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The Election of 1796 Previous Next
Digital History ID 2976


The election of 1796 was the first in which voters could choose between competing political parties. It was also the first test of whether the nation could transfer power through a contested election.

The Federalists chose Vice President John Adams as their presidential candidate, and the Republicans selected Thomas Jefferson. Both parties turned directly to the people for support, rallying supporters through the use of posters, handbills, and mass rallies. The Republicans condemned Adams as "the champion of rank, titles, and hereditary distinctions." The Federalists claimed that Jefferson was intent on undermining religion and morality.

John Adams won the election, despite backstage maneuvering by Alexander Hamilton against him. Hamilton developed a complicated scheme to elect Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, the Federalist candidate for vice president. Under the electoral system at the time, each presidential elector was to vote twice, with the candidate who received the most votes becoming president and the candidate who came in second becoming vice president. Hamilton convinced some southern electors to drop Adams's name from their ballots, while still voting for Pinckney. Thus Pinckney would receive more votes than Adams and be elected president. When New Englanders learned of this plan, they dropped Pinckney from their ballots, ensuring that Adams won the election. When the final votes were tallied, Adams received 71 votes, only 3 more than Jefferson. As a result, Jefferson became vice president.

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