The first presidential election in the United States was held in 1788. George Washington – the commander of the Continental Army in the American Revolution – had recently announced his return from retirement, whereupon he agreed to run for President. As the Constitution was still being ratified by the states, the inner workings of the new American government were not completely defined. Because of this, Washington did not select a running mate, as such a concept did not yet exist. The tallied votes determined that Washington had unanimously won the election with a total of 69 electoral votes. John Adams – a fellow Founding Father who served as an American diplomat to Europe in the Revolution – earned the second-highest number of votes, making him the nation’s first vice president. Washington and Adams were both re-elected into their respective offices in the 1792 election, after which they stepped down when their second terms were completed. One of the major long-term effects of the Washington-Adams presidency was the unofficial creation of the “two-term tradition,” that being where a sitting president was expected to willingly step down after two full terms, even though no such law mandating such was enacted until the Twenty-second Amendment in 1951. America’s first presidential administration was also notable for not having any explicit partisan affiliations. Although the 1790s saw the rise of the first two major political parties in the United States, Washington identified himself as politically-independent, going so far as to condemn partisanship in his 1796 “Farewell Address.” In spite of his disapproval of political parties, the very next presidential election would see the rise of them to national prominence, brought about in part by his own Vice President, Adams.
John Adams ran for president in the 1796 election against Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Founding Father who co-authored the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Keeping with his previous political affiliation, Adams ran on the Federalist Party’s platform. From 1788 to 1801, the Federalists were the dominant political party in the United States. Led by major political figures such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, their supporters were largely centered among industrialized groups, the merchant class, and banking institutions in the New England states. Their platform advocated for a strong, centralized federal government that would form economic alliances with the Kingdom of Great Britain. During the Washington-Adams administration, the Federalist Party defended Hamilton’s economic policies. As the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton supported having the federal government pay off the states’ debts, raising money through securities bonds, giving American businesses government subsidies, and imposing protectionist tariffs on imported goods from abroad. Opposing Adams in the election was Jefferson, running for president with the Democratic-Republican Party. Otherwise known as the Jeffersonian Republican Party, it was the first opposition party in the United States. Under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, the party was largely supported by middle class artisans, farmers, merchants, and wealthy slave owners in the southern states. Their platform was highly critical of the positions held by the Federalists. The cornerstone of the Democratic-Republican platform was their underlying concern that the new American republic was being weakened by the centralization of political power by the Federalists. They supported strong state governments, westward expansion, land acquisition, and over time began to advocate for public infrastructure projects.
In the late-18th century, political advocacy was largely rooted in newspaper publications. Amid the rise of political parties in the United States, several news groups were founded with the explicit purpose of platform advocacy. John Fenno – a publisher often called the “forefather of American newspaper politics” – founded the Gazette of the United States in 1789. With sponsorship from Alexander Hamilton, Fenno’s Gazette was originally designed to publicize and support Federalist political developments in New York City, as the municipality was a key stronghold for the party. Although Fenno’s Gazette did not initially cover elections, it openly supported Federalist policies and criticized those who opposed them, going so far as to adopt the motto, “He that is not for us, is against us.” In spite of Hamilton’s endorsement, Fenno’s Gazette did not have any official support or endorsement from the federal government. To raise funds, Fenno’s Gazette ran advertisements for local businesses, and offered printing service contracts. In response to the popularity of Fenno’s Gazette, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison urged newspaper editor Philip Morin Freneau to establish a newspaper that supported the policies of the opposing Democratic-Republican Party. Titled the National Gazette, Freneau’s newspaper directly criticized the Federalist policies of the Washington-Adams administration, focusing specifically on Hamilton’s role in the Department of the Treasury.
With the rivalry between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans escalating at the end of the century, the 1796 presidential election brought about a yet-unseen level of partisan campaigning and personal attacks between the candidates. Alexander Hamilton – writing under the pseudonym of “Phocion” – submitted an opinion letter in Fenno’s Gazette. He accused Thomas Jefferson of having an extra-marital affair with one of his slaves, called him a coward in battle during the American Revolution, and dismissed members of the Democratic-Republican Party as “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amid filth and vermin.” Conversely, the Democratic-Republican supporters of Thomas Jefferson’s campaign levied their own series of criticisms and personal attacks toward John Adams. The many talking points circulated in the pro-Jefferson National Gazette included accusations of Adams thirsting for political power, being a “godless, overweight shill” for the British Empire, and assumptions that he sought to transform the presidency into a hereditary dictatorship. The intensity of the attacks by both the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans drew ire from Americans who considered themselves politically-independent, including George Washington. While not naming anyone specifically, Washington criticized the leaders and influencers of both political parties for seeking to “make the public administration the mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests.” John Adams ultimately won the 1796 election, making him the second president of the United States. In spite of their bitter rivalry in the campaign, Thomas Jefferson served as Adams’ vice president, as he won the second-highest number of electoral votes.
The 1800 presidential election was a milestone in American history for several key reasons. In addition to being the first presidential election of the 19th century, it was the first election where both the incumbent president was defeated, and the dominant political faction in office was voted out. A rematch between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the slander, libel, and personal attacks levied toward each other and their respective parties had increased from the previous election cycle. The Federalists attacked their Democratic-Republican opponents, accusing them of being “radical atheists” who would gladly endorse the widespread violence of the post-revolution wars in France. Although the overthrow of the Ancien Régime and the subsequent creation of the First French Republic in 1792 drew inspiration from the successful American Revolution, the radical politics and widespread violence during and after the fact divided Americans along partisan lines. Being more inclined to order and centralized power in their politics, the Federalists opposed the violence and killing that had taken place, and as such were more inclined to support the British and the pro-royalist French. An opinion piece in the pro-Federalist New York Commercial Advertiser went so far as to dismiss French immigrants to the United States as “the refuse of Europe,” who had only come to stir up a new revolution, “watching for plunder, and rioting in the thoughts of dividing up the property of the honest.” The Democratic-Republicans – being more sympathetic to the cause of the fledgling French Republic – criticized the Federalists for seemingly not caring for the plight of those trying to spread democratic republics across Europe. They further criticized the Federalists for imposing the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which both made it more difficult for immigrants to become American citizens, and restricted the expression of “false statements” made against the federal government. Because of their close association with Great Britain, the Federalists were further criticized for being “aristocratic,” and seemingly falling out of touch with America’s revolutionary origins. The Federalists being unaware of the changes taking root in both America and Europe later proved to be an advantage for the Democratic-Republicans. Being rooted in the New England states, the majority of Federalist policies in government were either directly or circumstantially beneficial mostly for that particular part of the country. With John Adams being a social recluse in his campaign, Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans seized the opportunity to reach out to the public, enticing newspaper publishers and churches to spread their messages. By the end of the election cycle, Jefferson had successfully portrayed himself as a tall, physically fit, expressive, and attentive leader who would be a strong fit for the presidency. Accordingly, Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election and became the nation’s third president, with John Adams being elected as his vice president. In the twelve years between the elections of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the United States went through its first – but not the last – campaign seasons, elections, partisan realignments, and political controversies.
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum