1788/1789 – GEORGE WASHINGTON VS NOT REALLY ANYONE! (plus a bunch of dudes fighting for 2nd place)

Alright, time for the first presidential election under the Constitution! Washington wins unanimously! Done!

This blog stuff is easy!

…ok fine, I’ll go into more detail.

The Last Four Years

Before he was president of the United States, George Washington was president of the Constitutional Convention. He guided the rest of the founders as they debated the structure of the Constitution, rarely intervening. Washington was a popular guy. He was a natural leader (won the Revolution!) and was famously nonpartisan. This cemented Washington’s role as the moderator of the Constitutional movement.

At the end of the summer of 1788, after 11 of 13 states had ratified the Constitution, the Congress of the Confederation decided it was time to move forward with the new government. States began choosing their electors on December 15th. Some were chosen through votes from the people (aka white, male land-owners), though others were chosen by state legislatures. As I mentioned in my last post, North Carolina and Rhode Island were not cool enough to ratify the Constitution in time for the election and didn’t get to send electors. Even more embarrassing, New York state, although it had completed ratification, wasn’t able to choose its electors in time, meaning it also didn’t vote! I didn’t want to get too distracted by this, but I want to research this more later because… what the hell, New York?!

Major Issues

There was really only one main issue at this time, but admittedly, it’s a doozy: Should this government exist? Just because all the cool kids created the Constitution, doesn’t mean that everyone supported giving more power to the federal government. At this point, it was pretty obvious that the Anti-Federalists were going to lose the “let’s not form this government” fight, but what they could do was weaken it, or at least distribute more of its power. This idea was forming into the Bill of Rights, which would ensure the people and the states would be protected from an overbearing federal government.

Party Watch

So, despite the Federalists and Anti-Federalist factions, there aren’t actually organized political parties yet. Thus, there were no primaries! Everyone knew Washington was the favorite to win. While he certainly would not have called himself a Federalist (not a big label guy), he disliked the Articles of Confederation and generally believed in giving the federal government more things to do. In any case, he was well-liked from both sides of the loose-faction aisle. That meant the real contest was for the vice presidency.

Elections were run a little differently back in the beginning of America (coming soon: the 12th Amendment!). Each elector had two votes to give out. The vice presidency was awarded to the second-place finisher, regardless of “faction” affiliation. There were no party tickets because there were no parties! But there was one catch, electors could not cast both votes for candidates from their own state.

Hamilton and other Federalists decided to put their support behind John Adams. Since Adams was from Massachusetts, his home state would not conflict with Washington’s Virginia and would provide a north/south balance.


Time for the campaigning to begin! Washington started by hitting up local diners in Iowa. Just kidding! Campaigns, diners, and Iowa are crazy future-words that would surely melt the brains of any eighteenth-century citizen trying to comprehend them!

Washington spent the time between the Constitutional Convention and the presidential election just chilling at Mount Vernon. What made Washington so perfect was that he didn’t really want the job, even though he possessed the perfect qualities to have it. Several other Founding Fathers wrote him letting him know that they were voting for him, whether he liked it or not. He wrote back explaining time and time again that he really didn’t want this, but that only made them vote for him harder. Eventually, he learned to accept his fate.

Election Day

Pictured: States in black are being shamed for not providing electors. Also pictured: looooong southern states and hunchback New York.

The electors cast their votes in February of 1789. Unsurprisingly, Washington received unanimous votes from each elector’s first ballot. This guy WAS America! He won 69 total votes. Nice!

Back in the VP race, the Federalists had stacked the deck. Nine Federalists received votes, but there was one clear winner. John Adams earned 34 votes. Third place John Jay received 9 votes. And the top Anti-Federalist candidate, George Clinton, won a whooping 3 votes!


Pictured: Not the real winner. This is 2nd place finisher, John Adams.

The 1st Congress dragged Washington into the White House Executive Branch and handcuffed him to the desk until he led them.

Federalist John Adams won huge amounts of power by becoming the VP with the power to… break ties in the Senate. Ok, that job is kind of boring.

What Did It Say About America?

America has always been divided. But as confident as both sides were, what they really wanted was a strong, fair leader. Washington was the man. He wasn’t in it for personal gain or to push an agenda. His victory was evidence that the new system worked.

Was It The Right Decision?

Hell yeah. And everyone knew it, except maybe Washington himself, but that’s why he was the best choice! Giving so much authority to one person at the head of the executive branch was risky, but Washington was the right guy to start setting presidential precedents.

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