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–by Joanna Hallac

Every four years, as another presidential election rolls around, the grumbling starts up that this has to be the most partisan and nastiest campaign ever; however, partisanship and attack ads have been a part of our presidential (and congressional) elections since as early as 1796, despite the warnings of our founding fathers about factions in the Federalist Papers, as well as George Washington’s later mention of the dangers of political parties in his farewell address. In honor of the silly season of presidential politics, which I’m sure we will all be happy to see come to an end on November 6th, here is a small sampling of some of the more partisan (even downright nasty) and consequential presidential elections in the early history of the United States. Oh, and since this would be intolerably long if we published it all at once, we have taken mercy on all of you and broken it up into two posts…enjoy!

Election of 1796

It was the first presidential election following the decision of George Washington to step down after his second term, and it quickly became a nasty and somewhat controversial affair. As this was the first election in which opposing political parties vied against one another for the presidency, it was inevitable that mud would be slung. The Federalists put forth two names—Vice President John Adams and former diplomat Thomas Pinckney—as did the Democratic-Republicans—Sec. of State Thomas Jefferson and former senator Aaron Burr. While Burr was essentially the only candidate to actively campaign, the surrogates of the others took to the newspapers to hurl epithets at each of the candidates. Jefferson was labeled a Francophile and accused of being an atheist, while Adams was labeled an elitist and Anglophile.

In the end, Adams did prevail in the Electoral College by a slim, 3-vote margin. At this point there was no law to ensure that electors cast separate votes for president and vice president, so the Electoral College runner-up became the VP; in this case, Thomas Jefferson of the rival political party took that honor. It is interesting to note that a somewhat similar situation could actually unfold again this year if the Electoral College vote were to end in a tie, at which point the Republican-controlled House would vote for president and the Democratic-controlled Senate would vote for vice president. Could we be in for a Romney-Biden term? Doubtful, but it’s clearly happened before.

While the attacks in the media were relatively tame in the election of 1796, the emergence of political parties and growing sectionalism in the country would make the next election far nastier. Additionally, the slim electoral victory for Adams in a system with flaws yet to be realized would also foreshadow the controversy that would surround the election of 1800.

Election of 1800

Historians and political scientists can disagree about many things, and do, but one thing many of them do agree upon is that the presidential election of 1800 was one of the nastiest, but also perhaps one of the most consequential, in American history. While it is correct to think highly of our Founding Fathers and the work they did in drafting the Constitution and seeing this country through the Revolution and its nascent years, people often forget that politics has always been and will always be a full contact sport; 1800 was no different. Just like today, the men running for president took to the media of the day to do their best to disparage one another and cast each in the most negative light possible.

Bad feelings had already been present in 1796, and by the time the next presidential election rolled around those feelings had been amplified, not only because President Adams had made a lot of people unhappy with his foreign policy in particular, but also because Vice President Jefferson had gone out of his way to do nothing to help his president and former friend during his first term, sowing seeds of great bitterness between the men and their political parties. Yet, while Jefferson only had to contend with attacks from his Federalist rival, Adams faced mudslinging from the Republicans and from his own party as well, as Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist rival, worked against Adams and would actually be instrumental in Jefferson’s victory.

Newspaper articles painted misleading portraits of each candidate, depending on their allegiances (there was skewed news media back then too!), with some of them being particularly unsavory. One anti-Jefferson newspaper article issued a warning that if Jefferson were to win the presidency, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” Jefferson’s running mate, Aaron Burr of New York, circulated a letter from Jefferson in which he described Adams as having “great and intrinsic defects in his character.” Additionally, Jefferson surrogates spread a false rumor that Adams had wanted to create a dynasty in America by marrying one of his sons to King George III’s daughter and that it took George Washington to threaten him for Adams to back away from this plan, further cementing the Republican views of Adams as a monarchist. Of course, with no fact-checkers to set the electors or voters straight back in 1800, each party simply tried to outflank the other with lies and exaggerations.

When the election was finally held and the electoral votes counted, Adams finished third, ahead of Charles Pinckney (also a Federalist candidate), and behind both Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who ended up tied with 73 apiece. As mentioned previously, the Constitution did not have a provision in it to make sure electors differentiated their votes for president and vice president, and all Republican electors likely just cast their two votes for each of their party’s candidates, not realizing that a tie would therefore ensue. The vote then went to the House of Representatives, as mutually agreed upon since there was no constitutional provision to deal with an Electoral College tie. Once in the House, the ballots continued to result in more tied votes, due mainly to the fact that Alexander Hamilton, a fierce rival of Aaron Burr, a fellow New Yorker, convinced many Federalists in the House to cast their votes for Jefferson, a favor Burr would repay to Hamilton years later when he killed him in a duel. Finally, after Jefferson promised Federalist James Bayard that he would keep Federalists in government positions and keep Hamilton’s national bank, Bayard agreed to cast a blank ballot, thus breaking the tie after 35 rounds of voting and giving Thomas Jefferson the presidency.

The election of 1800 was not only a nasty, partisan fight, signaling a start to our now entrenched two-party system, but it also proved incredibly consequential in terms of the impact it would have. First of all, this election was a major test of the new American republic, as the Federalists controlled every branch of the federal government at the time of Jefferson’s election. While they could have refused to leave power and overturned the ideals they fought so hard for in the Revolutionary War and in the ratification of the Constitution, John Adams peacefully and willingly accepted the results of the election and left office without incident, thus legitimizing Jefferson’s presidency. This would set the precedent for all successive presidents from all political parties in regard to a peaceful transfer of power, and also demonstrated to the world that America was a country in which democracy would survive–and so it has.

Secondly, the election of 1800, and the tie that ensued, necessitated a change to the Constitution, which came in 1804 with the ratification of the 12th Amendment. The amendment mandated the use of separate ballots for president and vice president for the electors to use when casting their votes, as well as setting forth that in future cases of an Electoral College tie or lack of majority, the House would settle the presidential vote, while the Senate would settle the vice presidential vote.

Stay tuned for Part II of this post on partisanship in presidential elections…the elections of 1824 and 1828 promise not to disappoint!

Sources consulted:

The Miller Center at the University of Virginia

The Lehrman Institute

Maisel, Sandy L. and Mark D. Brewer. Parties and Elections in America: The Electoral Process. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).