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A close call: the victory of John Adams

Today marks the 217th anniversary of the start of the third election of the president of the United States on 4 November 1796. Still a young country, the election was center stage that year as George Washington decided to stop running. Many patriots were viable candidates, but John Adams had served as vice president under Washington and was an obvious choice for a candidate. In the following extracts from John Ferling’s John Adams: A Life, it becomes apparent that the choice to run was not an easy one for Adams or his wife, Abigail.

[In 1796], the immediate question that confronted Adams, however, was whether to stand for the presidency. There can be no question about his inclination, although he once again rehearsed the familiar pattern of doubt and equivocation. He spoke of retirement. It would be the “happiest Portion of my whole Life,” he said. He and Abigail could be “Farmers for Life,” living out their days in Quincy in “a very humble Style.” On the other hand, the new nation needed his service, he remarked. By early February he cautioned Abigail to keep their sons’ letters confidential lest they contain something that might injure him politically. A week later he acknowledged his weariness with politics, but he confided that he did not know how he could “live out of it.” After another week he was fretting over whether to serve four or eight years in the presidency.

The possibility that her husband might be elevated to the presidency could hardly have come as a surprise to Abigail. For the past eight years she had lived with the realization that he would become president immediately should Washington suddenly die, an event that seemed likely during two serious illnesses he suffered in the course of his tenure in office. But seeking the presidency was another matter, and Abigail was not happy with the prospect of several additional years of public service. It meant protracted separations from her husband; it also meant that she would be compelled to return to Philadelphia. She knew too that her husband would be exposed to barbs and calumny to a degree that would be difficult for him to withstand. She also feared for the health of her husband, who would be sixty-two years old when he entered office.

Official_Presidential_portrait_of_John_Adams_(by_John_Trumbull,_circa_1792)

While it was a hard decision for Adams and his wife to commit to, he campaigned for the presidency and votes were cast by the electoral college from Friday, 4 November to Wednesday, 7 December 1796. The chances of all three candidates, Adams, Jefferson, and Pinckney, were fair, and there was much debate about who would be declared the victor.

The presidential electors met in their respective capitals about one week after Adams returned to Philadelphia. While their ballots remained sealed until February 8, it was impossible to prevent reasonably accurate word of their transactions from leaking out. By the third week in December it was agreed that Jefferson could not win. It was not clear, however, whether Adams or Pinckney would triumph, or whether the issue would be left to the House of Representatives. Over the next few days, more definitive word arrived. It seemed clear that Adams had been elected. At Washington’s final levee of the year, the First Lady warmly congratulated Adams, and told him of the president’s delight at his victory. Soon foreign diplomats began to call on the vice-president, a sure sign that they believed he would be Washington’s successor. But Adams did not admit what everyone else had been saying until the next to the last day of the year. He broke the news to Abigail in a radiant letter that contrasted sharply with those he had penned during the last month. “John Adams,” he wrote of himself in that missive, “never felt more serene in his life.”

When the official tabulation was announced in February—ironically it was Adams, in his capacity as president of the Senate, who opened and read the results of the Electoral College voting—it was learned that Adams had garnered seventy-one votes to Jefferson’s sixty-eight. Pinckney finished in third place. As almost everyone had expected, Adams received every vote from New England, while Jefferson controlled the South, capturing fifty-four of that region’s votes to Adams’s nine. Nevertheless, Adams won the election in the southern and middle states. Jefferson lost Maryland to Adams, and the vice-president secured one crucial vote in both Virginia and North Carolina; moreover, Jefferson did not receive a single electoral vote from New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Pinckney won two more votes than Adams in the middle and southern states, but he received eighteen fewer votes than the vice-president from the New England states. Clearly, some New England electors had conspired to reduce Pinckney’s strength, in the process depriving him of the vice-presidency. Had he received only a majority of the second ballots cast by New England’s electors, he would have been elected vice-president; had he received three-fourths of New England’s second-choice votes, he would have been the second president of the United States—and John Adams again would have been elected to the vice-presidency.

Several factors contributed to Adams’s victory. The country relished the peace and prosperity that had accompanied Washington’s presidency. In addition, after eight years of southern rule, many in the North must have felt it was their turn to control the executive branch. Furthermore, Adams believed that he had secured two or three southern votes that Pinckney might have won simply because “Hamilton and Jay are said to be for” the South Carolinian. A strong Federalist organization, especially in the burgeoning urban, mercantile centers, also aided Adams. Nor can the role of the French envoy be discounted. Adams spoke of the existence of three parties in the race, an English party, a French party, and an American party. It was to the Francophiles that Pierre Adet, minister to the United States since early in 1795, appealed when he unwisely campaigned openly for Jefferson. Both Hamilton and Madison believed that his actions hurt the Virginian’s candidacy. Still, Jefferson could have carried the election had he won the two pivotal electoral votes that Adams secured in Virginia and North Carolina. The Republicans carried both states by overwhelming margins, but Adams won the Loudoun-Farquier district in Virginia, western counties that long had exhibited hostility to the hegemony of the planter aristocracy. Adams’s one source of strength in North Carolina was in the commercial region along the coast, an area with historic mercantile ties to England. Had Jefferson won those two southern electoral districts, he would have defeated Adams seventy to sixty-nine.

John Ferling is the author of nine books and numerous articles on the American Revolution and early American wars, and has appeared in four television documentaries devoted to the Revolution and the War of Independence. His book A Leap in the Dark won the Fraunces Tavern Book Award as the year’s best book on the American Revolution and Almost a Miracle was named the New York American Revolution Round Table Best Book of 2007. He is also the author of John Adams: A Life.

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Image credit: Official Presidential portrait of John Adams, about 1792-1793. Portrait by John Trumbull. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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