By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS





Election Year: 1789

Election Day Date:

  • December 15, 1788 – January 10, 1789
  • Electors chosen first Wednesday in January 1789
  • Electors voted February 4, 1789
  • Senate ratified the election on April 6, 1789

Winning Ticket: 

President: George Washington (57, Episcopalian), Virginia, No Party, 69 85.2%

Vice-President: John Adams (53, Unitarian) Massachusetts, No Party, 34 42.0%

Losing Ticket(s):

  • John Adams, Massachusetts, No Party, (53, Unitarian)  34 42.0%
  • John Jay (44, Episcopalian) New York, No Party, 9 11.1%
  • Robert  H. Harrison (44,  )Maryland, No Party, 6 7.4%
  • John Rutledge (50, Episcopalian) South Carolina No Party 6 7.4%
  • Other – – 14 17.3% Electoral votes not cast – 24 29.6%

Electoral Vote: Winner:  69   Main Opponent:  34    Total/Majority:  69/35

  • Total Number of Electors 69
  • Total Electoral Votes Cast 138
  • Number of Votes for a Majority 35

Popular Vote:

  • Federalist electors 35,866 92.4%
  • Anti-Federalist electors 2,952 7.6%
  • Total 38,818 100.0%

Voter Turnout:

  • Less than 1.3% of the population voted, eligibility to vote depended on property ownership requirements.
  • Only 10 states participated in the election.
  • The New York legislature did not appoint the state’s electors in time to vote.
  • North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution, and could not appoint any electors.
  • Two of Maryland’s electors did not vote.
  • One Virginian elector did not vote, while one district did not submit returns in time to choose an elector.

Central Forums/Campaign Methods for Addressing Voters:

  • There was no formal campaign in 1788.
  • Candidates were to be passive and appear disinterested: The Presidency has “no fascinating allurements for me,” George Washington told friends.

Election Law/Campaign Finance Changes:

  • Each state would appoint by the legislature or popular vote several presidential electors (the Electoral College), who pledged to vote for particular candidates when the Electoral College convened. Diluting the popular vote for the Presidency was intended to preserve the nation’s virtue, and protect America from “mobocracy.”
  • Under Article II of the Constitution, each elector cast two ballots for President with the second one for Vice-President.
  • Alexander Hamilton schemed to ensure that John Adams would get fewer votes to be Vice President than Washington for President would. Hamilton worried about “that defect in the constitution which renders it possible that the man intended for Vice-President may, in fact, turn up President.”

Population: 1790 Census: 3,929,214; (2.4 million free population) (600,000 slaves)

Nominal GDP (billions of dollars): $0.19 Real GDP (billions of 2005 dollars): $4.03
GDP Deflator (index 2005=100%) 4.65 Population (in thousands): 3,929
Nominal GDP per capita (current dollars): $48 Real GDP per capita (year 2005 dollars): $1,025

Number of Daily Newspapers:

  • 1790: 70 weeklies; 10 semi- weeklies; 3 tri-weeklies; 8 dailies.

Method of Choosing Electors:

  • Direct (popular) vote (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia)
  • Public vote, but the legislature had the final decision (New Hampshire,  Massachusetts)
  • Selected by the legislature (Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, South Carolina)

Method of Choosing Nominees: N/A since there was no formal party system in place.

Central Issues (Nomination/Primaries): The Vice-Presidency was the only contested office in 1789.

Leading Candidates (Nomination/Primaries):

  • John Adams, Former Minister to Great Britain (Massachusetts)
  • James Armstrong, politician (Georgia)
  • George Clinton, Governor of New York
  • Robert H. Harrison, judge (Maryland)
  • John Hancock, Governor of Massachusetts and Former President of the Continental Congress
  • Samuel Huntington, Governor of Connecticut
  • John Jay, Secretary of Foreign Affairs (New York)
  • Benjamin Lincoln, Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts
  • John Milton, Secretary of State of Georgia
  • John Rutledge, Former Governor of South Carolina
  • Edward Telfair, Former Governor of Georgia
  • George Washington, retired Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army (Virginia)

Turning Points (Nomination/Primaries):

  • George Washington, the hero of the American Revolution was considered the obvious choice to be the first President.
  • In drafting the Constitution, the power entrusted to the President would not have “been so great had not many of the members cast their eyes toward General Washington as President; and shaped their Ideas of the Powers to be given to a President, by their opinions of his Virtue,” Pierce Butler, former delegate to the Constitutional Convention, in May,1788.
  • “You cannot refuse being elected President,” Marquis de Lafayette, among others, insisted to Washington.

General Election Controversies/Issues:

  • “Every public and personal consideration will demand from you an acquiescence in what will certainly be the unanimous wish of your country.” Alexander Hamilton to George Washington
  • “We cannot, Sir, do without you, and I and thousands more can explain to anyone but yourself why. . .” Former Governor of Maryland Thomas Johnson
  • The Anti-Federalist forces, opposed to the Constitution itself, try to get a Northern Anti-Federalist as Vice President, pushing Governor George Clinton of New York, and failed miserably.
  • In the two states where the popular vote chose electors, Pennsylvania and Maryland, there was some excitement, with rival electoral tickets, speeches, accusations of fraud.

Campaign Innovations (General Election):

  • Republican Virtue; the presidency was not to be sought or campaigned for.
  • The first presidential election went off quite smoothly, aside from some scuffles in Virginia.

Major Personalities (General Election): Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson

Campaign Tactics: Avoid “self-serving electioneering”

Turning Points (General Election):

Turning Points (General Election):

  • It was an uncontested election with General Washington the only candidate for president.
  • Partisanship emerged in the vice presidential choice. Federalists with Alexander Hamilton looking to deny John Adams the vice presidency ensured his vote count was lower because he doubted Adams loyalty to Washington. James Madison was also wary of Adams for the vice presidency. Anti-Federalists wanted Governor George Clinton of New York for the vice presidency.
  • None of the candidates gave a “manifesto” stating how they would govern if elected.
  • Counting the Electoral votes for the first election was delayed for weeks because a quorum could not be reached in the Congress.
  • March 4, 1789: Original Inauguration day, however, the electoral votes had not yet been counted, only eight of the 22 Senators and 18 of the 59 Representatives were present.
  • April 5, 1789: First day there was a quorum to count the electoral votes.

Popular Campaign Slogans:

  • “American Fabius”
  • Toasts: “Farmer Washington – may he like a second Cincinnatus, be called from the plow to rule a great people.”
  • “May the Saviour of America gratify the ardent wishes of his countrymen by accepting the post which the voice of mankind has assigned him.”

Popular Campaign Slogans:

“American Fabius”

  • Toasts: “Farmer Washington – may he like a second Cincinnatus, be called from the plow to rule a great people.”

Campaign Song:

“Great Washington shall rule the land/While Franklin’s counsel aids his hand.’

Defining Quotation (Winning Candidate):

  • “My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” George Washington

Defining Quotation (Losing Candidate):

  • “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” John Adams to his wife Abigail Adams

Further Reading:

Elkins, Stanley M. and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 1995.

Lasting Legacy of Campaign:

  • Resulted in the election of the first President of the United States.
  • Showed that the system worked.



  • July 2, 1788: New Hampshire notifies the Continental Congress it had ratified the constitution, and Congress began making decisions about the new government.
  • September 13, 1788: Continental Congress approves a timeline to install the new government.
  • December 15, 1788-January 10, 1789: Election days for electors.
  • January 7, 1789: Presidential Electors pledged to George Washington are elected throughout the nation.
  • February 4, 1789: The Presidential Electors meet in the various state capitals to cast the electoral vote
  • February 8, 1789: Messengers left their various states on to present their certificates of the vote to be read by the first Congress.
  • March 4, 1789: Appointed day to have state votes read in Congress, however, neither the House nor the Senate had a quorum.
  • March 4, 1789: Original Inauguration day, however, the electoral votes had not yet been counted, only eight of the 22 Senators and 18 of the 59 Representatives were present.
  • April 5, 1789: First day there was a quorum to count the electoral votes. Washington elected president with a unanimous vote and John Adams elected Vice President.
  • April 6, 1789: Senate ratifies the election; a quorum assembles in both houses and a joint session of Congress to count the votes. John Langdon presides in the U.S. Senate chamber.
  • April 30, 1789: Washington inaugurated as the first president at the capital, then Federal Hall in New York.
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