The Election of 1796

Candidates: John Adams 71  Thomas Jefferson 68  Thomas Pinckney 59

Opponents of the Constitution had argued that the new Federal executive might degenerate into an elected monarchy.  “The President,” said Virginian George Mason, “is elected without rotation… He will be continued in office for life.”  George Washington’s voluntary retirement in 1796 after two terms forestalled that possibility: after Washington, no president sought a third term until 1940.  The principle of peaceful and voluntary rotation in office became an informal, but effective, feature of the new institution.  But the rivalry between Vice President Adams and former Secretary of State Jefferson to succeed Washington reflected the beginnings of faction and partisanship in the politics of the new republic.  Adams and the Federalists leaned toward Great Britain and against France in the struggle between the two powers over the consequences of the French Revolution.  Jefferson and his Republican followers sympathized with France.  Adams won a very narrow victory in the election of 1796, and the partisan struggle intensified during his administration as each camp prepared for the inevitable rematch in 1800.  The Federalists responded to Republican criticism with repressive measures like the Alien and Sedition Acts.   Jefferson and Madison countered with the Virginian and Kentucky Resolutions positing states’ rights and nullification of unconstitutional acts of Congress.


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