Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800

By John Ferling | Go to book overview
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“A Narrow Squeak”
The First Contested
Presidential Election, 1796

UNTIL EARLY IN 1796, when he signaled to Madison that he might after all be willing to seek the presidency, Jefferson had insisted that he would never return to public life. Madison was unlikely to have been surprised by Jefferson's about-face. He knew Jefferson's horror of being seen as lusting after office, but he also knew his friend had changed his mind before about coming out of retirement. Furthermore, since the Jay Treaty, Jefferson's correspondence had evinced a rekindling of his old partisan fervor. But until Washington officially announced his intention to retire, Jefferson said nothing about the presidency, even though in the spring the congressional Republicans had already agreed to “push” him and Burr, while the Federalists in Congress caucused and endorsed Adams and Thomas Pinckney. 1

Adams was just as careful not to reveal an interest in the presidency, and for a time he struck a posture of indecision even while writing to Abigail. His family had claims on him, but so did the nation, he anguished. He found the prospect of becoming “the Butt of Party Malevolence” to be “bitter nauseous and unwholesome.” 2 Yet he must consider his character. His reputation would be destroyed if it was thought he had turned his back on the presidency at this critical juncture. Could he meet the physical challenges of the job? His health was better than it had been at any time during the past fifteen years, and he felt strong and


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