Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

The 1789 Election: United We Stood

The 1789 Election: United We Stood
George Washington

Author’s note: I’ll be away for most of the month of July. As such, I will not be able to follow the presidential race, to say nothing of writing about it. Therefore, before I left, I sent my editors a series of four columns. This series will take a brief look at each of the first four elections in presidential history. I have two goals with these columns. First, I’d like to chart the rise of presidential partisanship, from its nonexistence in 1789, to its conception in 1792, to its birth in 1796, and finally to its maturation in 1800. Second and similarly, I’d also like to show that partisan vitriol is nothing new; there was just as much in 1800 as there is in 2012. Without further ado, Part I of the four-part series.

“I have no ambition to govern men; no passion which would lead me to delight to ride in a storm.”

—Thomas Jefferson, 1796

Presidential candidates don’t say that anymore. At least, not in an election year. But Thomas Jefferson did.

How times have changed. In 1796, as the fledgling United States careened toward its first competitive presidential election, a presumptive nominee like Thomas Jefferson said he had “no ambition to govern”—an improbable sentiment in modern politics. Yet, Jefferson’s apathy epitomized early U.S. presidential candidates. As of 1796, when Jefferson delivered that quote, candidates were not yet desirous of that new title: “President of the United States of America.”[1] Indeed, maybe “candidates” is not even the best way to describe the contenders for that presidential seat.

Their passive disposition, of course, eventually evolved.[2] By 1800, Jefferson openly competed for the position of chief executive. Within a few decades, we’d see campaigning. Now candidates openly vie for the presidency, dedicating increasing time and treasure toward securing the office, as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney show us every day.

From our modern perspective, it’s incredible that the first presidential election, that of 1789, had no political parties nor the partisan bickering to which they are inextricably tied. To campaign for oneself, or to declare oneself as a candidate for any high office, was considered arrogant and unbecoming. It was understood that if a person was a desirable leader, then someone else would “nominate” him for the office. Supporters, never the candidates, would do the groundwork for the candidates’ campaigns.

And this was all well and good. The first election didn’t need parties or their bickering. It didn’t even need campaigning. In late-1780s America, there was never any question as to who the first President of the United States was going to be. In the Election of 1789, George Washington became the first and only president to garner unanimous support from the United States Electoral College.

In the earliest form of the presidential election process, outlined by Article Two, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College, most of which was not at all beholden to the voting public, was made up of 69 “electors,” each of whom would cast votes for two different men. Each state legislature determined how its electors were chosen. The more populous the state, the more electors given (determined by total number of U.S. House and Senate members). The American with a majority of electoral votes became president and the runner-up became vice-president.

Now, I call them “Americans” because “candidates” and “politicians” simply don’t work as labels in the first election. They never declared their candidacy. They never pushed their politics to be elected. These Americans were not pursuing an office. If called to do so, they would simply honor the civic duty of serving.

The nation’s first president best evidences this passivity. General George Washington made clear his reservations about serving in the new office. Shortly after the ratified constitution made provisions for a “chief executive”—a position created with Washington in mind—the country began courting its favorite general to fill it.[3] Alexander Hamilton, for example, sent letters to the reluctant general. In one reply, Washington wrote to Hamilton that he would “unfeignedly rejoice, in case the Electors, by giving their votes in favor of some other person, would save me from the dreaded Dilemma of being forced to accept or refuse.” Here is a remarkable contrast to modern politicians. The entire country clamored for a Washington presidency, yet Washington openly hoped the Electors would elect someone else.[4]

Ultimately, however, General Washington was perhaps the only man in America who did not want General Washington to be president, and he submitted. The nation was in such agreement that no campaigning was required. There was no political platform for the General, no promotion of his political ideology. Americans wanted Washington not because of his politics but because of his character and leadership. Because of who he was.

Unsurprisingly, Washington’s ultimate acquiescence was for a selfless reason. The newly ratified U.S. Constitution was by no means a document embraced or even respected by much of the country.[5] If, however, the great General Washington accepted, it would act as the ultimate stamp of validation. Multiple drafts from James Madison’s pen were not enough, nor were the painstaking months of debate and compromise from constitutional delegates.[6] What mattered most to the 3.8 million Americans was that Washington stamp of approval. By accepting the presidency, he gave it.

The first presidential election showed remarkable consensus. With Americans in lockstep behind Washington, the polls opened on December 8, 1788 and remained open until January 15, 1789.[7] It was, quite simply, a coronation. All 69 electors cast one of their two votes for the man from Mount Vernon, a statistical surprise to no one, and he won the first presidential election in United States history. Massachusetts’s John Adams amassed votes on 34 of those ballots—the plurality among the runners-up—and became the nation’s first vice-president.

It was the last presidential election without a hint of political partisanship.

See you next week for Part II: the Election of 1792.

[1] How new? Try seven years old. There were 12-year-olds who remembered the Articles of Confederation, America’s first attempt at national government.

[2] Or, perhaps, devolved.

[3] To this point, George Washington had been a successful Lt. Col. in the French & Indian War (156-1763), the victorious commander-in-chief of the colonies in the War of Independence (1775-1783), and then served as the president of 1787’s Constitutional Convention. If there ever were a president bred for the position, he was it.

[4] He’s like the Bizarro Newt Gingrich.

[5] To say nothing of Europe, whose attitude toward the U.S. at the time was one step above, “Oh, how cute!”

[6] It took from May to September of 1787 to hammer that bad boy out.

[7] The longest presidential election until Florida’s great chad epidemic of 2000.