by Tom Clavin
This month, 234 years ago, the first Electoral College voted to elect George Washington as president of the United States. Yes, the first presidential election was (or more accurately, began) in February, not November, and it was in an odd-number year, 1789. And it was the first and only time a candidate received all of the electoral votes—an event we can be reasonably sure will not occur again.
Beginning the previous December and for four weeks the presidential electors in each of the states were chosen. Then on February 4, 1789, the Electoral College was convened. Of the 13 original colonies, North Carolina and Rhode Island did not participate in choosing a president because they had not yet ratified the U.S. Constitution. The electors from the other 11 states got busy, ultimately choosing Washington without opposition.
That the vote was unanimous may have been a bit of a surprise, but that George Washington was elected certainly was not. He had served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, which in October 1781 had secured victory in the American Revolution by defeating the British at Yorktown. Six years later, Washington had served as president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. No one in America was more popular and commanded as much respect.
According to Article II of the Constitution, each member of the Electoral College had two votes to cast. A majority of votes was sufficient to win. The candidate with the second most votes in the Electoral College would be elected vice president. However, because every vote cast for president went to Washington, a separate vote was held.
Selected as vice president was John Adams, who had just served as the first U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. He received 34 votes. Being from Massachusetts, Adams’s election provided the new administration a regional balance between the South and North. Other candidates receiving multiple electoral votes were John Jay (9), Robert Harrison (6), John Rutledge (6), John Hancock (4), and George Clinton (3). Five candidates split the remaining votes.
Upon hearing the news of his decisive election, Washington set out from his home at Mount Vernon in Virginia to take his place in presidential history. Though filled with great anxiety, Washington reported for duty “in obedience to the public summons” and explained that “the voice of my Country called me.”
It was on April 30, at Federal Hall in New York City—which was at that time the capital of the United States—that Washington took the oath of office. With a hand on the Bible, which had been borrowed from a local Masonic lodge, the 57-year-old said, “I, George Washington, 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.”
Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of the State of New York, had administered the oath, and he then exclaimed, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!”
Washington would serve two terms as president, leaving office in March 1797. A note about that: In the months leading up to the presidential election the previous year, many people had begged Washington to run for a third term. Though he had by then more than a few detractors, he would have easily been elected again by the American people. However, Washington feared setting a precedent of a “president for life.” At 64 and with a variety of ailments, he considered the possibility of dying before a third term ended. So, he resisted the calls to continue and retired to Mount Vernon.
He was prescient. George Washington died at his home in December 1799, which would have been during his third term. John Adams was then president. Serving for no more than two terms as president would remain the standard until 1940, when President Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third term.
Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.
Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.