1789: George Washington And The First Presidential Election Under The New Constitution – Guest Essayist: James D. Best
The First Presidential Campaign—George Washington, 1788-89
George Washington won the first presidency under the newly established Constitution. He ran unopposed, professed not to want the job, remained for the most part at Mount Vernon, and yet won unanimously. Many believe he never campaigned, but instead acquiesced to a call to duty from his countrymen. Perhaps it was not so simple.
People think of Washington as a man of honor who won a war through strength of character and perseverance, and as a president who didn’t cling to power. From our perspective in time, he appears etched-in-marble and stiff as a board. Washington was tall, stately, reserved, and preoccupied with his reputation, but he also loved to dance, play cards, socialize over meals, and attend the theater. He was a superb horseman, ran his plantation with a sharp eye for profit, and attended church regularly. Washington was a vibrant, athletic man who wanted most of all to be loved by his countrymen.
Washington was the preeminent politician of his age and maintained good relationships with all the significant people in the country. To say he didn’t campaign for the presidency is to ignore decades of relentless politicking. (When Dwight Eisenhower was told he was not a politician, he replied that no one could become General of the Army without being a politician.) Washington bragged he never ate alone, made sure he was a central figure in all the founding events, collected a cadre of bright and capable people, and understood branding well before Madison Avenue had a clue.
The timing for this first election was tight. The Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, ratified on June 21, 1788, the election ran from December 15, 1788 to January 10, 1789, and on April 16, 1789 Washington left Mount Vernon to take the oath of office on April 30th. In the age of carriage travel and horse delivered mail, this allowed only six months to install an entirely new government infrastructure.
The Constitution declares that the states determine how delegates are chosen for the Electoral College. Although the Framers assumed the states would allow popular election, initially state legislatures chose most of the electors. This made it immeasurably easier for the Washington. Relying on state legislators eliminated any risk that his carefully crafted reputation might be tarnished in a general campaign.
It’s not surprising that Washington ran unopposed. People with national renown were rare. Only Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Jay, and Adams had held significant positions representing all of the states. Most political figures felt a weak allegiance to the national government and thought of themselves as more attached to their respective states.
Before the 12th Amendment, states had two votes for each of their representatives in Congress. Indicative of Washington’s behind-the-scene management style, Alexander Hamilton coordinated Electoral College voting so that the votes were not evenly split between Washington and Adams. A faithful supporter of Washington, Hamilton probably also worked to insure a unanimous election.
On April 30th, a Congressional Welcoming Committee accompanied Washington to the inauguration at Federal Hall on the corner of Wall and Broad Streets in New York City. In a departure from his normal dress that usually displayed a hint of a military uniform, Washington greeted the committee dressed in a dark brown coat with brass buttons decorated with spread-wing eagles, brown waistcoat and breeches, white silk stockings, and shoes with simple silver buckles. The powdered hair and dress sword set off his otherwise modest attire. Washington had insisted that every article be made from American cloth.
Despite being elected unanimously, he had spent the prior week visiting every member of congress and others with influence. It was common knowledge that Washington would appoint Alexander Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury and Thomas Jefferson Secretary of State. James Wilson and John Rutledge would get seats on the Supreme Court, and Edmund Randolph was to be Attorney General. All of these appointments helped his election.
At Federal Hall, a great shout went up from the spectators when Washington appeared on the portico. People packed every window, balcony, and rooftop. On a small red-draped table, a Bible rested on a crimson velvet cushion. Robert R. Livingston, the presiding judge of New York’s highest court gave the oath. Repeating after Livingston, Washington took the thirty-five-word oath prescribed by the Constitution, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Washington then added four more words, “so help me God,” and leaned over to kiss the Bible.
“It’s done,” Livingston said. He turned to the spectators and shouted, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States.”
The crowd immediately took up the cry and then shifted to wild cheers and huzzahs. A flag was raised on the cupola and thirteen cannons went off at The Battery. Church bells tolled in every steeple in the city. The United States had just witnessed a peaceful transition to an entirely new government and had inaugurated its first elected chief executive.