Departing from the monarchical tradition of Britain, the founding fathers of the United States created a system in which the American people had the power and responsibility to select their leader. Under this new order, George Washington, the first U.S. president, was elected in 1789. At the time, only white men who owned property could vote, but the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments to the Constitution have since expanded the right of suffrage to all citizens over 18. Taking place every four years, presidential campaigns and elections have evolved into a series of fiercely fought, and sometimes controversial, contests, now played out in the 24-hour news cycle. The stories behind each election—some ending in landslide victories, others decided by the narrowest of margins—provide a roadmap to the events of U.S. history.
This Day in History
On this day in 1783, future President George Washington, then commanding general of the Continental Army, summons his military officers to Fraunces Tavern…
Get to know the leaders of the United States, from George Washington to Barack Obama.
The U.S. Constitution established America's national government and fundamental laws, and guaranteed certain basic rights to its citizens.
From the disputed Hayes victory in 1876 to Bush v. Gore in 2000, the U.S. has had its share of close presidential elections.
How does the Electoral College work, and why do we use it?
Election of 1789
George Washington - unopposed
The first presidential election was held on the first Wednesday of January in 1789. No one contested the election of George Washington, but he remained reluctant to run until the last minute, in part because he believed seeking the office would be dishonorable. Only when Alexander Hamilton and others convinced him that it would be dishonorable to refuse did he agree to run.
The Constitution allowed each state to decide how to choose its presidential electors. In 1789, only Pennsylvania and Maryland held elections for this purpose; elsewhere, the state legislatures chose the electors. This method caused some problems in New York, which was so divided between Federalists who supported the new Constitution and Antifederalists who opposed it that the legislature failed to choose either presidential electors or U.S. senators.
Before the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment, each elector cast two votes for president. The candidate with a majority won the presidency, and the runner-up became vice president.
Most Federalists agreed that John Adams should be vice president. But Hamilton feared that if Adams was the unanimous choice, he would end in a tie with Washington and might even become president, an outcome that would be highly embarrassing for both Washington and the new electoral system. Hamilton therefore arranged that a number of votes be deflected, so that Adams was elected by less than half the number of Washington's expected unanimous vote. The final results were Washington, 69 electoral votes; Adams, 34; John Jay, 9; John Hancock, 4; and others, 22.
Election of 1792
George Washington - unopposed
As in 1789, persuading George Washington to run was the major difficulty in selecting a president in 1792. Washington complained of old age, sickness, and the increasing hostility of the Republican press toward his administration. The press attacks were symptomatic of the increasing split within the government between Federalists, who were coalescing around Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and Republicans, forming around Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. James Madison, among others, convinced Washington to continue as president by arguing that only he could hold the government together.
Speculation then shifted to the vice presidency. Hamilton and the Federalists supported the reelection of John Adams. Republicans favored New York governor George Clinton, but Federalists feared him partly because of a widespread belief that his recent election to the governorship was fraudulent. In addition, the Federalists feared that Clinton would belittle the importance of the federal government by retaining his governorship while serving as vice president.
Adams won relatively easily with support from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, except New York. Only electoral votes are recorded here, because most states still did not select presidential electors by popular vote. Nor was there a separate vote for president and vice president until the Twelfth Amendment took effect in 1804. The results were Washington, 132 electoral votes (unanimous); Adams, 77; Clinton, 50; Jefferson, 4; and Aaron Burr, 1.
Election of 1796
John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson
The 1796 election, which took place against a background of increasingly harsh partisanship between Federalists and Republicans, was the first contested presidential race.
The Republicans called for more democratic practices and accused the Federalists of monarchism. The Federalists branded the Republicans "Jacobins" after Robespierre's faction in France. (The Republicans sympathized with revolutionary France, but not necessarily with the Jacobins.) The Republicans opposed John Jay's recently negotiated accommodationist treaty with Great Britain, whereas the Federalists believed its terms represented the only way to avoid a potentially ruinous war with Britain. Republicans favored a decentralized agrarian republic; Federalists called for the development of commerce and industry.
State legislatures still chose electors in most states, and there was no separate vote for vice president. Each elector cast two votes for president, with the runner-up becoming vice president.
The Federalists nominated Vice President John Adams and tried to attract southern support by running Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina for the second post. Thomas Jefferson was the Republican standard-bearer, with Aaron Burr as his running mate. Alexander Hamilton, always intriguing against Adams, tried to throw some votes to Jefferson in order to elect Pinckney president. Instead, Adams won with 71 votes; Jefferson became vice president, with 68; Pinckney came in third with 59; Burr received only 30; and 48 votes went to various other candidates.
Election of 1800
Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams
The significance of the 1800 election lay in the fact that it entailed the first peaceful transfer of power between parties under the U.S. Constitution: Republican Thomas Jefferson succeeded Federalist John Adams. This peaceful transfer occurred despite defects in the Constitution that caused a breakdown of the electoral system.
During the campaign, Federalists attacked Jefferson as an un-Christian deist, tainted by his sympathy for the increasingly bloody French Revolution. Republicans (1) criticized the Adams administration's foreign, defense, and internal security policies; (2) opposed the Federalist naval buildup and the creation of a standing army under Alexander Hamilton; (3) sounded a call for freedom of speech, Republican editors having been targeted for prosecution under the Alien and Sedition Acts; and (4) denounced deficit spending by the federal government as a backhanded method of taxation without representation.
Unfortunately, the system still provided no separate votes for president and vice president, and Republican managers failed to deflect votes from their vice-presidential candidate, Aaron Burr. Therefore, Jefferson and Burr tied with 73 votes each; Adams received 65 votes, his vice-presidential candidate, Charles C. Pinckney, 64, and John Jay, 1. This result threw the election into the House of Representatives, where each state had one vote, to be decided by the majority of its delegation. Left to choose between Jefferson and Burr, most Federalists supported Burr. Burr for his part disclaimed any intention to run for the presidency, but he never withdrew, which would have ended the contest.
Although the Republicans in the same election had won a decisive majority of 65 to 39 in the House, election of the president fell to the outgoing House, which had a Federalist majority. But despite this majority, two state delegations split evenly, leading to another deadlock between Burr and Jefferson.
After the House cast 19 identical tie ballots on February 11, 1801, Governor James Monroe of Virginia assured Jefferson that if a usurpation was attempted, he would call the Virginia Assembly into session, implying that they would discard any such result. After six days of uncertainty, Federalists in the tied delegations of Vermont and Maryland abstained, electing Jefferson, but without giving him open Federalist support.
Election of 1804
Thomas Jefferson vs. Charles Pinckney
The 1804 election was a landslide victory for the incumbent Thomas Jefferson and vice-presidential candidate George Clinton (Republicans) over the Federalist candidates, Charles C. Pinckney and Rufus King. The vote was 162-14. The election was the first held under the Twelfth Amendment, which separated electoral college balloting for president and vice president.
The Federalists alienated many voters by refusing to commit their electors to any particular candidate prior to the election. Jefferson was also helped by the popularity of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and his reduction of federal spending. The repeal of the excise tax on whiskey was especially popular in the West.
Election of 1808
James Madison vs. Charles Pinckney
Republican James Madison was elevated to the presidency in the election of 1808. Madison won 122 electoral votes to Federalist Charles C. Pinckney's 47 votes. Vice President George Clinton received 6 electoral votes for president from his native New York, but easily defeated Federalist Rufus King for vice president, 113-47, with scattered vice-presidential votes for Madison, James Monroe, and John Langdon of New Hampshire. In the early stages of the election campaign, Madison also faced challenges from within his own party by Monroe and Clinton.
The main issue of the election was the Embargo Act of 1807. The banning of exports had hurt merchants and other commercial interests, although ironically it encouraged domestic manufactures. These economic difficulties revived the Federalist opposition, especially in trade-dependent New England.
Election of 1812
James Madison vs. DeWitt Clinton
In the 1812 contest James Madison was reelected president by the narrowest margin of any election since the Republican party had come to power in 1800. He received 128 electoral votes to 89 for his Federalist opponent DeWitt Clinton, the lieutenant governor of New York. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts won the vice presidency with 131 votes to Jared Ingersoll's 86.
The War of 1812, which had begun five months earlier, was the dominant issue. Opposition to the war was concentrated in the northeastern Federalist states. Clinton's supporters also made an issue of Virginia's almost unbroken control of the White House, which they charged favored agricultural states over commercial ones. Clintonians accused Madison, too, of slighting the defense of the New York frontier against the British in Canada.
In the Northeast Madison carried only Pennsylvania and Vermont, but Clinton received no votes south of Maryland. The election proved to be the last one of significance for the Federalist party, largely owing to anti-British American nationalism engendered by the war.
Election of 1816
James Monroe vs. Rufus King
In this election Republican James Monroe won the presidency with 183 electoral votes, carrying every state except Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware. Federalist Rufus King received the votes of the 34 Federalist electors. Daniel D. Tompkins of New York was elected vice president with 183 electoral votes, his opposition scattered among several candidates.
After the bitter partisanship of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, Monroe came to symbolize the "Era of Good Feelings." Monroe was not elected easily, however; he barely won the nomination in the Republican congressional caucus over Secretary of War William Crawford of Georgia. Many Republicans objected to the succession of Virginia presidents and believed Crawford a superior choice to the mediocre Monroe. The caucus vote was 65-54. The narrowness of Monroe's victory was surprising because Crawford had already renounced the nomination, perhaps in return for a promise of Monroe's future support.
In the general election, opposition to Monroe was disorganized. The Hartford Convention of 1814 (growing out of opposition to the War of 1812) had discredited the Federalists outside their strongholds, and they put forth no candidate. To some extent, Republicans had siphoned off Federalist support with nationalist programs like the Second Bank of the United States.
Election of 1820
James Monroe - unopposed
During James Monroe's first term, the country had suffered an economic depression. In addition, the extension of slavery into the territories became a political issue when Missouri sought admission as a slave state. Also causing controversy were Supreme Court decisions in the Dartmouth College case and McCulloch v. Maryland, which expanded the power of Congress and of private corporations at the expense of the states. But despite these problems, Monroe faced no organized opposition for reelection in 1820, and the opposition party, the Federalists, ceased to exist.
Voters, as John Randolph put it, displayed "the unanimity of indifference, and not of approbation." Monroe won by an electoral vote of 231-1. William Plumer of New Hampshire, the one elector who voted against Monroe, did so be-cause he thought Monroe was incompetent. He cast his ballot for John Quincy Adams. Later in the century, the fable arose that Plumer had cast his dissenting vote so that only George Washington would have the honor of unanimous election. Plumer never mentioned Washington in his speech explaining his vote to the other New Hampshire electors.
Election of 1824
John Quincy Adams vs. Henry Clay vs. Andrew Jackson vs. William Crawford
The Republican party broke apart in the 1824 election. A large majority of the states now chose electors by popular vote, and the people's vote was considered sufficiently important to record. The nomination of candidates by congressional caucus was discredited. Groups in each state nominated candidates for the presidency, resulting in a multiplicity of favorite-son candidacies.
By the fall of 1824 four candidates remained in the running. William Crawford of Georgia, the secretary of the treasury, had been the early front-runner, but severe illness hampered his candidacy. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts had a brilliant record of government service, but his Federalist background, his cosmopolitanism, and his cold New England manner cost him support outside his own region. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, who owed his popularity to his 1815 victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans, were the other candidates.
With four candidates, none received a majority. Jackson received 99 electoral votes with 152,901 popular votes (42.34 percent); Adams, 84 electoral votes with 114,023 popular votes (31.57 percent); Crawford, 41 electoral votes and 47,217 popular votes (13.08 percent); and Clay, 37 electoral votes and 46,979 popular votes (13.01 percent). The choice of president therefore fell to the House of Representatives. Many politicians assumed that House Speaker Henry Clay had the power to choose the next president but not to elect himself. Clay threw his support to Adams, who was then elected. When Adams subsequently named Clay secretary of state, the Jacksonians charged that the two men had made a "corrupt bargain."
John C. Calhoun was chosen vice president by the electoral college with a majority of 182 votes.
Election of 1828
Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams
Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1828 by a landslide, receiving a record 647,292 popular votes (56 percent) to 507,730 (44 percent) for the incumbent John Quincy Adams. John C. Calhoun won the vice presidency with 171 electoral votes to 83 for Richard Rush and 7 for William Smith.
The emergence of two parties promoted popular interest in the election. Jackson's party, sometimes called the Democratic-Republicans or simply Democrats, developed the first sophisticated national network of party organizations. Local party groups sponsored parades, barbecues, tree plantings, and other popular events designed to promote Jackson and the local slate. The National-Republicans, the party of Adams and Henry Clay, lacked the local organizations of the Democrats, but they did have a clear platform: high tariffs, federal funding of roads, canals, and other internal improvements, aid to domestic manufactures, and development of cultural institutions.
The 1828 election campaign was one of the dirtiest in America's history. Both parties spread false and exaggerated rumors about the opposition. Jackson men charged that Adams obtained the presidency in 1824 through a "corrupt bargain" with Clay. And they painted the incumbent president as a decadent aristocrat, who had procured prostitutes for the czar while serving as U.S. minister to Russia and spent taxpayer money on "gambling" equipment for the White House (actually a chess set and a billiard table).
The National-Republicans portrayed Jackson as a violent frontier ruffian, the son, some said, of a prostitute married to a mulatto. When Jackson and his wife, Rachel, married, the couple believed that her first husband had obtained a divorce. After learning the divorce had not yet been made final, the couple held a second, valid wedding. Now the Adams men claimed Jackson was a bigamist and an adulterer. More justifiably, administration partisans questioned Jackson's sometimes violent discipline of the army in the War of 1812 and the brutality of his invasion of Florida in the Seminole War. Ironically, Secretary of State Adams had defended Jackson at the time of the Seminole War, taking advantage of Jackson's unauthorized incursion to obtain Florida for the United States from Spain.
Election of 1832
Andrew Jackson vs. Henry Clay vs. William Wirt
Democratic-Republican Andrew Jackson was reelected in 1832 with 688,242 popular votes (54.5 percent) to 473,462 (37.5 percent) for National-Republican Henry Clay and 101,051 (8 percent) for Anti-Masonic candidate William Wirt. Jackson easily carried the electoral college with 219 votes. Clay received only 49, and Wirt won the 7 votes of Vermont. Martin Van Buren won the vice presidency with 189 votes against 97 for various other candidates.
The spoils system of political patronage, the tariff, and federal funding of internal improvements were major issues, but the most important was Jackson's veto of the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. National-Republicans attacked the veto, arguing that the Bank was needed to maintain a stable currency and economy. "King Andrew's" veto, they asserted, was an abuse of executive power. In defense of Jackson's veto, Democratic-Republicans labeled the Bank an aristocratic institution--a "monster." Suspicious of banking and of paper money, Jacksonians opposed the Bank for giving special privileges to private investors at government expense and charged that it fostered British control of the American economy.
For the first time in American politics, a third party, the Anti-Masons, challenged the two major parties. Many politicians of note participated, including Thaddeus Stevens, William H. Seward, and Thurlow Weed. The Anti-Masonic party formed in reaction to the murder of William Morgan, a former upstate New York Freemason. Allegedly, some Masons murdered Morgan when he threatened to publish some of the order's secrets. The Anti-Masons protested Masonic secrecy. They feared a conspiracy to control American political institutions, a fear fed by the fact that both the major party candidates, Jackson and Clay, were prominent Masons.
The Anti-Masons convened the first national presidential nominating convention in Baltimore on September 26, 1831. The other parties soon followed suit, and the convention replaced the discredited caucus system of nomination.
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TR: An American Lion (PDF)
Jefferson is an insightful 2-hour presentation on HISTORY which examines his many identities and asks viewers to answer for themselves: who was the real Thomas Jefferson, and what is his most lasting legacy in our world today?