It’s the rematch of the century! Washington is looking at another easy win. But what was going on behind the scenes? There’s more to this election than you might think!
The Last Four Years
Washington had a lot on his plate as the first president, from choosing a title (Mr. President won over Your Highness and Your Excellency) to appointing an entire Supreme Court. He also needed to organize the first executive branch. A major part of this included staffing his cabinet. Here, his two most trusted advisors were Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The pair was known for having rap battles during cabinet meetings (I finally listened to Hamilton, the musical!).
Hamilton was one of the brightest minds in America and had served as Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War. He was the loudest supporter of the Constitution and the leader of the Federalists. He favored a strong federal government and wanted to expand its powers, especially for his Treasury Department.
In the battle for Washington’s approval, Thomas Jefferson was his rival. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and, during the Congress of the Confederation, served overseas as the US Minister to France. There, he became a supporter of the French Revolution. Soon after his return to America, he was summoned to Washington’s cabinet. Jefferson promoted a weaker federal government and thought the US should focus on small farmers.
Washington was the impartial leader between these two extremes.
Hamilton had lots of plans for the government to do lots of things, and Jefferson wanted not that. One of Hamilton’s most divisive proposals was for the federal government to assume the states’ debts and create a national debt. This would make it easier to pay off the money STILL owed from the Revolutionary War, but it pissed off the states that contributed less debt. To go along with this, Hamilton wanted to create a national bank to encourage rich business owners invest their wealth in the overall prosperity of the new country.
The plan that caused the biggest stir, however, was the Whiskey Tax in 1791. Again, the main goal was to raise money to help pay off the long-standing war debt. But the tax hurt rural farmers in the western parts of the country, who grew the ingredients for whiskey. This issue would worsen during Washington’s second term and turn into a violent rebellion.
In a surprising compromise, Jefferson and his crew agreed to give Hamilton’s plans congressional support in exchange for founding the nation’s new capitol in a swamp now called Washington, DC, which was technically in the South.
Hey, this section is becoming more relevant! In response to Hamilton’s sudden reach for power, the former Anti-Federalists (and even some former pro-Constitution advocates – looking at you, James Madison) officially formed the Democratic-Republicans. They mainly called themselves “Republicans” at the time, but there’s a big gap from here to the current Republican Party. Led by Jefferson and Madison, their main goal was to limit the Federalists and keep as much power with the states as possible. Their big win came with the ratification of the Bill of Rights, meant to solidify these limits of Federal power.
In a lot of ways, Hamilton was seen as an elitist, working only for rich business owners. The Democratic-Republicans were fighting for Joe the
Plumber Rural Farmer! But, while Hamilton’s plans weren’t seen as beneficial to the average American in the 1790s, he was looking ahead at the future of America. His aggressive policies would establish the US as a country to take seriously and as a future global leader. Can’t do that when the individual states are drowning in decades-old debt!
Good thing George Washington was a pretty good president, because these guys would have voted for him no matter what he did!
The Federalists backed John Adams for Vice President again. From my best understanding, although Hamilton sought political power, he had too many enemies to run for President or VP. A common fallacy is that he was not eligible because he was born in the British West Indies, not the American colonies. This actually didn’t disqualify him because, according to the Constitution, candidates only had to be citizens at the time of its ratification, and natural-born thereafter . In fact, none of the first seven presidents were actually born in the United States of America (pretty un-American, huh?).
The Democratic-Republicans would have preferred to support Jefferson, but under the original rules of the Constitution, each elector had two votes to give out, and they couldn’t both be candidates from an elector’s home state. Since everyone knew Washington would win, backing fellow-Virginian Jefferson would be a waste, as none of Virginia’s 21 delegates would be able to vote for him. This left them with George Clinton, another Hamilton-hater and the governor of New York, an important swing-state.
We have new states! Finally, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and New York got their shit together and were able to cast electoral votes. Also, in response to fears that it was growing TOO long, “Looooong Virginia” ceded territory to form regular-size Virginia (for now!) and Kentucky. In the North, Vermont also became a state, forever cursed to be confused with New Hampshire.
Again, most states still did not have a popular vote, as states were free to determine their own methods of appointing electors.
Washington wins another one! He received 132 votes, again unanimously, one from each elector. How long with the reign of King Washington last??
Likewise, John Adams also earned a repeat win for VP. This one was a little more competitive, though. Adams won 77 votes, to Clinton’s 50. 4 delegates ignored the Democratic-Republican’s plan and voted for Jefferson anyways, and 1 guy voted for Hamilton musical antagonist, Aaron Burr.
What Did It Say About America?
American politicians were holding onto the last years of nonpartisan rule. By choosing not to retire (yet), Washington was offering more stability during the important early days of the government before the real shit-show started.
As for the VP pick, enough politicians still valued the Federalists’ vision for the country. Hamilton’s ideas were necessary to get America on the world stage. But was his influence fading?
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes! For Washington, of course. He still had plenty of presidential precedents to set. Adams’ win can be seen as a referendum on Hamilton’s Federalists. Their policies were great for America’s growth, in the long-term. But it is fair to accuse Hamilton of ignoring the “average American.” Of course, the other side of that coin is that the Federalists were generally (though not aggressively) anti-slavery. So it is not entirely true that the Jeffersonian Republicans were fighting for the most free and democratic system, either.
What I’ve really learned from these first few posts is that, even in during Washington’s administration, America was divided. To reference the “Founders’ intentions” could mean a lot of different things. They were just as conflicted on how to apply the Constitution as we are now. One presidential term in, political parties were here to stay.