Before becoming President in 1797, John Adams built his reputation as a blunt speaking man of independent mind. A fervent patriot and brilliant intellectual, Adams served as a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress between 1774 and 1777, as a diplomat in Europe from 1778 to 1788, and as vice president during the Washington administration.
Throughout Washington’s presidency, Vice President Adams regarded himself as the heir apparent. Indeed, that alone explains his willingness to endure eight years in the vice presidency, an office devoid of power. When Washington, in his Farewell Address, published in September 1796, announced his intention to retire, the nation faced its first contested presidential election. The Federalist members of Congress caucused and nominated Adams and Thomas Pinckney, a South Carolinian who had soldiered and served President Washington as a diplomat, as their choices for President. The Democratic-Republicans in Congress likewise met and named Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr of New York, who had served in the Continental army and as a United States senator early in Washington’s presidency, as their choices. Each party named two presidential candidates, for under the original Constitution, each member of the electoral college was to cast two ballots for President. The winner of the presidential election was the individual who received the largest number of votes, if it constituted a majority of the votes cast. The person receiving the second largest number of votes, whether or not it was a majority, was to be the vice president. In the event that no candidate received a majority of votes, or that two candidates tied with a majority of votes, the House of Representatives was to decide the election, with each state, regardless of size, having a single vote.
When the contest began in full force in the late summer of 1796, only Aaron Burr, out of the four candidates, waged an active campaign. Supporters of the four candidates, however, campaigned vigorously. The Federalist press labeled Jefferson a Francophile, questioned his courage during the War of Independence, and charged that he was an atheist. Adams was portrayed as a monarchist and an Anglophile who was secretly bent on establishing a family dynasty by having his son succeed him as President.
Adams also had trouble in his own camp. Rumors swirled that his chief rival for leadership among the Federalists, Alexander Hamilton, secretly favored Pinckney, as he would be more malleable than Adams. Many believed that Hamilton sought to have some Federalist electors withhold their votes from Adams so that Pinckney would outpoll him.
In the end, Adams won by a three-vote margin. Although virtually all of Adams’s votes came from northern electors (while virtually all of Jefferson’s were from southern electors), Adams won largely because of the votes of two southern electors. A Virginia elector, from a county with a strong tradition of opposition to planter aristocrats, voted for Adams, as did an elector from a commercial district in coastal North Carolina. Jefferson received the second largest number of votes, making him the vice president. Thus, the nation would have a President from one party and a vice president from the other party.
Seven states permitted popular voting in this election. In the remaining nine states, the state legislatures elected the members of the electoral college. Thus, popular opinion is difficult to fathom in this vote, although Adams appears to have received some support in recognition of his long and sacrificial service during the American Revolution. The northern states also thought their time had come to have a President, as a Virginian had held the office during the new nation’s first eight years. In addition, the vocal support for Jefferson by the French minister to the United States probably swung some electoral ballots to Adams.
It fell to John Adams, the vice president and presiding officer of the Senate, to count the ballots cast by the electoral college delegates. When he finished his count, he announced that “John Adams” had been elected to succeed George Washington. The final electoral college tally was 71 votes for Adams to 68 for Jefferson.
Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.
Dorothy Prats / [email protected]