is a professor and history department chair at La Salle University
It has become commonplace to describe the 2016 presidential election as "unprecedented." During the campaign, many of the candidates themselves employed this term, and CNN has even used the word as the title for its book about the election.
One of the many aspects of the contest that has been cited as unprecedented is the attempt by a foreign power to influence the outcome. While several features of the canvass were indeed unprecedented, foreign intervention is not one of them. Indeed, foreign intervention in a U.S. presidential election is almost as old as the republic itself.
In 1795, the revolutionary French Republic became enraged when Federalist President George Washington signed the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. The United States had, it seemed, allied itself with monarchical Britain in its war against France, America's sister republic, which had done so much to help the United States win its independence from England.
In Paris, Charles Delacroix, the French Directory's foreign minister, wrote that France "must raise up the [American] people and at the same time conceal the lever by which we do so. . . . I propose . . . to send orders and instructions to our minister plenipotentiary at Philadelphia to use all means in his power to bring about a successful revolution, and Washington's replacement."
With the full support of his home government, the French minister (ambassador) to the United States, Pierre Auguste Adet, attempted to force a change in U.S. foreign policy by forcing a change in presidential administrations. In the fall of 1796, Adet issued a series of public statements in Philadelphia's Aurora newspaper warning that unless the pro-French Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson defeated pro-British Federalist John Adams in the presidential election, the result would be war between the United States and France.
Anticipation of French interference in the 1796 election provided the context for Washington's famous Farewell Address. A written address issued from Washington's executive mansion on High Street (today Market Street) and printed in David C. Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser, the Farewell is often interpreted as a timeless warning against foreign entanglements. While Washington's advice is indeed timeless, the Farewell aimed to thwart the French minister's attempt to influence the outcome of the election.
Washington admonished Americans always to place the national interest first, ahead of partisan politics and foreign intrigue. "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," Washington wrote. "Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another, cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other."
There are many differences between the French attempt to influence the 1796 election and Russia's meddling in 2016.
In 1796, the United States was an insignificant nation. Today it is the world's leading superpower. While immensely powerful, Russia is not as globally dominant today as France was in 1796. Russia is currently engaged in hostilities in the Middle East, but it is not waging the sort of existential battle that France was engaged in with Great Britain in the 1790s.
Most important, France's desired candidate, Jefferson, lost the election, while Donald Trump, Russia's favorite, won. (Adet's machinations may have flipped a few votes in Jefferson's favor among the Quakers of Pennsylvania, but there is no evidence that it had an impact on the vote in any other state. On the contrary, France's meddling probably cost Jefferson more votes than it gained.)
But there is one all-important similarity between 1796 and 2016: A foreign power sought to advance itself by promoting one candidate and by sowing domestic dissension among Americans.
Many U.S. citizens of both parties expressed outrage over France's meddling. Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, for example, hoped "that we would banish all party distinctions and foreign influence; and think and act only as Americans." Republican James Madison described Adet's behavior as "working all the evil with which it is pregnant," and feared it would cause "a perpetual alienation" between the United States and France.
Washington's Farewell, while issued in the specific historical context of 1796, nevertheless offers wise counsel that Americans today should heed. As he said, "The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave . . . to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest."