“Characters Pre-eminent for Virtue and Ability”: The First Partisan Application of the Electoral College


October 6, 2022
by Shawn David McGhee Also by this Author


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Scholars typically cast the outcome of the second presidential election as either a forgone conclusion or a non-event.[1] After all, George Washington ran unchallenged and once again received unanimous support from the Electoral College.[2] Shifting academic focus from the first magistrate to the second, however, reframes the 1792 contest as a struggle for the soul of the republic rather than a forgettable victory for the incumbent. As the first Washington administration drew to a divisive close, Republicans sought to unseat Vice President John Adams and replace him with a candidate they felt embodied republican virtue. If they succeeded, these actors felt they could exorcise Adams’ perceived monarchical influence on President Washington and return the nascent republic to its revolutionary principles. Federalists, however, supported Adams in order to protect the integrity of the national government. From their perspective, Republican rule would undermine the federal architecture and return the republic to the instability of the 1780s or worse. Yet efforts to vanquish or vindicate Adams required careful consideration of the Electoral College and represent the earliest attempts at weaponizing that institution for national partisan purposes.

Writing in September 1792, physician Benjamin Rush confidently reported to New York’s rising star Aaron Burr that the republican spirit continued to strengthen among the American people. He then urged Burr to take a more active role in “removing the monarchical rubbish of our government.”[3] For Rush, monarchy ran contrary to Christian virtue and he feared monarchical influence on the national government threatened “all our ideas of republicanism.”[4] He was not alone. Writing in the New York Journal, one activist predicted Washington would win the upcoming election but cautioned the vice presidency remained an open contest that would determine whether “true republicanism shall prevail . . . or the seeds of aristocracy be permitted to take deep root in this soil of freedom.” During this crisis, the writer warned, some designing men remained “anxious to overthrow the glorious fabric of freedom, and erect on its ruins that deformed monster, Aristocracy.”[5] These clear attacks on the sitting vice president encapsulated Republicans’ growing distrust of John Adams and, more broadly, fear that hereditary government might supplant the American Constitution. The federal republic, according to these observers, was young, unsteady and vulnerable to the seduction of monarchy.

Federalists also anguished over the nation’s immediate future. According to Alexander Hamilton, no aristocratic cabal plotted to monarchize the republic. The “only enemy which Republicanism has to fear in this Country,” he declared, “is the Spirit of faction and anarchy” and the “demagogues” sowing the aforementioned discord for their own advancement.[6] Abigail Adams, for her part, grew increasingly frustrated by public accusations of her husband’s alleged attachment to monarchy. She warned a correspondent that Republicans were engaged in a sustained effort to overthrow the government and claimed there were “no falsehoods too barefaced” for antifederalists to promote.[7] An equally alarmed contributor to the Columbian Centinel theorized Republicans sought to replace Adams because his principles challenged their avarice. That party, this writer continued, would consider Adams’s potential defeat as a victory over the Constitution.[8]

In this paranoid political environment, unsettled observers of all persuasions pleaded with President Washington to stand for reelection despite the president’s desire to return to private life.[9] Thomas Jefferson, sensing an early sectional crisis, went so far as to tell Washington that “North and South will hang together if they have you to hang on.”[10] Attorney General Edmund Randolph offered an even darker assessment of the partisan atmosphere on the eve of the election: only Washington could prevent the nation from descending into chaos. “Should a civil war arise,” he gloomily remarked, “you cannot stay home.”[11] No one could envision another candidate for chief magistrate in 1792. Filling the vice presidency, however, became a partisan contest over the principles of the American Revolution.

Historian Stephen Wilhelm traced the origins of the vice presidency to the deputy governor of Massachusetts, an office outlined in that colony’s 1628 charter. Architects of that covenant designed the position to fill potential executive voids should a governor be rendered incapable of executing his duties. Other colonies emulated this model and, though the concept of a junior executive caused some controversy during the Constitutional Convention, American delegates fashioned the vice presidency for similar purposes.[12] Yet the method for electing the vice president, as noted by scholar Harry Thompson, also forced state actors to think beyond the boundaries of their home states. The framers assumed no future statesman would enjoy the national esteem Washington earned during the Revolutionary War. In light of this, directing electors to consider presidential candidates from two separate states compelled voters to be aware of and comfortable with the very real possibility of an alternative contestant. In this respect, the framers aimed to nationalize the presidency.[13] Alexander Hamilton expected both the chief and second magistracies to be occupied by “characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” The Electoral College, according to Hamilton, safeguarded those offices from the intrigue of foreign courts and corruption of popular politicking.[14] Since most delegates viewed Washington as the ideal president and that office’s likely first occupant, preparing to fill his shoes must also have been on their minds.[15] As Washington was nearing sixty, the creation of the vice presidency may equally reflect an effort to imbed political stability and continuity into the very fabric of the Constitution.

As the election of 1792 neared, Republicans began plotting to replace John Adams with a man of solid republican principles. In early June, Thomas Jefferson discovered some northern Republicans intended to secure New York governor George Clinton’s election over Adams.[16] Days later, Hamilton learned of this scheme and alerted the vice president, writing “the plot thickens . . . [and] a serious design to subvert the Government discloses itself.”[17] But Clinton’s tarnished victory in New York’s gubernatorial race two months earlier caused at least some Republicans to distance themselves from his potential candidacy.[18]In the shadow of that controversial election, New York’s Melancton Smith and Marinus Willet contacted Virginia’s James Monroe “soliciting the friends of republicanism in your State” to join them in supporting Aaron Burr.[19] After careful consideration, James Madison, writing on behalf of Virginia’s Republicans, responded cryptically that his state intended to support the more experienced man, meaning Clinton, who was “more likely to unite a greater number of electoral votes.” Supporting a lesser-known character (Burr), he warned, would only jeopardize their shared goal of removing Adams.[20] The very survival of republican government, according to Madison, hinged on the incumbent’s defeat.

Alexander Hamilton suspected his opponents of even deeper machinations. He described Clinton as a known enemy of the federal government and Burr as an unprincipled actor unworthy of public confidence. Those assessments aside, Hamilton speculated that Republicans planned to split northern electoral votes between Burr, Clinton and Adams and unite the South around Jefferson to secure his elevation.[21] Jefferson, keeping a watchful eye on electoral politics, considered the upcoming contest the proper channel to gauge “the public sense of the doctrines of the Monocrats.” And despite his personal revulsion to Adams’s politics, the calculating Virginian predicted the vice president’s years of public service would “prevail over the demerit of his political creed.”[22] For Republicans, the election of 1792 offered electors a choice between republican government and monarchy. For Federalists, it asked voters to select either respectable government or anarchy. Both proto-parties viewed their rivals as enemies of the republic and an existential threat to the nation’s future.[23] And both equally considered themselves the true custodians of the American Revolution, intensifying the struggle to replace or retain Adams.

The contest for the vice presidency also raged in American newspapers. One pseudonymous observer, writing as “Lucius,” decried Adams as an opponent of the American republic due to his perceived attachment to kings and lords.[24] “Marcus” countered, citing the vice president’s Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America as “the best defense of a free republican government in the English language.”[25] Even after the election, one contributor to the National Gazette accused Adams of “giving the government a twist toward royalty,” while another warned readers that if “you wish not a king . . . abandon Mr. Adams [and] annihilate his political existence.”[26] Still another defended Adams as “a firm and true republican.”[27] Opponent “Wat Tyler” railed that if Americans re-elected Adams, “monarchy men” would force voters to refer to the president and vice president as “Thee and Thou.”[28] Another critic argued that any friend of public tranquility must choose Clinton over Adams due to the incumbent’s support of hereditary distinctions.[29] For most partisan observers, the political environment surrounding the second presidential election radiated with suspicion and apocalypticism.

Partisan operatives worked tirelessly to keep abreast of electoral developments, but in 1792 news moved at four-miles per hour and it took observers time to gather reliable information. Madison learned in late November that the entire South favored Clinton. If the governor could peel off eight eastern votes, Madison’s informant reasoned, “I think he will be elected.”[30] An elector from Virginia informed Madison that, since Adams openly disdained the southern states, “Clinton . . . appears to be the only alternative.” He then announced his intention to vote for the governor.[31] Madison, ever cautious, prudently recorded he lacked the data “to calculate with certainty the event of the contest.”[32] Jefferson anxiously kept a careful state-by-state account of the returns as they came in to him.[33] Charles Adams warily predicted that, as far he understood the returns, his father would hold the office.[34] Abigail Adams expressed shock that New York led Virginia “by the Nose,” and described both states as openly hostile to the vice president and national government.[35] Another partisan enthusiastically reported that Adams had carried all of New England, delivering what he dubbed a mortal blow to Republicans’ nefarious designs. The American public, this writer explained, refused to permit Adams “to retire to obscurity.”[36] The National Gazette received a report predicting (correctly) Washington and Jefferson had carried Kentucky.[37] Acting the part of disinterested gentleman, John Adams claimed to have little interest in the election’s outcome. Yet he carefully inventoried for his wife the electoral returns he had gleaned from his vast correspondence, drawing out where he expected the most support and where Clinton might prove an attractive alternative.[38] One refreshingly candid observer admitted that, while Adams appeared unpopular, election returns “All seem to depend on Vague rumours.”[39]

When Congress officially tabulated electoral returns on February 13, 1793, Adams won reelection handily with seventy-seven votes. He drew his support mainly from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. Clinton received fifty, predominantly from New York and the South, while Jefferson yielded Kentucky’s four votes. Aaron Burr, who according to Hamilton aggressively campaigned for the position, garnered one electoral vote from South Carolina.[40] In late December, some Adams supporters hailed his likely victory as a complete triumph for federalism. For Adams, however, earning more votes than Clinton hardly seemed a victory. If some Americans considered the sacrifices and suffering the current vice president endured on the nation’s behalf comparable to those of Clinton, Adams lamented, “it is high time to Quit Such a service. There is not the Smallest degree of Vanity in this.”[41]

Equally stung by the results, Republicans could only claim monarchy no longer threatened the nation’s future. Artificial aristocrats, they rationalized, dared not advance their haughty designs before a watchful citizenry after such a close call.[42] Yet the election actually exposed some sobering political realities about the American electoral system. It revealed that Washington’s universal acclaim was unique; no other statesman held the public’s trust in virtually every corner of the union. And historically, no other republican form of government had ever dared govern so vast and diverse a realm. Alarmingly, these realities constrained any future national candidate to navigate hardening sectional divisions in an increasingly polarized atmosphere over an ever-expanding nation. Partisan actors would consider this political arithmetic when factoring in the Electoral College for future elections during the Early National Period.


[1]An exception is James Roger Sharp, American Politics of the Early Republic: A New Nation in Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

[2]Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 288-92.

[3]Benjamin Rush to Aaron Burr, September 24, 1792, in L.H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), 1: 623.

[4]Benjamin Rush to Jeremy Belknap, June 21, 1792, in Ibid., 1: 620.

[5]“To the Citizens of the United States,” in New York Journal, September 1, 1792.

[6]Alexander Hamilton to Edward Carrington, May 26, 1792, in Harold C. Syrett, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 27 vols. (New York: Columbia University, 1961-87), 11: 426-45.

[7]Abigail Adams to Thomas Welsh, November 15, 1792, in James C. Taylor, et al., eds., The Adams Papers: Adams Family Correspondence, 14 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963- ), 9: 326-28.

[8]Columbian Centinel, November 17, 1792

[9]Tobias Leer to George Washington, August 5, 1792, in Dorothy Twohig, et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series, 20 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987-), 10: 628-32; Memorandum on a Discussion of the President’s Retirement, May 5, 1792, in William T. Hutchinson, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Congressional Series, 17 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962-91), 14:299-304; Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, July 30, 1792, in Syrett, ed., Hamilton Papers, 12: 137-39; Sharp, American Politics, 54-55; Elkins and McKitrick, Age of Federalism, 290-92.

[10]Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, May 23, 1792, in Julian P. Boyd, et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 44 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950- ), 23: 535-41.

[11]Edmund Randolph to George Washington, August 5, 1792, in Twohig, et al., Washington Papers, 10: 622-27.

[12]Stephen J. Wilhelm, “The Origins of the Office of the Vice Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly7, no. 4 (1977): 208-14.

[13]Harry C. Thompson, “The Second Place in Rome: John Adams as Vice President,” Presidential Studies Quarterly10, no. 2 (1980): 171-78.

[14]“Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist 68,” in Clinton Rossiter, ed., The Federalist Papers: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay(New York: New American Library, 1961), 411-15.

[15]Elkins and McKitrick, Age of Federalism, 45; Clinton Rossiter, The American Presidency (New York: Harcourt, Brace, World, 1960), 81.

[16]James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, June 10, 1792, in Hutchinson, et al., Madison Papers, 14: 315-16.

[17]Alexander Hamilton to John Adams, June 25, 1792, in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, 11: 559-60.

[18]Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 21 June 1792, in Boyd, et al., Jefferson Papers, 6: 89-91; Tench Coxe to John Adams, July 8, 1792, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-1356; see also Alfred F. Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York: The Origins, 1763-1797(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967), 277-341.

[19]James Monroe to James Madison, October 9, 1792, in Hutchinson, et al., Madison Papers, 14: 377-81.

[20]James Madison to Melancton Smith and Marinus Willet, October 19, 1792, in Ibid., 14: 387.

[21]Alexander Hamilton to Charles Cotesworth Pinkney, October 10, 1792, in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, 12: 543-45.

[22]Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Pinckney, December 3, 1792, in Boyd, et al., Jefferson Papers, 24: 696-97.

[23]James Roger Sharp introduced the term “proto-party” to describe the developing factions during the Washington administration. See Sharp, American Politics.

[24]Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, November 24, 1792.

[25]Gazette of the United States, November 21, 1792.

[26]National Gazette, December 5, 1792.

[27]Gazette of the United States, November 10, 1792.

[28]Ibid., December 29, 1792.

[29]National Gazette, December 1, 1792.

[30]John Dawson to James Madison, November 27, 1792 in Hutchinson, et al., Madison Papers, 14: 417-18.

[31]William Overton Callis to James Madison, November 19, 1792, in Ibid., 14: 409-10.

[32]James Madison to Edmund Pendleton, December 6, 1792, in Ibid., 14: 420-21.

[33]Thomas Jefferson to John F. Mercer, December 19, 1792, in Boyd, et al., Jefferson Papers, 24: 757-58.

[34]Charles Adams to Abigail Adams, December 5[?], 1792, in Taylor, et al., Adams Papers, 9: 336-37.

[35]Abigail Adams to John Adams, December 29, 1792, in Ibid., 9: 360-62.

[36]Henry Marchant to John Adams, January 1, 1793, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-1395.

[37]National Gazette, January 1, 1793.

[38]John Adams to Abigail Adams, December 10, 1792, in Taylor, et al., Adams Papers, 9: 343-44.

[39]Robert Gamble to Thomas Jefferson, December 4, 1792, in Boyd, et al., Jefferson Papers, 24: 698-99.

[40]Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, September 23, 1792, in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, 12: 418.

[41]John Adams to Abigail Adams, December 19, 1792, in Taylor, et al., Adams Papers, 9: 351-52.

[42]National Gazette, January 2, 1793; Abigail Adams to John Adams, January 7, 1793, in Taylor, et al., Adams Papers, 9: 372-74.

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