutal inaugural concert comparison

      Mashable
    • US Gas Prices Drop a Cent Over 2 Weeks to $2.36 a Gallon

      The average price of a gallon of regular-grade gasoline fell just over 1 cent nationally during the past two weeks, to $2.36

      ABC News q
    • Discarded protest signs from the Women’s March in NYC (28 photos)

      Following the march in New York City, protesters left behind thousands of signs around Fifth Avenue near Trump Tower. Many signs left near a construction site were taken home by admirers as souvenirs. One group of placards was made into an art installation on East 57th Street, while many of these great signs were discarded near receptacles along Fifth Avenue waiting for sanitation. (Yahoo News) Photography by Gordon Donovan /Yahoo News _____ Related slideshows: Slideshow: Signs of the Women's March around the world >>> Slideshow: Women's March on Washington, D.C. >>> Slideshow: Women’s March around the world >>> Slideshow: How newspapers covered President's Trump inauguration >>> Slideshow: Anti-Trump inauguration protests break out in U.S. >>> Slideshow: Protests worldwide against the inauguration of Donald Trump >>> Slideshow: Obama's Washington >>> Slideshow: Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day >>> Slideshow: 66 hands on 66 Bibles >>> See more news-related photo galleries , and follow us on Yahoo News Photo Tumblr.  

      Yahoo News Photo Staff
    • 'Droneboarding' takes off in Latvia

      Two snowboarders gripping them glide across the ice, pulled along by the drone before performing a series of high-speed turns and slides. The drone prototype is the work of Latvian specialists Aerones and they are putting their invention through its paces, with up to four snowboarders being dragged across the ice at a time. "It seems to be a successful test," says Janis Putrams, 35, wearing a broad grin, not least because as Aerones CEO he is in charge of the enormous remote control unit used to steer the drone's flight.

      AFP
    • Leonard scores 41, Spurs down Cavaliers 118-115 in overtime

      CLEVELAND (AP) — As Kawhi Leonard peeled the ice bag off his swollen left hand, Manu Ginobili hobbled through San Antonio's locker room, his back stiffened from a run-in with LeBron James.

      Associated Press
    • Melania Trump stuns in first lady fashion stakes

      First Lady Melania Trump stunned fashion watchers by donning a sleek, off-the-shoulder cream dress with a daring thigh-high slit to dance with President Donald Trump at the inaugural balls. The new first lady's sartorial picks for the inauguration went some way to silencing critics who have complained in the past that she favored high-end European clothes rather than American creations.

      AFP
    • China to prosecute former Tianjin mayor for suspected graft

      China will prosecute the former mayor of the northern city of Tianjin for suspected graft, the state prosecutor said on Sunday, taking a step that will almost certainly result in his conviction. Dozens of senior people have been investigated or jailed since President Xi Jinping assumed power four years ago, vowing to root out corruption, warning, like others before, that the problem threatens the Communist Party's grip on power. The party announced in September the investigation into Huang Xingguo, who had been mayor of the important port city - about an hour from Beijing - since 2008.

      Reuters
    • At least 4 dead after Mississippi tornado: Why advance warning isn't always enough

      Rescue teams were searching for more victims in the area where the tornado struck, Greg Flynn of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency told the Associated Press, while Hattiesburg police were making door-to-door rounds. "Officials are working to ensure students are safe and accounted for.

      Christian Science Monitor
    • White House claims largest crowd size in history, despite evidence to the contrary

      In striking comments, White House press secretary Sean Spicer used his first official statement on Saturday to castigate the media for what he claimed was “deliberately false reporting,” including reporting on the attendance at President Trump’s inauguration. Spicer was particularly incensed about photos shared on social media by members of the press comparing the crowd at Trump’s ceremony with those at inaugurations past. A number of reporters posted side-by-side photographs of the crowds amassed for the inauguration of Trump on Friday and for Barack Obama eight years before.

      Yahoo News
    • Grown-up Paris Jackson hits her namesake city for Givenchy

      PARIS (AP) — Colorful fall-winter menswear shows in Paris mixed high culture, androgyny and streetwear, as Paris Jackson, the daughter of the late pop icon Michael Jackson, stepped out for the cameras at Givenchy's library show— fittingly in the City of Light.

      Associated Press
    • Gavin Rossdale Opens Up About Divorce From Gwen Stefani

      Gavin Rossdale opens up about relationship with ex-wife Gwen Stefani

      People
    • Inside Edition
    • Apple antitrust suit: Qualcomm overcharged 'billions'

      Apple on Friday sued Qualcomm, accusing the California chipmaker of abusing its market power to demand unfair royalties, echoing charges filed days earlier by US antitrust regulators. The company also claimed Qualcomm owes it a billion dollars but is refusing to pay in retaliation for the iPhone maker's cooperating with South Korean antitrust regulators looking into the chipmaker's actions in that country. "For many years Qualcomm has unfairly insisted on charging royalties for technologies they have nothing to do with," Apple said in an email statement.

      AFP
    • Strong quake hits Solomons; some damage but no tsunami

      CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A powerful magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck deep under Papua New Guinea on Sunday, causing damage and blackouts but no tsunami hours after the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued an alert for nearby islands.

      Associated Press
    • Trump on Women’s March protesters: ‘Why didn’t these people vote?’

      President Trump questioned the more than 1 million people nationwide who protested his presidency on Saturday and criticized the celebrities who demonstrated. “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election!” Trump tweeted early Sunday.

      Yahoo News
    • Analysis: Trump speech shows America getting what it ordered

      WASHINGTON (AP) — America is getting what it ordered on Election Day.

      Associated Press