The First Presidential Contest: The Election of 1796 and the Beginnings of American Democracy

2014 Mount Vernon George Washington Book Prize Finalist

This is the first study in half a century to focus on the election of 1796. At first glance, the first presidential contest looks unfamiliar—parties were frowned upon, there was no national vote, and the candidates did not even participate (the political mores of the day forbade it). Yet for all that, Jeffrey L. Pasley contends, the election of 1796 was “absolutely seminal,” setting the stage for all of American politics to follow.

Challenging much of the conventional understanding of this election, Pasley argues that Federalist and Democratic-Republican were deeply meaningful categories for politicians and citizens of the 1790s, even if the names could be inconsistent and the institutional presence lacking. He treats the 1796 election as a rough draft of the democratic presidential campaigns that came later rather than as the personal squabble depicted by other historians. It set the geographic pattern of New England competing with the South at the two extremes of American politics, and it established the basic ideological dynamic of a liberal, rights-spreading American left arrayed against a conservative, society-protecting right, each with its own competing model of leadership.

“Vivid and precise, compelling and even funny, this is political history as it needs to be written, as its best practitioners are writing it today. The election year narrative may never be the same—just better for Pasley’s patient unpacking of where it all began. Neither students nor fans of the presidency, of democracy, or of the founding should miss it.” —David Waldstreicher, author of Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification and Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution

“Rich in lively characters, fiery rhetoric, dark intrigue, and cunning spin, the presidential election of 1796 helped to create American partisan politics on a national scale. With wry humor and a keen sense of political reality, both past and present, Pasley offers the closest and best examination of our Founders as politicians who slyly practiced what they piously preached against.” —Alan Taylor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of William Cooper’s Town


University Press of Kansas, American Presidential Elections Series, May 2013


Jeff Pasley is the Kinder Institute Chair of Early American History at the University of Missouri




The Cambridge History of America and the World, Vol. II (1820-1900)