What If Adams and Jefferson Did Attack Ads?

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Part 1 of a series. See complete list of series here.

This spring, a small cadre of Williams College students is participating in an experimental history course on the American Presidents. Instead of producing papers, as is the norm in most history classes, the students will create video campaign ads for the presidential elections from Washington to Lincoln. 

There’s a catch, though. The students can only use images, quotes, documents, and music from the era. They cannot use anything that came afterwards. An image of the White House burning in 1812 would not work for the election of 1808. They cannot use images of Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, a product more reflective of the 1840s than the 1770s. Their assignment is to capture the spirit of the age – not the spirit of our historical memory.  

For each video, the students must do as much research (if not more) than they would for a paper in which they were to describe the issues of each election. The video assignment is, on some level, the same as a traditional paper. They have to take a side in the election and argue their point of view from the evidence. Now, however, they must express their conclusions in a new form. These videos will provide windows into past political worlds. We hope to leverage technology to reach a wider audience, and, perhaps, to spark conversations about American history and electoral politics outside of our classroom.  

RealClearHistory has agreed to partner with our class. Every week or so, RealClearHistory will display the best videos the students produce.  

We’ve begun with John Adams’ 1796 election and we will continue to Abraham Lincoln, stopping at all the major, transformative elections. I invite you to follow along as we move through time. Each video comes with a detailed explanation of its content and the creative thinking that went into producing it. We encourage comments on the videos and hope you enjoy.

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1796: Adams vs. Jefferson

Round 1

George Washington’s resignation created the first contested election under the new Constitutional framework. Two competing parties, the Federalists and the Republicans, had formed during Washington’s second term. Now, with Washington’s announced departure, both parties vied for control of this office.  The videos below capture what was at stake in 1796.  

At its core, the two parties held two very different visions for America, though they came to these contrasting views by trying to answer a common question: what did American independence mean? The Federalists, the party of Washington and Alexander Hamilton, advocated a nationalist agenda at home and neutrality abroad. Under Washington, they had stabilized the securities market through the nationalization of state debts. They believed that America’s dependence on agriculture and commodity exportation frustrated the nation’s economic independence, so they tried to diversify the American economy.

Federalists tried to spur this modernization by developing new manufacturing capabilities within the nation. A manufacturing base, working in conjunction with America’s traditional agrarian economy, would end American reliance on imported European manufactured goods and insulate the country from the instabilities of European markets. In time, as these infant industries matured, Federalists believed that America would achieve its economic independence and assume an important position on the world stage. They nominated John Adams, Washington’s Vice President and heir apparent, as their lead candidate, with Thomas Pinckney as their Vice President. In 1796, Adams ran on a platform that accentuated his service to the country, especially during the Revolution, and linked him to Washington’s administration.  

Republicans, the party of Jefferson and Madison, stood opposite them. Independence for Republicans was more individual than it was national. They saw the growth of the federal government under the Federalists as an invasion of liberty and a betrayal of the principles of the American Revolution. The assumption of state debts undermined the sovereignty of states, and Federalist economic policies would only breed a society of dependence. Federalists, they argued, wanted to model America’s economy off of Great Britain’s economy, the nation whose values the country had just rejected.  

Republicans even claimed that some Federalists – and especially John Adams – were closet-monarchists who yearned to recreate the aristocracy and hereditary rule imbedded in Great Britain’s society. Federalist policies would create an economy based on wage labor, urbanization, high finance, and manufacturing. These, they said, would not foster independence. Instead, they would establish dependency, licentiousness, and social hierarchies. Agriculture, they maintained, was the only sure way to maintain individual liberty. The small, autonomous yeoman farmer who tilled his own ground for sustenance did not have to worry about debt, the vicissitudes of markets, or become dependent on wealthy superiors.  Jefferson provided the intellectual foundation of this vision, and he was their nominee in 1796.

(Adams and Jefferson campaign ads videos on Page 2)


Scott Fyall’s video, “Unfit to Lead,” nicely captures the Republican’s fear of creeping monarchy and aristocracy. He argues that Adams is, in fact, a monarchist and questions Adams’ loyalties during the American Revolution. His use of images and cartoons alongside quotes are intended to link Adams to loyalism. To read Scott’s explanation of his video, click here.

Rusty Cowher’s video “Vote Against Tyranny and Monarchy” continues this theme, though he takes a slightly more positive tone. He aims to challenge Adams' revolutionary pedigree by linking Jefferson to the Revolution, arguing, in effect, that Thomas Jefferson is a better exemplar of the American Revolution. Rusty uses some nice video effects to convey this sentiment. He also uses some choice quotes from Abigail and John Adams. To read an explanation of his video, click here.

Cooper Zelnick’s video disputes almost everything that Rusty argued. Jefferson, he says, is unworthy of the office. He deserted the American cause when they needed him most, once as governor of Virginia during the American Revolution, and later as Secretary of State under Washington. Jefferson does not embody the Union, but instead leads a small faction that has upset national tranquility. He is so blindingly devoted to the French Revolution that he will blithely support their cause, so much so that the United States will become a puppet state of the French. His video shows incredible research, including the discovery of Jefferson’s home in Paris. You can read about all the hidden details in his video here.

Nicole Smith’s video, “Continue the Spirit of the Revolution,” argues for Adams election. Her video expresses the common themes the Federalists used to advocate for Adams. First, she argues that Adams, not Jefferson, embodied the spirit of the American Revolution. She also notes that Adams, as Vice President who performed his duty well, is the proper successor to Washington. Finally, she ends on the Federalist ideal of national union, a central theme in Washington’s Farewell Address. Federalists argued that Jefferson and his supporters supported illegitimate factions. Adams, she implies, does not. You can read her explanations here.

Adams carried the day, though not resoundingly. His support was strongest in the Northeast. Even there, some Federalists, including Alexander Hamilton, felt underwhelmed by Adams, questioning his true commitment to Federalist policies. A lack of support for Adams in the South, notably South Carolina where Edward Rutledge tried to manipulate the Electoral College in a way that would give the presidency to their local son Thomas Pinckney, led to the awkward election of Thomas Jefferson as Vice President. This arrangement lasted only four years, when Adams and Jefferson squared off again. We’ll travel to that election in the next installment.

Patrick Spero is Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and History at Williams College. He may be reached at patrick.k.spero@williams.edu.

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