The Third Presidential Election In The United States- 1796 John Adams VS Thomas Jefferson


The third presidential election in the history of the United States in 1796 was the first contested race.  After eight years President George Washington had enough. His second term was misery. He had to deal with the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were constantly at each other. Hamilton’s party- the Federalist and Jefferson’s party the Democratic-Republican Party disagreed on a number of issues. A chief disagreement was over who to support in the war going on between England and France. The Federalists backed England and the Democratic-Republicans backed France.  Also Washington was hearing criticism mainly from the Democratic-Republicans. He was now 64 and ready to go home to Mount Vernon.



George Washington in September of 1795 announced he was not going to seek a third term. In his ‘Farewell Address” that he released  he warned against political parties and in foreign entanglements. Of course both the political parties ignored him. George Washington had gotten the country off to a great start as the first president. Here is a man who throughout his life had always had a great sense of timing. George Washington could have been king had he wanted it. He could have stayed on as POTUS the rest of his life. He chose to give up power and go home.



After George Washington announced his intentions the political parties went to work. There were no political conventions back then. It would be some time before that started. The powerful people in each party then just decided on who their candidate would be and tried to convince other party members to go along with their decision. The Federalists would select as their candidate the Vice- President- John Adams. He was excited after 8 years as Vice Daddy to finally have the shot at age 61 at the grand prize. The Democratic-Republicans would select former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson as their man.

At this time candidates didn’t campaign. Both these men, who had been friends [and then become enemies and late in their lives would become friends again} just stayed quiet. They didn’t say anything bad about the other guy. They tried to stay above everything, they kept quiet. They had their political parties to do the dirty work for them.

There would be all kinds of malicious attacks in the party newspapers, handbills and pamphlets attacking the other candidate. [ The 1800 election things would get even worse} The Federalists were for a strong national government and the Democratic-Republicans were big on states rights. The Federalists were for promoting banking and industrial/manufacturing interests and the Democratic-Republicans were promoting agrarian interests.

Both political parties had men who they wanted to be Vice -President if their candidate won. The Federalists had southerner Thomas Pinckney and the Democratic-Republicans wanted Aaron Burr of New York to be Jefferson’s Vice-President. Remember though at this time whoever finished second in electoral votes was Vice-President.

Electors met in their state capitals the first Wednesday in December to vote. The ballots were supposed to be opened when Congress came back into session on the second Wednesday in February but of course by mid-December the word was out that John Adams had narrowly beat Thomas Jefferson 71 electoral votes to 68 for Jefferson.



Thomas Jefferson took the defeat in stride. He said that Adams had always been his senior and that the second office {Vice Daddy} was honorable and easy and that the first office is but splendid misery.

Jefferson since he finished second was the new Vice President. I can’t imagine this happening in modern times. They began to realize this was a mistake and by 1804 things would be changed with the 12th amendment. This would be the only time that the loser for president would be vice-president.

The final Electoral Vote was John Adams 71, [it took 70 to win] Thomas Jefferson 68, Thomas Pinckney 59, Aaron Burr 30, Samuel Adams {brewer -patriot} 15, Oliver Ellsworth 11, George Clinton 7, John Jay and James Iredell had 5 each, two voters were stubborn and gave George Washington 2, Samuel Johnston 2 and Charles Pinckney 1.

John Adams was now POTUS. His presidency would be a great example of be careful what you ask for, you may get it. The 1800 Presidential Campaign would be harder fought and a lot dirtier.


6 responses to “The Third Presidential Election In The United States- 1796 John Adams VS Thomas Jefferson

  1. Huh, maybe more would get done if a man from each party was in office. Maybe we need to repeal that ammendment– kind of like prohibition– we could drink a beer to celebrate even!

  2. outstanding write up. amazing how we went from someone who did not want the job to everyone being cutthroat to get the job. i think this is about the only place where the founding fathers would have some agreement – that being the modern election process.

    • they had adams and jefferson.. when is the last time there were TWO people running of that quality? I wish we had even 1 of those types today..

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