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United States House election, 1796

United States presidential election, 1796

The United States presidential election of 1796 was the first contested American presidential election and the first one to elect a President and Vice-President from opposing tickets, exposing a downside to the original Electoral College system. It was also the first ever non-incumbent presidential election slated in the U.S.

With incumbent President George Washington having refused a third term in office, incumbent Vice President John Adams of Massachusetts was a candidate for the presidency on the Federalist Party ticket with former Governor Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina as the next most popular Federalist. Their opponents were former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson of Virginia along with Senator Aaron Burr of New York on the Democratic-Republican ticket. At this point, each man from any party ran alone, as the formal position of "running mate" had not yet been established.

Unlike the previous election where the outcome had been a foregone conclusion, Democratic-Republicans campaigned heavily for Jefferson, and Federalists campaigned heavily for Adams. The debate was an acrimonious one, with Federalists tying the Democratic-Republicans to the violent revolutions in France and the Democratic-Republicans accusing the Federalists of favoring monarchism and aristocracy. In foreign policy, the Democratic-Republicans denounced the Federalists over Jay's Treaty, perceived as too favorable to Britain, while the French ambassador embarrassed the Democratic-Republicans by publicly backing them and attacking the Federalists right before the election.

Although Adams won, Thomas Jefferson received more votes than Pinckney and was elected Vice-President.

General election

The Candidates


Under the system then in place, electors had two votes, but both were for President; the runner-up in the presidential race was elected Vice President (this was prior to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, which changed the electoral process to a system based on running mates). Each party intended to manipulate the results by having some of their electors cast one vote for the intended presidential candidate and one vote for somebody besides the intended vice presidential candidate, leaving their vice presidential candidate a few votes shy of their presidential candidate. Unfortunately, these schemes were complicated by several factors:

  • All electoral votes were cast on the same day, and communications between states were extremely slow at that time, making it very difficult to coordinate which electors were to tank their Vice Presidential votes.
  • There were rumors that southern electors pledged to Jefferson were coerced by Alexander Hamilton to give their second vote to Pinckney in hope of electing him President instead of Adams. Indeed, as it turned out, all eight electors in Pinckney's home state of South Carolina as well as at least one elector in Pennsylvania cast ballots for both Jefferson and Pinckney.

The result was that too many Adams electors failed to cast their second vote for Pinckney, and so Adams was elected President while his opponent, Jefferson, was elected Vice President. This was due in part to the support the Democratic-Republican Party had for the French Revolution , but Democratic-Republican support was still significant enough to elect Jefferson Vice-President.

Source (Popular Vote): U.S. President National Vote Our Campaigns. (February 11, 2006).
Source (Electoral Vote):

(a) Votes for Federalist electors have been assigned to John Adams and votes for Democratic-Republican electors have been assigned to Thomas Jefferson.
(b) Only 9 of the 16 states used any form of popular vote.
(c) Those states that did choose electors by popular vote had widely varying restrictions on suffrage via property requirements.

Breakdown by ticket

(a) Wikipedia's research has not yet been sufficient to determine the pairings of 15 electoral votes in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; therefore, the possible tickets are listed with the minimum and maximum possible number of electoral votes each.

There were quite a few split tickets, with an elector casting one vote for the head of the Democratic-Republicans, Jefferson, and the other for a Federalist:

  • All eight South Carolina electors (along with at least one Pennsylvania elector) voted for native son Thomas Pinckney.
  • Three North Carolina electors voted for native son James Iredell.
  • There was even at least one elector in Maryland voting for an Adams-Jefferson ticket.


For the only time in United States history, the President and Vice President were from different parties. Jefferson would leverage his position as Vice President to attack President Adams' policies, and this would help him reach the White House in the following election.

This election would provide the first impetus for the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution. On January 6, 1797, Representative William L. Smith of South Carolina presented a resolution on the floor of the House of Representatives for an amendment to the Constitution by which the presidential electors would designate which candidate would be President and which would be Vice President. However, no action was taken on his proposal, setting the stage for the deadlocked election of 1800.

Electoral college selection

See also



* (1988). The North Carolina Electoral Vote: The People and the Process Behind the Vote. Raleigh, North Carolina: North Carolina Secretary of State. Web references
* A Historical Analysis of the Electoral College. The Green Papers. .
* A New Nation Votes: American Election Returns 1787-1825


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