The First Presidential Contest
1796 and the Founding of American Democracy
Jeffrey L. Pasley
This is the first study in half a century to focus on the election of 1796. At first glance, the first presidential contest looks unfamiliar—parties were frowned upon, there was no national vote, and the candidates did not even participate (the political mores of the day forbade it). Yet for all that, Jeffrey L. Pasley contends, the election of 1796 was absolutely seminal, setting the stage for all of American politics to follow.
Challenging much of the conventional understanding of this election, Pasley argues that Federalist and Democratic-Republican were deeply meaningful categories for politicians and citizens of the 1790s, even if the names could be inconsistent and the institutional presence lacking. He treats the 1796 election as a rough draft of the democratic presidential campaigns that came later rather than as the personal squabble depicted by other historians. It set the geographic pattern of New England competing with the South at the two extremes of American politics, and it established the basic ideological dynamic of a liberal, rights-spreading American left arrayed against a conservative, society-protecting right, each with its own competing model of leadership.
“Carefully researched and engagingly written, Pasley’s volume is the definitive work on this underappreciated election.”
—Journal of Interdisciplinary History
“A superb, important book. Likely to become the definitive study of the 1796 election.”
—Journal of American HistorySee all reviews...
“Presents a compelling and forward-moving narrative.”
—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
“The Presidential election of 1796, memorialized in history tomes for the bitter divisions the campaign mirrored among citizens in the fledgling Republic, receives innovative and refreshing analytical consideration in this eminently readable and clever account of the Adams-Jefferson contest.”
—Political Science Quarterly
“Vivid and precise, compelling and even funny, this is political history as it needs to be written, as its best practitioners are writing it today. The election year narrative may never be the same—just better for Pasley’s patient unpacking of where it all began. Neither students nor fans of the presidency, of democracy, or of the founding should miss it.”
—David Waldstreicher, author of Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification and Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution
“Rich in lively characters, fiery rhetoric, dark intrigue, and cunning spin, the presidential election of 1796 helped to create American partisan politics on a national scale. With wry humor and a keen sense of political reality, both past and present, Pasley offers the closest and best examination of our Founders as politicians who slyly practiced what they piously preached against.”
—Alan Taylor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of William Cooper’s Town
“Few historians tell a good political story better than Jeffrey Pasley. Here he provides a wonderful account of the presidential election of 1796, which finally gets the full attention it deserves. Pasley shows how much political innovation was already occurring across the country, and how quickly politics became an active concern of citizens and their outspoken press. This first contested presidential election was no mere prequel to the dramatic contest of 1800. It was instead the critical experiment upon which Federalists and Republicans built four years later.”
—Jack Rakove, author of Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America
“Jeffrey Pasley, one of America’s premier students of popular politics, has written a superb study of a crucial but oft-neglected election. Filled with imaginative research and brilliant vignettes involving the great and not-so-great, The First Presidential Contest, is a major study of one of the landmarks in the early history of democracy in the United States.”
—Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
“Thoroughly researched, vividly written, and persuasively argued, Pasley’s book explores critically how the framers’ fantasy of ‘Patriot Kings’ mysteriously rising to the presidency quickly transformed into ‘local notables’ attempting to control presidential elections in their separate states. Anyone interested in understanding the inevitable genesis of political parties, the rise of public opinion as a check on government, and the first stirrings of the slow transformation from a Republic to a Democracy will find this book enormously helpful.”
—Richard K. Matthews, author of The Radical Politics of Thomas JeffersonSee fewer reviews...
Rather than the inner thoughts and personal lives of the Founders, covered in so many other volumes, Pasley focuses on images of Adams and Jefferson created by supporters—and detractors—through the press, capturing the way that ordinary citizens in 1796 would have actually experienced candidates they never heard speak. Newspaper editors, minor officials, now forgotten congressman, and individual elector candidates all take a leading role in the story to show how politics of the day actually worked.
Pasley's cogent study rescues the election of 1796 from the shadow of 1800 and invites us to rethink how we view that campaign and the origins of American politics.