Hamilton’s Plot to Steal the 1796 Election
It is 1796, and another round of elections is at hand. George Washington, America’s first President, has announced he will no longer be in politics after his second term ends. The citizenry is surprised and saddened by this news. For 8 years, the former Continental Army General has led the nation with his superior intellect and knowledge. In his farewell address, he passed on important information to the people which he thought would serve them best. Who else could replace Washington? Well, the man who stepped up to take Washington’s place was a Massachusetts native who had been an ambassador to France. He was John Adams.
Back in the 1790’s, American politics were deeply divided. On one side were the Democratic-Republicans: these were followers of the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. They wanted a good relationship with France, and a hardline policy against Britain (who had been beaten years earlier by the nation). The other party was the classic Federalists: these men supported a good relationship with Britain and a harder policy against French privateers who had been attacking American shipping routes. These two parties would later morph into the Democrats and the Whigs. The Whigs would later further morph into the Republican party.
An Insurgent Movement
Alexander Hamilton was especially interested in the 1796 election. Hamilton had made it clear that he would want any other Federalist to win than Adams (Chapter 2, The Road To The Presidency, 52 minutes into the book). This was probably because the two men often disagreed on exactly how the government should have been run. However, Hamilton soon found that Adams had two factors on his side in the race. First, Adams was both qualified for the job, and had been a close friend of Washington. Second, this put him in the good graces of the rank-and-file members of his own party.
Hamilton’s plan was nefarious at best, and weaselly at worst. In order to keep the popular Vice President out of the office of Commander in Chief, Hamilton would try and elevate someone else to get more votes than Adams. Now, that doesn’t seem so bad. However, this is where it gets dicey: In order to effectively do this, Hamilton plotted to falsely endorse Adams for the ticket, while he would be privately moving to get Adams’ running mate into the spot with more electoral votes. Hamilton had previously thought to get Patrick Henry into the role, but then he decided to switch to Thomas Pinckney, who was a South Carolinian. Hamilton reasoned that choosing a man from the south would incentivize voters in that region of the country to switch their allegiance to him. This idea closely resembles John F. Kennedy’s decision to put in Lyndon Johnson into his VP slot; both were from opposing ends of the country but represented a united front together.
The plan was that northern Federalists would vote strongly for both men, but southerners would be the flipping factor in the outcome. Hamilton wanted Pinckney to be the man in charge mainly because he was less rounded than Adams – the man held less executive experience, was less strong-willed, and was less independent in his thinking. Hamilton wanted to be the puppet master, and he wanted to control Pinckney’s movements.
Hamilton’s public plan was to announce outright support of Adams. However, he would also include the rider that a disastrous Jeffersonian victory was possible. Thus, to prevent this from happening, voters would need to support both Adams and Pinckney.
According to Robert Harper of South Carolina, “The original plan to elect Pinckney President was the work of Hamilton and Rufus King.” In a note to Ralph Izzard (another South Carolinian) on November 4th, Harper said, “Hamilton’s plan had always been to make Pinckney the first choice. It is not Pinckney or Adams thus, but Pinckney or Jefferson.” (Ralph Brown, The Presidency of John Adams, Chapter 2, 55 minutes)
Hamilton’s plan became suspect among members of the Democratic-Republicans. John Beckley of Pennsylvania wrote to James Monroe in early October, “Adams, if Hamilton can prevent it without danger, is not designed as Washington’s successor. Pinckney, from London, is the man.” On December 5th, James Madison said to Thomas Jefferson, “This jockeyship is accounted for by the enmity of Adams to banks and funding systems, and by apprehension that he is too headstrong to be a fit puppet for the intrigues behind the screen.” (Brown, The Presidency of John Adams, Chapter, The Road to the Presidency, 56 minutes)
Adams was possibly aware of the plot to steal the victory from him by his colleague. In letters to his wife dating December 1st and 12th, “I can tell you nothing about elections. There is some anxiety, lest Pinckney should be smuggled in unintentionally to the first place.”, “If Colonel Hamilton’s personal dislike of Jefferson does not obtain too much influence among Massachusetts electors, neither Jefferson will be President, nor Pinckney VP of US. Hamilton and Jay are said to be for Pinckney.” In another letter to her on the 16th, he wrote that “The South Carolinian would win…The English party [Hamilton] have out-generaled the French and American both. That is the construction I put upon it. Others would make me believe, if they could, it is an insidious maneuver of Hamilton’s individual ambition.”
Two days after this letter was written, Adams wrote yet another one expressing conflicting beliefs. The letter was quoted as having said, “There have not been wanting insinuations that make me believe that Hamilton and Jay have insidiously intrigued to give Pinckney a sly slide over my head. I do believe that both of them had rather Pinckney should come in P then Jefferson either P or VP. One of them might believe he should have more influence with Pinckney than with me. Both of them might think that if I was out of the way, one or other of them might have a better chance to come in the next election into one or the other office. Both of them may have designs or desires of closer connections with England than I should approve. But whatever cause with these surmises may exist, that shall make no impression on my friendship for those characters. J at least had probably no active share in the business. H certainly had.” (Brown, The Presidency of John Adams, Chapter 2: The Road to the Presidency, 56 minutes to 58 minutes)
John Adams may have been knowing of the scheme by Hamilton, but he did not want to split the party in the midst of an election.
The Election Concludes In a Narrow Victory
Ultimately, Alexander Hamilton’s plot to overthrow John Adams in favor of a weaker candidate failed tremendously. In the final tally, the vote went like this: Adams, 71; Jefferson, 68; Pinckney, 59; Burr, 30; Samuel Adams, 15; Ellsworth, 11; Clinton, 7; other, 15. (taken from https://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/ and the 1796 results) In his attempts, Hamilton had tried to unseat Adams. But instead, the final vote was strongly partisan. While Adams barely etched out a majority victory (70 needed), Jefferson came within a dangerously close second. In the state-wide delegate breakdown, the vote was very split. A majority of delegates in the states below the Mason Dixon line voted heavily for Jefferson, while nearly every state above the line went strongly for Adams (with the exception of Pennsylvania). Hamilton’s move nearly cost Adams his seat as President the first time around, and one could call his intentions ‘selfish’ when looking at the results. One could also see that the support from the south nearly sank both Pinckney and Adams, since almost every elector from down in that region of the nation went ‘blue’ for Jefferson.
In the end, this is yet another example of how third-candidate strategies can cause someone to lose their seat. If only 4 electors had cast all of their votes for both candidates in half, Adams’ victory would have been much more impressive. However, the result was a near upset over the Federalists-one that would not occur until the next election took place.
All of the information from this article was taken from Ralph Adams Brown’s The Presidency of John Adams (in audiobook format). The book was copyrighted in 1975 by the University Press of Kansas. The audiobook was narrated by Lou Harpenau, a former AP radio personality. The audiobook is 9 hours and 40 minutes long, and was downloaded from www.nlsbard.gov, a national service for blind and disabled individuals to get audiobooks for free. It is part of the The Presidency Of… series, which covers every United States President from George Washington to George H. W. Bush. Every time a quote is directly taken from the book, I will let you know where it came from with a *, allowing you to know that that quote was a direct quote. Since this is an audiobook adaptation, pages and lines were not available for use. Thus, time and chapter will be used instead.
(accompanying photo was taken from three separate ones. Jefferson’s photo is courtesy of: Wikipedia.com. Adams’ photo is courtesy of: presidentry.weebly.com. Hamilton’s photo was courtesy of: bunkhistory.org. All three were edited together using the standard Microsoft Paint program.)