The Presidential Election of 1788–1789 and the First Electoral College

1788–1789

The Presidential Election of 1788–1789 was the first election for the office of President in United States history. George Washington was chosen by the Electoral College to be the First President of the United States.

George Washington, President, 1795, Stuart

This portrait of George Washington was painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1795. Image Source: Christie’s.

Election of 1789 Quick Facts

  • The Election of 1789 was the first Presidential Election in the United States.
  • Public voting was held from December 15, 1788, to Wednesday, January 7, 1789.
  • 10 of the 13 state legislatures selected electors to vote for President.
  • For various reasons, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island did not participate.
  • There were a total of 72 electors, but only 69 cast ballots.
  • Each elector wrote two names on their ballot before turning it in.
  • Under the rules of the Electoral College, the person whose name appeared on the most ballots was elected President and the runner-up was Vice President.
  • The electoral vote was certified on April 6.
  • George Washington’s name appeared on all 69 ballots, making him a unanimous selection.
  • John Adams was named on 34 ballots, which made him the first Vice President.
  • Washington became the first President of the “Virginia Dynasty.”

Election of 1789 Significance

The Election of 1789 was a landmark moment in United States history that saw the election of George Washington as the first President of the United States.

Overview of the Presidential Election of 1789

Following the ratification of the United States Constitution in June 1788, 11 of the 13 states moved on to the process of electing senators and congressmen to serve in the First Congress. 

In December 1788, Americans who were eligible to vote started casting their ballots for the new office of President of the United States. According to the new Constitution, the states were required to appoint electors — representatives — to the Electoral College, which was scheduled to meet on February 4, 1789.

George Washington was widely considered to be the front-runner to be elected as President. Other than Benjamin Franklin, Washington was likely the most famous American. Not only had he led the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, but he also presided over the 1787 Philadelphia Convention that produced the Constitution. He was also from Virginia, the largest state in the Union.

Washington’s strong leadership qualities and popularity made him an ideal candidate, and no one else was seriously considered for the office. However, Washington had retired to his home at Mount Vernon. To convince Washington to accept the position, Alexander Hamilton wrote to him and said, “…the point of light in which you stand at home and abroad will make an infinite difference in the respectability in which the government will begin its operations in the alternative of your being or not being the head of state.”

On February 4, 1789, electors from 10 states met to cast the votes for President. New York, Rhode Island, and North Carolina did not participate in the Electoral College. At the time, Rhode Island and North Carolina had not ratified the Constitution. New York was dealing with internal political struggles and failed to send electors.

Out of the 72 electors, 69 cast their votes, with each elector having two names written on their ballot. George Washington was the unanimous first choice on 69 ballots. Nearly half of the electors selected John Adams as their second choice, making him the vice president. The remaining votes were split among 10 other candidates.

Congress notified Washington that he had been selected, and on April 16 he departed from Mount Vernon. As he traveled to New York City, he was met with celebrations along the way in the towns and villages he passed through.

After arriving in New York City, Washington took the oath of office and was sworn in on April 30, 1789. The ceremony took place at Federal Hall and was administered by Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of New York.

Washington 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.”

Presidential Election of 1789, Washington Taking Oath of Office, NYPL
This illustration depicts Washington taking the oath of office. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Role of the Electoral College in the First Presidential Election

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution established the Electoral College as the body responsible for electing the president and vice president. Each state was allotted a specific number of electors based on the total number of senators and representatives in Congress.

During the voting process, each elector was required to select who they believed to be the two most qualified candidates. There was no distinction between the offices of president and vice president. The candidate with the highest number of votes, if a majority, became president, and the runner-up assumed the vice presidency.

In cases of a tie or plurality, any disputed election would be resolved by the House of Representatives, where each state would cast a single vote. The states had the responsibility of deciding how to select their electors. Some opted for popular elections, while others delegated this task to state legislatures.

The framers of the Constitution preferred the Electoral College system as a means of avoiding the direct election of the President and Vice President.

Over time, the original Electoral College system encountered problems and was modified.

Interesting Facts About the Presidential Election of 1789

  • The United States Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, and took effect on March 4, 1789.
  • The First Congress of the United States convened on March 4, 1789.
  • Washington was not officially affiliated with a political party, but he supported the Constitution and is often associated with Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Party.
  • Other candidates that aligned with the Federalist Party included John Jay (9 votes), John Rutledge (6 votes), John Hancock (4 votes), and Benjamin Lincoln (1 vote). 
  • George Clinton, an Anti-Federalist, earned 3 votes.
  • The Bible used during his first inauguration is known as the “George Washington Inaugural Bible.”
  • Upon completing the ceremony, Livingston shouted, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!” 

Presidential Election of 1789 APUSH Definition

The Presidential Election of 1789 for APUSH is defined as the first presidential election in the United States’ history and a crucial moment in the nation’s early development. It took place as the country transitioned from the Articles of Confederation to the newly ratified Constitution. George Washington, a widely respected military leader and statesman, was elected as the nation’s first President without significant opposition. This election set important precedents, establishing the peaceful transfer of power and the framework for future presidential elections. It was a critical step in the development of the young nation under its new Federal Government.

Presidential Election of 1789 APUSH Video

This video from Mr. Beat discussed the Presidential Election of 1789.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Presidential Election of 1788–1789 and the First Electoral College
  • Date 1788–1789
  • Author
  • Keywords Presidential Election of 1789, Electoral College, George Washington, John Adams
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 1, 2024

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