Finally, the first contested presidential election! After two terms (the perfect about of time), George Washington is stepping down. But seriously, how do you follow that guy?!
The Last Four Years
Things really started to heat up in the Washington administration during his second term. As expected, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson continued to clash, as did their respective factions, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
One of the biggest challenges of first administration was the Whiskey Rebellion. The Whiskey Tax was passed in 1791 as part of Hamilton’s plan to reduce the government’s debt. But people don’t like taxes. And people in the still relatively new “don’t tax my tea or I’ll fight you” America ESPECIALLY didn’t like taxes. Small, rural distilleries in regions like western Pennsylvania were hurt the most by the tax. They were using whiskey sales as a supplement to their already meager farming income. Large distilleries in east coast cities, on the other hand, had plenty of funds to pay the taxes. They could afford the flat fee, rather than paying by the barrel. This didn’t help the new government make a good first impression in these far-away corners of the country.
#Resistance started with a petition and a peaceful conference, but that only led to a one cent reduction in the tax. Not enough. A follow-up conference hosted more radical voices, namely, an organization known as the Mingo Creek Association. Locals started attacking tax collectors, going so far as to tar and feather one tax collector. The situation continued to escalate when subpoenas were issued in 1794. Hundreds of rebels surrounded and set fire to a collector’s home. In the resulting standoff, one of the rebellion leaders was shot and killed. The next day, the rebels amassed thousands of supporters calling for a full uprising, in response.
FINALLY, Washington had had enough of this shit. He personally led a militia to western Pennsylvania. It is the only time in American history that the sitting president physically led the army into a conflict. Luckily, that’s all he had to do. By the time the militia arrived, the rebel group had fled the scene. Case and point, no one wanted to fuck with Washington. Maybe more importantly, however, Washington proved that no one wanted to fuck with the federal government, either. Push them too far, and they (apparently) have the authority to bring you down. This was a show of force, and a warning that the government needed to be taken seriously.
Another major concern for Administration #1 was foreign relations with Britain and France. France took our revolution idea and turned it up to 11. To put it lightly, things were getting pretty wild over there. So wild, in fact, that they were rattling the balance of power in Europe. This led to lots of wars, including one with our estranged parent, Britain. The Republicans wanted to support France, recalling that the US didn’t like Britain very much, as we had just fought a war with them ourselves. France had been very helpful in that war. Plus, Jefferson himself spent a lot of time in France and was a big fan of the Revolution’s cause.
Despite all this, the Federalists saw a better opportunity in remaining neutral to the Europe’s wars. They wanted to do what they saw as most beneficial for US international trade. But, it wasn’t so easy. The British navy started blockading American merchant ships from traveling to France. They even forced some sailors to join the British cause. And back on the continent, it seemed they were arming and encouraging Native Americans to fight with white settlers.To remedy the situation, Washington sent Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate. The result was the aptly named, Jay’s Treaty. First off, the US agreed to be best-trade-friends with Britain and totally shun France. Good news though, that also opened up trade to the British West Indies. Plus, the British agreed to finally vacate the western forts that they were supposed to hand over after the American Revolution. Welcome to America, Forts Detroit and Mackinac! Beyond that, some repayment of damages were sorted out. The US got an alright deal, but it left a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of Americans. Did our ex just trick us into getting back together?
Man, this president stuff ain’t easy, huh? Washington was tired. He was old. And he was sick of dealing with bickering between factions. It was time for him to fulfill his lifelong dream of NOT being president.
Citizen Genêt Pause!
This is one of my favorite stories I discovered while researching this blog. Citizen Genet, or Edmond-Charles Genêt, was a French ambassador sent to drum up American support for their war against Britain. So ya know, he probably wanted to speak with President Washington, maybe Thomas Jefferson, right? Nope! Instead of sailing to acting-capital Philadelphia, Genêt chose to land in South Carolina and started recruiting the locals! He managed to raise a militia, including some ships, to go off and fight the British. After he had his crew, he finally made his way to the capital. Washington and co. were NOT happy to see him. They already knew he had been snooping around the South. Hamilton and Jefferson even put aside their differences to denounce Genêt. Neither side would listen to his calls to action and they demanded he leave America. One slight problem, though. By this point, Genêt was wanted by the revolutionaries in France. Well, they wanted his head, at least. So Washington decided to grant him asylum. Genêt stayed in the US and eventually married the daughter of future VP (spoiler), George Clinton.
Almost everything Washington and the first cabinet did was something the federal government was doing for the first time. They were setting precedents left and right! But some things got a little out of hand. National banks, foreign treaties, TAXES?!?! A lot of people were weary about these things. George Washington was obviously well-liked, but there was definitely a sense that the federal government needed to be taken down a peg. The Constitution was off to a running start, but maybe small government still had a chance…
For all of Washington’s famed neutrality, the Republicans sure had been kicked around a lot during his administration. Now, it was time for them to show their strength. For the first time in eight years, the window was wide open for a new head of state. The factions lines fell just as they had four years ago during the VP race. The Jeffersonian Republicans sought a smaller government, more in line with the concerns that prompted America’s independence in the first place; while Hamilton’s Federalists wanted a strong government that could put the US on the world stage and set us up for the future. Although divisions deepened and arguments became nastier, the candidates themselves didn’t do much or any campaigning. Too tacky! That was left to their supporters and to the press. What a time!
Now that the numerous electors from Virginia didn’t have their hometown-hero Washington to vote for, the Republicans were finally able to put their effort behind Declaration author and recent Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists played it safe again and rallied around Vice President John Adams, who wanted a strong government, but wasn’t as divisive or radical as Alexander Hamilton.
Another major difference in this election was the introduction of party tickets… kind of. Although both presidential wannabes had chosen preferred running mates, remember that the vice president spot was actually awarded to the second-place presidential finisher. Technically, all of the candidates were running against each other for president.
Just like modern campaigns, the 1796 candidates chose running mates of very different backgrounds from themselves. Jefferson’s running mate was New York politician and lifelong Hamilton rival, Aaron Burr. Adams picked former South Carolina governor, Thomas Pinckney.
New state alert! Tennesseans turned down the chance to be “West Carolina” and chose instead, you guessed it, Tennessee!
Looks like it’s going to be a close one, but I think Adams/Pinckney can pull it off… wait a sec, Hamilton, what are you up to? Are you supposed to be talking to those guys? Hey, that elector’s not voting the way I thought he would. What did you say to him, Alex? This isn’t adding up right, man. What did you do?!
Adams earns another W for the Federalists! But… there’s a problem. Looks like our ol’ pal Alexander Hamilton tried to pull a fast one on us. Of course, Hamilton preferred fellow Federalist Adams to his rival Thomas Jefferson, but that just wasn’t good enough for him. He convinced some electors to switch their votes, hoping his true preference, Pinckney, would end up as president. But the Republicans caught on and played some tricks of their own. Jefferson came in second place. But that means… Jefferson earned the vice presidency, even though Adams won president. Pinckney and Burr are left with nothing!
What Did It Say About America?
Whoopsie daisy! Not a good look for the elector system. It’s the first election after easy-win Washington and we fucked it up. It’s the only time in US history that two candidates from opposite tickets won as president and vice president. Awkward! Surely, we’ll get it right next time, right? …right?
Was It The Right Decision?
Meh. Jefferson is certainly more well-known today than Adams, though that might not really be fair. As I’ve said before, Jefferson isn’t really the greatest guy. Mr. “all men are created equal” sure had some large racial blinders on. Adams is the only Founding-Father-president to not be a slave holder. That’s worth a lot. But… he’s got some big issues to deal with. Tensions with Europe aren’t fully resolved. France probably won’t be too happy when they hear about the Jay Treaty. Overall, I think Adams gets overshadowed by Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson. Let’s see how he does and judge for ourselves!