The first major political contest between the increasingly divided Republicans and Federalists, the election of 1796 saw the mobilization of both parties in campaigning efforts. The candidates were John Adams, supported by the Federalists, and Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the Republican Party. Republicans had a firm hold on the majority of the South, while Federalists were guaranteed victory in their traditional strongholds of New England, New Jersey, and South Carolina. The key swing states were Pennsylvania and New York, which was where most of the campaigning took place. Republicans, due largely to their targeting of recent immigrants, took Pennsylvania, but Federalists were successful in New York. Therefore, John Adams became president, winning the election by only 3 electoral votes. However, the Constitution, written with political parties out of mind, stated that the second highest vote getter would become vice president. Jefferson therefore became vice president under his political rival.

When Adams took office in 1797, France presented his first challenge. The French had seen Jay's Treaty, between the US and Britain, as a signal that the US supported Britain in the ongoing war against France. The French had put off retribution, hoping for a Jefferson administration which might be more friendly toward France. Upon Jefferson's loss in the election, however, France began to seize American ships en route to British ports. After a year of this, the French had attacked and plundered over 300 American ships. As a further insult, France ordered that every American citizen captured aboard a British naval vessel be hanged.

Adams dispatched a peace commission to Paris to negotiate shortly after the beginning of these hostile activities. However, in what became known as the XYZ Affair, Charles de Tallyrand, the French foreign minister, refused to meet with the US delegation, instead sending three anonymous agents, X, Y, and Z. The agents delivered the message that Tallyrand would not begin talks until he received $250,000 for himself, and France received a $12 million loan. This widely publicized (in America) attempt at extortion aroused public outrage among the American people, some of whom called for war. Riding this tide, the Federalists overwhelmingly took the 1798 congressional elections.

In response to continued French aggression at sea, and outraged at the XYZ Affair, Congress began what became known as the Quasi-war. 54 ships were armed and sent to protect Americans at sea. France and America never officially declared war upon one another, but the conflict lasted from 1798 until 1800, during which time the US navy seized 93 French privateers while only losing one ship. To aid the Americans, the British navy began escorting American ships to port. Despite some misgivings on Adams' part, Congress tripled the American army to 10,000 men in 1798, citing the need for readiness should a war break out with France.


The Republicans were able to put up such a strong showing in the 1796 election, to a great extent, because of the support of immigrants, most of them French and Irish, who were attracted to the pro-French, anti-British sentiment associated with Republicanism. Though immigrants only composed two percent of the national electorate, they were valuable allies because of the numbers in which they voted and their geographical location. Many immigrants lived in the key states of Pennsylvania and New York, and could be counted upon to be a vocal political presence. The election of 1796 solidified for good the lines along which the parties were divided. Federalists were associated with strong central government, favored merchants and businessmen in their policies, tended toward a pro-British foreign policy, and found their main political support in the northeast. Republicans, on the other hand, were associated with the concept of states' rights and limited central government, favored agriculture over industry, endorsed a pro-French, anti-British foreign policy, and found their political support throughout the South.

The leaders of these two increasingly divided parties found themselves paired as president and vice president after John Adams and Thomas Jefferson finished first and second in the voting of the electoral college. This awkward situation arose because the framers of the Constitution had not anticipated the rise of political parties, decrying them as selfish factions that would bring down the integrity of the government. The Constitution stipulated that the presidential candidate who received the second-highest number of electoral votes would become the vice president. It was not until 1804 that the Twelfth Amendment was ratified, prescribing that presidential and vice-presidential candidates run as a pair. Meanwhile, Jefferson served as a relatively powerless vice president under his political rival, but their relationship remained relatively amiable and the two would become friends later in their lives.

Popular pages: The First Years of the Union (1797-1809)