george washington

Today is an interesting anniversary in history. Exactly two and a quarter centuries ago, on February 4, 1789, the United States of America held its first Presidential election. The date may seem strange for a number of reasons, and the election of 1789 was unique in many ways. Not only was it the very first, but it was the only election held in an odd-numbered year (or one not divisible by four), the only one not held in November, and one of only two in which there was only one candidate. That candidate was of course George Washington, and 1789 was the first of his two unanimous elections as President, with no electors casting any votes against him.

What happened on that day 225 years ago was this: a bunch of politicians, known in Constitutional parlance as “electors,” were supposed to meet in the capitals of the various states–there were only 13 at that time–to officially cast their ballots for President and Vice-President. This makes it sound formal and organized. In fact it wasn’t. Most of them did in fact meet on February 4 and take a vote, but the process was far from uniform. The “electors,” specified by Article II of the Constitution, were chosen mostly by state legislatures in ad hoc fashion. Three of the 13 states chose no electors at all. North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the new Constitution, and thus couldn’t participate; New York missed its chance to choose electors because its state legislature couldn’t agree on how to do it before January 7, which was the deadline. Thus, only ten states participated, and of those, seven chose their electors by state legislature. In only four states–Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia–did any common person anywhere even have the chance to mark a ballot for President of the United States.

Even in those states an election–by that I mean, an actual vote where real people go to the polls, which in 1789 were mostly taverns–was utterly pointless. Everyone knew Washington would be elected, and none of the “electors” wanted to be on record as having voted against him. Washington had served as President of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 when the document was drawn up in Philadelphia. He said almost nothing during the debates, but the expectation that he would be the first U.S. President was, in part, what moved the fractious delegates toward the compromise on Article II that eventually gave us the office. If he hadn’t been there, staring down his imperious nose at the white-wigged guys in Independence Hall, the very office of President might have turned out differently.

samuel huntington

Samuel Huntington, signer of the Constitution and Governor of Connecticut, received two votes for Vice-President. He was overwhelmingly defeated by John Adams.

Because of this expectation, Washington did not campaign. He didn’t need to. He didn’t shake a single hand, kiss a single baby or make so much as one campaign promise. In fact he was home at Mt. Vernon and probably passed the whole day of February 4, 1789 without ever knowing that he was elected president. There were no political parties then either. Thus in 1789 we were spared the modern vagaries of conventions, platforms, barrels of hard cider, “47%” videos or debate zingers that we’ve come to know and loathe–er, I mean love–in the 225 years since George got the nod.

The only real contest in 1789 was who would be Vice-President. Can you imagine a Presidential election in which that’s the only question? At this time, prior to 1804, the Vice-President was the runner-up in the electoral voting. Each elector technically had two votes. Everyone used their first vote for Washington, hence the unanimous acclaim. The second vote was more contentious. John Adams got the most, 34 out of 69 cast, with the other electors casting their second ballots for a scattering of also-rans, such as the illustrious Samuel Huntington. Adams thus emerged “victorious” as the first Vice-President, and of course he would go on to be Washington’s successor.

With as much array as the newly-formed government was in during the early months of 1789, it’s miraculous that they managed to have a Presidential election at all. But if you lived in the United States and happened to blink, you would have missed it. In our modern political system Presidential elections last years from the time the first candidate declares to the fireworks over their home city on election night. It’s hard to imagine one that, like this one, was pretty much an afterthought, despite its momentous consequences.