There’s a lot of discussion these days about the conclusion of U.S intelligence agencies that Russia’s government, led by Vladimir Putin, interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Though foreign intervention in a U.S. election is certainly unusual, it’s not unprecedented. In fact, a powerful foreign nation openly interfered in the very first contentious presidential election in our nation’s history, way back in 1796.
While George Washington had enjoyed virtually unanimous support in the first two U.S. presidential elections, things looked a lot different by 1796. Two competing parties, the Federalists and the Republicans, had emerged, and politics had gotten nasty. While Washington probably could have won a third term if he had chosen to run, he wasn’t the universally beloved figure he once was.
After the progress of the French Revolution led to war between Great Britain and France in 1793, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was among those who thought the United States should support France, its champion during the Revolutionary War. Instead, Washington sided with his pro-British Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, and others who argued that the United States should remain neutral in the conflict. Then he sent the pro-British Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain, in an attempt to preserve good relations between the two countries.
The Jay Treaty, ratified in 1795, enraged the French government, who saw it as a clear violation of the 1778 alliance between France and the United States. Convinced that the tide of American public opinion was in its favor, France decided to take action in order to bring about a change in presidential administrations—specifically, to replace the pro-British, Federalist Washington with the pro-French, Republican Jefferson. Pierre Auguste Adet, the French minister (ambassador) since 1795, and other French officials, began openly supporting the Republicans and attacking the Federalists whenever possible.
In September 1796, Washington announced he would not seek a third term as president. In his Farewell Address, much of which Hamilton wrote, Washington included a memorable warning against foreign entanglements, now considered a timeless piece of advice for future leaders. At the time, however, it was specifically aimed at France’s ongoing efforts to interfere in the election of Washington’s successor.
In response, the French government only stepped up those efforts. In late October and November, Adet sent a series of carefully timed diplomatic notes to Timothy Pickering, Washington’s secretary of state. At the same time, he released the notes for publication in the Aurora, a Philadelphia newspaper. In these missives, Adet pleaded with the American people to reject the Jay Treaty and renew the alliance with France. He then announced that France was suspending relations with the United States, and implied that only Jefferson’s election as president might prevent war between the two countries.
Adet’s belief that such interference would help France didn’t come out of nowhere—Jefferson himself had assured the minister a year earlier that France did indeed have friends in America. As the U.S. minister in Paris in 1796, James Monroe had also hinted to French officials that relations between the two countries would improve if Republicans were to win the presidential election.
In the end, however, there’s little evidence Adet’s interference helped Jefferson, apart from a few votes from Pennsylvania Quakers motivated by threats of a war with France. In fact, the minister’s actions mostly hurt the Republicans, making them seem like pawns of a foreign government. James Madison wrote to Jefferson in December 1796 (just before electors cast their ballots) that Adet’s scheme was “working all the evil with which it is pregnant” and threatened to create “a perpetual alienation” of France and the United States. In early February 1797, the election results came in: Federalist John Adams won the presidency by a narrow margin, and Jefferson became vice president, in a bitterly divided administration.
Some 220 years later, as the United States confronts the intervention of another foreign power in another presidential election, it seems fitting to remember Washington’s warning in his farewell address: “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence, (I conjure you to believe me fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake; since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government.”