Once Washington was gone, politicians wasted no time in replacing his sense of neutrality and objectivity with partisan drama. This devolution was sadly spearheaded by members of Washington’s own cabinet:
The rivalry that developed between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams can largely be credited to the emergence of the political party system that now dominates America. The culmination of America’s transformation into a two-party state can be clearly observed through the elections of 1796 and 1800. The first of these two elections occurred at the end of Washington’s tenure as president and formally pitted Adams and Jefferson against each other on the world stage. The aftermath of this confrontation produced the culture of nasty, ruthless partisanship that is all too familiar to modern-day Americans.
The election of 1796 was merely the first time average Americans witnessed partisan divides on a national level, however, the seeds for these newly emerging political parties were planted during the Washington Administration, within his cabinet. Regardless of the fact that Washington had won two national elections unanimously, without party affiliation, the contrasting beliefs among his cabinet ministers soon sparked a deadly fire that’s still burning. And with the absence of Washington and his neutral perspective, the two sides engaged in a full-scale war over the American presidency. The divides that contributed to this dissolution of unity mostly concerned fiscal policies, the interpretation of the constitution, and the size of the federal government. The Federalists favored a strong central government and a loose interpretation of the constitution, while the Democratic-Republicans were strict constitutionalists who demanded states’ rights be valued over federal interests.
When Washington’s time as president was nearing a close, the two factions wasted no time choosing their candidates for the upcoming election. Both sides used informal and sometimes secretive caucuses to select their partisan candidates. This was actually the country’s first nomination process now that the political parties were in full swing. The Federalists nominated Vice President John Adams while the Democratic-Republicans nominated Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Adams won a narrow victory with 71 electoral votes to Jefferson’s 68 votes. However, since the constitution had not yet adapted to the addition of political parties, the candidate who came in second place for president was automatically elected vice president (this practice was soon fixed by the 12th Amendment that was adopted in 1804). So, for the first and only time in American history, the formally elected president and VP came from differing political parties. It is also worth pointing out that Jefferson won most states from the south and western frontier, while Adams derived most of his support from the northeast – this displayed the first instance of political parties dominating different regions of the nation.
After the election was over and the smoke had cleared, Adams approached Jefferson and asked him to join forces in bipartisan support to govern the country. Jefferson, who was strongly against Adams’ entirely Federalist cabinet, refused. He saw himself as the leader of the opposition and that working with the enemy on policy decisions would hurt his standing as party leader. We often think that we are living in truly extraordinary times, but in reality, the trials and tribulations that we as a nation face today, have been circling our government since it’s inception. This decision by Jefferson was nothing more than a bold demonstration of political theatre and petty partisanship which created a precedent that still defines the status quo of modern American politics.
Jefferson and Adam’s rivalry set the stage for current congressmen, senators, and political officials alike to put the preservation of their party above the well-being of the nation. Without any assistance or guidance from his old friend, Adams decided to largely ignore his cabinet and strictly rely on his wife, Abigail, and family for counsel. Adams’ decision to alienate himself from his cabinet proved to be fatal. He was ultimately sent into a downward spiral that greatly affected him mentally and ended up tipping the scales in Jefferson’s favor during the election of 1800. Nevertheless, Adams arguments with his cabinet displayed his growing animosity toward political parties and resistance to being totally consumed by partisanship. These character traits were precisely why later in life Adams was able to rekindle his old friendship with Jefferson, who both ended up dying on the same day: July 4th, 1826.