Washington's announcement that he would not seek a third term set the stage for the country's first contested presidential election. The election of 1796 was the first in which voters could choose between two competing parties; it was also the first in which candidates were nominated for vice president. It was a critical test of whether the nation could transfer power through a contested election.
The Federalists chose John Adams, the first Vice President, as their presidential candidate, and the Republicans selected Thomas Jefferson. Both parties turned directly to the people, rallying supporters through the use of posters, handbills, and rallies. Republicans portrayed their candidate as "a firm Republican" while they depicted their opponent as "the champion of rank, titles, and hereditary distinctions." Federalists countered by condemning Jefferson as the leader of a "French faction" intent on undermining religion and morality.
In the popular voting, Federalists drew support from New England; Atlantic seaports (including Charleston, South Carolina); commercial, shipping, manufacturing, and banking interests; Congregational and Episcopalian clergy; professionals; and farmers who produced for markets. Republicans attracted votes from the South; backcountry Baptists, Methodists, and Roman Catholics; small merchants, tradesmen, and artisans; and subsistence farmers.
Adams won the election, despite backstage maneuvering by Alexander Hamilton, who disliked Adams intensely. Hamilton devised a scheme to elect Thomas Pinckney (1750-1828), the Federalist candidate for Vice President. Under the electoral system set up by the Constitution, each presidential elector was allowed to vote twice, with the candidate who received the most votes becoming President, while the candidate who came in second was elected Vice President. According to Hamilton's plan, southern electors would drop Adams's name from the ballot, while still voting for Pinckney, thus electing him 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 only three more electoral votes than Jefferson. As a result, Jefferson became Vice President.
It is said upon what foundation I know not neither Adams nor Jefferson will get any votes in S. Carolina. It is confidently assented that Mr. Adams will be elected by a majority of least 3 votes. I have my fears. Should Jefferson be elected or if no election takes place by the Electors, I suppose he will be elected by the present House of Representatives. Great anxiety prevails generally which [man will become] the future President. The friends of the Government dread the election of Jefferson; they fear he will press a very different line of conduct from the present President.... I am confident the great body of the people are attached to the Govern[men]t, approve its measures and wish to remain at peace with all nations.