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1788–89 United States presidential election

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The United States presidential election of 1788–89 was the first quadrennial presidential election. It was held, from December 15, 1788 to January 10, 1789, under the new Constitution ratified in 1788. George Washington was unanimously elected for the first of his two terms as president, and John Adams became the first vice president.

United States presidential election, 1788–89

December 15, 1788 – January 10, 1789 (1788-12-15 – 1789-01-10) 1792 →

69 electoral votes of the Electoral College
37 electoral votes needed to win
  Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington.jpg
Nominee George Washington
Home state Virginia
Electoral vote 69
States carried 10
Popular vote 43,782
Percentage 100.0%

Presidential election results map. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes allotted to each state. (Note: New York had ratified the Constitution but its legislature failed to appoint Presidential electors on time. North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified. Vermont governed itself as a republic.)

President before election

None (Office created by the U.S. Constitution)

Elected President

George Washington

Under the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, the United States had no head of state. Separation of the executive function of government from the legislative was incomplete, as in countries that use a parliamentary system. Federal power, strictly limited, was reserved to the Congress of the Confederation, whose "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" was also chair of the Committee of the States, which aimed to fulfill a function similar to that of the modern Cabinet.

The Constitution created the offices of President and Vice President, fully separating these offices from Congress. The Constitution established an Electoral College, based on each state's Congressional representation, in which each elector would cast two votes for two different candidates, a procedure modified in 1804 by ratification of the Twelfth Amendment. Different states had varying methods for choosing presidential electors.[2] In five states, the state legislature chose electors. The other six chose electors through some form involving a popular vote, though in only two states did the choice depend directly on a statewide vote in a way even roughly resembling the modern method in all states.

The enormously popular Washington was distinguished as the former Commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. After he agreed to exit retirement, it was known that he would be elected by virtual acclaim. Washington did not select a running mate, as that concept was not yet developed. No formal political parties existed, though an informally organized consistent difference of opinion already manifested between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Thus, the contest for the Vice-Presidency was open. Thomas Jefferson predicted that a popular Northern leader like Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts or John Adams, a former minister to Great Britain who had represented Massachusetts in Congress, would be elected vice president. Anti-Federalist leaders like Patrick Henry, who did not run, and George Clinton, who had opposed ratification of the Constitution, also represented potential choices.

All 69 electors cast one vote for Washington, making his election unanimous. Adams won 34 electoral votes and the vice presidency. The remaining 35 electoral votes split among 10 different candidates, including John Jay, who finished next with nine electoral votes. Washington was inaugurated in New York City in April 1789 about two months after the First Congress convened.



Though no organized political parties yet existed, political opinion loosely divided between those who had more stridently and enthusiastically endorsed ratification of the Constitution, called Federalists or Cosmopolitans, and Anti-Federalists or Localists who had only more reluctantly, skeptically, or conditionally supported, or who had outright opposed, ratification. Both factions supported Washington for President. Limited, primitive political campaigning occurred in states and localities where swaying public opinion might matter. For example in Maryland, a state with a statewide popular vote, unofficial parties campaigned locally, advertising platforms even in German to appeal and drive turnout by a German-speaking rural population. Organizers elsewhere lobbied through public forums, parades, and banquets.

Federalist candidatesEdit

Anti-Federalist candidatesEdit

General electionEdit

Results by county explicitly indicating the percentage of the winning candidate in each county. Shades of yellow are for the Federalists.

No nomination process existed. The framers of the Constitution presumed that Washington would be elected unopposed. For example, Alexander Hamilton spoke for national opinion when in a letter to Washington attempting to persuade him to leave retirement on his farm in Mount Vernon to serve as the first President, he wrote that "...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."

Uncertain was the choice for the vice presidency, which contained no definite job description beyond being the President's designated successor while presiding over the Senate. The Constitution stipulated that the position would be awarded to the runner-up in the Presidential election. Because Washington was from Virginia, then the largest state, many assumed that electors would choose a vice president from a northern state. However, the stipulation that the President and Vice-President must be from different states dates only to the Twelfth Amendment of 1804. In an August 1788 letter, U.S. Minister to France Thomas Jefferson wrote that he considered John Adams and John Hancock, both from Massachusetts, to be the top contenders. Jefferson suggested John Jay, John Rutledge, and Virginian James Madison as other possible candidates.[3]

Voter turnout comprised a low single-digit percentage of the adult population. Though all states allowed some rudimentary form of popular vote, only six ratifying states allowed any form of popular vote specifically for Presidential electors. In most states only white men, and in many only those who owned property, could vote. Free black men could vote in four Northern states, and women could vote in New Jersey until 1807. In some states, there was a nominal religious test for voting. For example, in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the Congregational Church was established, supported by taxes. Though such tests and establishments were outlawed by the new Constitution, the concept of an un-Constitutional law dates to 1803 and incorporation, or application of the Constitution to the states, dates to 1868. However, in 1789, a religious test disenfranchised few among eligible voters. Test acts protected Protestants, sometimes of specific sects, but Catholicism and Judaism were rare in the newly independent United States. Catholicism was confined mainly to a minority in Maryland while both Catholicism and Judaism were further limited to a subset of urban populations in the largest, most cosmopolitan port cities, including Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Newport. For example, of 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, one from Maryland was Catholic, with the rest Protestant, which was only mildly less diverse than the American population of the time. States where public opinion endorsed such a test typically lacked meaningful religious diversity or a sizable religious minority to oppress by disqualification, and further did not necessarily vigorously enforce the test. Finally, public opinion regardless of gender, race, creed, or even political bias was known to favor Washington to the point of virtual unanimity.

Voting was hampered by poor communications and infrastructure and the labor demands imposed by farming. It took two months for Washington to be notified that he had been elected before spending one week traveling from Virginia to New York for inauguration. Similarly, Congress took weeks to assemble.

As the electors were selected, politics intruded, and the process was not free of rumors and intrigue. For example, Hamilton aimed to ensure that Adams did not inadvertently tie Washington in the electoral vote.[4] Also, Federalists spread rumors that Anti-Federalists plotted to elect Richard Henry Lee or Patrick Henry President, with George Clinton as vice president. However, Clinton received only three electoral votes.[5]


Popular voteEdit

Popular Vote(a), (b), (c)
Count Percentage
Federalist electors 39,624 90.5%
Anti-Federalist electors 4,158 9.5%
Total 43,782 100.0%

Source: U.S. President National Vote. Our Campaigns. (February 11, 2006).

(a) Only six of the 11 states eligible to cast electoral votes chose electors by any form of popular vote.
(b) Less than 1.8% of the population voted: the 1790 Census would count a total population of 3.0 million with a free population of 2.4 million and 600,000 slaves in those states casting electoral votes.
(c) Those states that did choose electors by popular vote had widely varying restrictions on suffrage via property requirements.

Electoral voteEdit

Presidential candidate Party Home state Popular vote(a), (b), (c) Electoral vote(d), (e), (f)
Count Percentage
George Washington Independent Virginia 43,782 100.0% 69
John Adams Federalist Massachusetts 34
John Jay Federalist New York 9
Robert H. Harrison Federalist Maryland 6
John Rutledge Federalist South Carolina 6
John Hancock Federalist Massachusetts 4
George Clinton Anti-Federalist New York 3
Samuel Huntington Federalist Connecticut 2
John Milton Federalist Georgia 2
James Armstrong(g) Federalist Georgia(g) 1
Benjamin Lincoln Federalist Massachusetts 1
Edward Telfair Anti-Federalist Georgia 1
Total 43,782 100.0% 138
Needed to win 37

Source: "Electoral College Box Scores 1789–1996". National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 30, 2005.Source (Popular Vote): A New Nation Votes: American Election Returns 1787–1825[6]

(a) Only 6 of the 10 states casting electoral votes chose electors by any form of popular vote.
(c) Those states that did choose electors by popular vote had widely varying restrictions on suffrage via property requirements.
(d) The New York legislature failed to appoint its allotted 8 electors in time, so there were no voting electors from New York.
(e) Two electors from Maryland did not vote.
(f) One elector from Virginia did not vote and another elector from Virginia was not chosen because an election district failed to submit returns.
(g) The identity of this candidate comes from The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections (Gordon DenBoer (ed.), University of Wisconsin Press, 1984, p. 441). Several respected sources, including the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress and the Political Graveyard, instead show this individual to be James Armstrong of Pennsylvania. However, primary sources, such as the Senate Journal, list only Armstrong's name, not his state. Skeptics observe that Armstrong received his single vote from a Georgia elector. They find this improbable because Armstrong of Pennsylvania was not nationally famous—his public service to that date consisted of being a medical officer during the American Revolution and, at most, a single year as a Pennsylvania judge.

Popular vote
Electoral vote
Non cast

Results by stateEdit

Popular voteEdit

George Washington
George Washington
State Total
State electoral
# % electoral
# % electoral
Connecticut 7 no popular vote 7 no popular vote - CT
Delaware 3 685 100 3 no ballots 685 DE
Georgia 5 no popular vote 5 no popular vote - GA
Maryland 8 5,539 71.63 6 2,193 28.37 - 7,732 MD
Massachusetts 10 17,740 100 10 no ballots 17,740 MA
New Hampshire 5 5,909 100 5 no ballots 5,909 NH
New Jersey 6 no popular vote 6 no popular vote - NJ
New York 8 legislature did not choose electors on time - NY
North Carolina 7 did not yet ratify Constitution - NC
Pennsylvania 10 6,711 90.90 10 672 9.10 - 7,383 PA
Rhode Island 3 did not yet ratify Constitution - RI
South Carolina 7 no popular vote 7 no popular vote - SC
Virginia 12 3,040 70.16 10 1,293 29.84 - 4,333 VA
TOTALS: 91 39,624 90.50 69 4,158 9.50 0 43,782 US
TO WIN: 37

Electoral voteEdit

State Washington Adams Jay Harrison Rutledge Hancock Clinton Huntington Milton Armstrong Telfair Lincoln
Connecticut 7 5 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0
Delaware 3 0 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Georgia 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 1 1 1
Maryland 6 0 0 6 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Massachusetts 10 10 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
New Hampshire 5 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
New Jersey 6 1 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Pennsylvania 10 8 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0
South Carolina 7 0 0 0 6 1 0 0 0 0 0 0
Virginia 10 5 1 0 0 1 3 0 0 0 0 0
Total 69 34 9 6 6 4 3 2 2 1 1 1

Source: Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections[7]

Electoral college selectionEdit

The Constitution, in Article II, Section 1, provided that the state legislatures should decide the manner in which their Electors were chosen. Different state legislatures chose different methods:[8]

Method of choosing electors State(s)
electors appointed by state legislature Connecticut
New Jersey
New York(a)
South Carolina
  • two electors appointed by state legislature
  • each remaining elector chosen by state legislature from top two candidates in each U. S. House district
each elector chosen by voters statewide; however, if no candidate wins majority, state legislature appoints electors from top two candidates New Hampshire
state divided into electoral districts, with one elector chosen per district by the voters of that district Virginia(b)
electors chosen at large by voters Maryland
state had not yet ratified the Constitution North Carolina
Rhode Island

(a) New York's legislature did not choose electors on time.
(b) One electoral district failed to choose an elector.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "National General Election VEP Turnout Rates, 1789-Present". United States Election Project. CQ Press.
  2. ^ See "Alternative methods for choosing electors" under Electoral College.
  3. ^ Meacham 2012
  4. ^ Chernow, 272-273
  5. ^ "VP George Clinton". Retrieved April 15, 2016.
  6. ^ "A New Nation Votes".
  7. ^ "1789 Presidential Electoral Vote Count". Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Dave Leip. Retrieved January 14, 2018.
  8. ^ "The Electoral Count for the Presidential Election of 1789". The Papers of George Washington. Archived from the original on September 14, 2013. Retrieved May 4, 2005.


  • Bowling, Kenneth R., and Donald R. Kennon. "A New Matrix for National Politics." Inventing Congress: Origins and Establishment of the First Federal Congress. Athens, O.: United States Capitol Historical Society by Ohio U, 1999. 110-37. Print.
  • Chernow, Ron (2004). "Alexander Hamilton". London, UK: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-1101200858.
  • Collier, Christopher. "Voting and American Democracy." The American People as Christian White Men of Property:Suffrage and Elections in Colonial and Early National America. N.p.: U of Connecticut, n.d, 1999.
  • DenBoer, Gordon, ed. (1990). The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections, 1788–1790. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-06690-1.
  • Dinkin, Robert J. Voting in Revolutionary America: A Study of Elections in the Original Thirteen States, 1776–1789. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982.
  • Ellis, Richard J. (1999). Founding the American Presidency. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-8476-9499-0.
  • McCullough, David (1990). John Adams. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4165-7588-7.
  • Meacham, Jon (2012). Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. Random House. ISBN 978-1-4000-6766-4.
  • Novotny, Patrick. The Parties in American Politics, 1789–2016.
  • Paullin, Charles O. "The First Elections Under The Constitution." The Iowa Journal of History and Politics 2 (1904): 3-33. Web. February 20, 2017.
  • Shade, William G., and Ballard C. Campbell. "The Election of 1788-89." American Presidential Campaigns and Elections. Ed. Craig R. Coenen. Vol. 1. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2003. 65-77. Print.

External linksEdit