Back in 1789, America hadn’t quite figured out the hang of the presidential election just yet. This new ABCNews.com video explains.
“Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Benjamin Franklin said that when the Constitution was written back in 1787. But Franklin knew one other sure thing: the first man to become America’s president under the new Constitution was going to be George Washington.
Washington had presided over the Constitutional debates in Philadelphia in that steamy summer of 1787, rarely speaking to the issues. But as his fellow patriots worked in secret, inventing the American presidency, everyone in the room knew that when the time came, Washington was going to be First.
Hero of the American Revolution as commander of the Continental army, Washington was a born leader and the country’s most famous and admired man.
Modern American elections and who gets to vote are all settled matters today. But with the ink barely dry. the ratified Constitution said “Electors” would cast the votes. But who the electors were and how they were chosen was one big improvisation.
For starters, the election took place in 1789—the only Presidential election year to end in an odd number. There were no political parties. Or caucuses, primaries or conventions.
There was no campaign and no “ticket.” All of that would come later, as America took its first baby steps towards democracy. And there was no single election day. All of those details were left to the individual states, with an official deadline of January 7, 1789 for returning the results.
More curious still, our first national election involved only ten of the thirteen states: Rhode Island and North Carolina had not yet ratified the Constitution and couldn’t vote. And New York’s legislature couldn’t decide on how to appoint its allotment of Electors and missed the deadline.
The method of choosing those Electors who actually voted for the President was also left to the states. Six states used a popular vote, with the states deciding which citizens could actually cast a vote –in New Jersey, some women voted– though that didn’t last long. Four states chose their Electors in the state legislature. In the end, only about 1% of the population of about four million actually got to vote for President in 1789.
We know how it turned out. When the electoral votes were tallied, the decision was unanimous. George Washington was president. In second place was John Adams and under the original rules for selecting the presidency, he became the first vice president.
On April 14, 1789, Washington was formally notified of his election. Two days later, he left for New York City, then the nation’s temporary capital.
©2012 Kenneth C. Davis