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The First Presidential Election and Other Firsts

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The first presidential election was 225 years ago today. Although it was not democratic, it was a first in human history.

Most people think presidential elections are held on the first Tuesday in November. Constitutionally speaking, they’re not.

Instead, these days, the law specifies they be held on the first Monday following the second Wednesday in December, when the members of the Electoral College, who were the ones actually elected on the first Tuesday in November, meet in their respective state capitals and cast their votes.

For the first presidential election, the day set for the electors to meet was January 7, 1789—225 years ago today.

Under the Articles of Confederation, there had been no president of the country, just a president of the Congress, and no independent executive branch of government. But the Articles had been a dismal failure, as the federal government did not have nearly enough power to perform its functions. It did not even have the power to tax. Instead it had to requisition money from the various states, which didn’t always pay up.

In hopes of improving the federal government’s operation, delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in May 1787, and, after a long, hot summer, produced a new Constitution, which was signed on September 17. It was sent to the Confederation Congress, which then sent it to the states for ratification.

Delaware ratified it first, on December 7, 1787. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth ratifying state, enough to bring the Constitution into effect among those states.

George Washington is the only person to have been unanimously elected president.

Four days later, Virginia became the 10th state and on July 26, New York became the eleventh. North Carolina had refused to ratify it without amendments, and in Rhode Island a popular referendum had turned it down. (Rhode Island would be the last of the 13 original states to join the union, and not until May 29, 1790, more than a year into George Washington’s presidency.)

With the Constitution in operation, there was no question who would become the nation’s first president. George Washington was, and remains, a national hero like no other. He is the only person to have been unanimously elected president (although Franklin D. Roosevelt came pretty close in 1936, at 523 to 8, as did Ronald Reagan in 1984, at 525 to 13).

The question was who would be vice president. There were a total of nine men, including John Adams, John Jay, and John Hancock, who received votes that day. Adams received by far the most votes, with 34. Jay was second with a mere nine.

The first presidential election bore little resemblance to modern ones. For one thing, there were no political parties and no campaigning. Two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, could not participate as they had not ratified the Constitution. And New York, its legislature deadlocked, did not appoint electors in time to vote on January 7.

Only 1.3 percent of the total population—38,818 people—cast ballots in the first presidential election.

And only six states had any popular participation at all. In the other four, the state legislatures chose the electors.

Even in the states that had popular participation, the turnout was minuscule. Those states had, in the 1790 census, a total population of 3 million. But 600,000 of those were slaves. Half of the remainder, being women, could not vote either. Even among white males, property qualifications disenfranchised most of them. Indeed, only 1.3 percent of the total population—38,818 people—cast ballots in the first presidential election.

So that election cannot be called a democratic one. But it was a big step towards the modern world nonetheless. For the first time in human history a head of state and chief executive officer of a government larger than a city-state had achieved office not by inheritance, appointment, or the sword, but by election.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes “‘A Few Appropriate Remarks’,” “Obama, Johnson, and Congress,” and “The Scariest Day of My Life.” Michael Barone contributes, “The Almanac of American Politics: Breaking Down the 2012 Election,” “The Enduring Character of Democrats and Republicans in Times of Political Change,” and “States Aren’t Red and Blue Forever.”


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group.

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