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1788–89 United States presidential election

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1788–89 United States presidential election

December 15, 1788 – January 7, 1789 (1788-12-15 – 1789-01-07) 1792 →

69 members of the Electoral College
35 electoral votes needed to win
Nominee George Washington
Party Independent
Home state Virginia
Running mate None
Electoral vote 69
States carried 10
Popular vote 43,782
Percentage 100%

Presidential election results map. Green denotes states won by Washington. Black denotes states that did not appoint any electors. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes cast by each state.[note 1]

President before election

Office established

Elected President

George Washington

The 1788–89 United States presidential election was the first quadrennial presidential election. It was held from Monday, December 15, 1788, to Wednesday, January 7, 1789, under the new Constitution ratified that same year. George Washington was unanimously elected for the first of his two terms as president and John Adams became the first vice president. This was the only U.S. presidential election that spanned two calendar years without a contingent election and the first national presidential election in American history.

Under the Articles of Confederation, which were ratified in 1781, the United States had no head of state. The executive function of government remained with the legislative similar to 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 candidates, a procedure modified in 1804 by the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment. 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.

The enormously popular Washington was distinguished as the former Commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. After he agreed to come out of retirement, he was elected with ease unanimously; 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 had already manifested between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Thus, the contest for the vice-presidency was open. Thomas Jefferson predicted that a popular Northern leader such as 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 such as Patrick Henry, who did not run, and George Clinton, who had opposed ratification of the Constitution, also represented potential choices.

All 69 electors present cast one vote for Washington, making his election unanimous. Adams won 34 electoral votes and the vice presidency. The remaining 35 electoral votes were split among 10 candidates, including John Jay, who finished third with nine electoral votes. Three states were ineligible to participate in the election: New York's legislature did not choose electors on time, and North Carolina and Rhode Island had not ratified the constitution yet. Washington was inaugurated in New York City on April 30, 1789, 57 days 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.

Federalist candidates[edit]

Anti-Federalist candidates[edit]

General election[edit]

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 at the time of planning, and thus, 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."

Another uncertainty was the choice for the vice presidency, which contained no definite job description beyond being the president's designated successor and 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. 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] Adams received 34 electoral votes, one short of a majority – because the Constitution did not require an outright majority in the Electoral College prior to ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to elect a runner-up as vice president, Adams was elected to that post.

Congress announced the procedure for the election on September 13, 1788, stipulating that all electors must be chosen on the first Wednesday in January (January 7, 1789), and that the electors must assemble to cast their votes for president and vice president on the first Wednesday in February (February 4).[4] However, the states differed in their interpretations of this procedure and of the relevant portions of the new Constitution. New Hampshire and Massachusetts held a popular vote for their presidential electors alongside the elections for their congressional representatives, on December 15 and December 18, respectively. In these two states, the legislatures ultimately chose the electors based on the voting results on the appointed day, January 7. In Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the electors were chosen directly by the popular vote on January 7. In Connecticut, Georgia, and South Carolina, the electors were appointed by the legislature alone on January 7, while in New Jersey the governor and council selected them on that day. The legislature in New York was unable to agree on a method for choosing the electors before January 7, and so the state could not appoint any electors.[5]

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 1804. 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. Voting was hampered by poor communications and infrastructure and the labor demands imposed by farming. Two months passed after the election before the votes were counted and Washington was notified that he had been elected president. Washington spent eight days traveling from Virginia to New York for the inauguration.[6] Congress took twenty-eight days to assemble.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]


Popular vote[edit]

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: United States Presidential Elections, 1788-1860: The Official Results by Michael J. Dubin[10]

(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 vote[edit]

Presidential candidate Party Home state Popular vote(a), (b), (c) Electoral vote(d), (e), (f)
Count Percentage
George Washington Independent Virginia 43,782 99.9% 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 Federalist[11] Georgia 1
Total 43,782 100.0% 138
Needed to win 35

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[12]

(a) Only 6 of the 10 states casting electoral votes chose electors by any form of the 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.
(d) As the New York legislature failed to appoint its allotted eight electors in time, 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
Not cast

Results by state[edit]

Popular vote[edit]

The popular vote totals used are the elector from each party with the highest vote totals. The vote totals of Virginia appear to be incomplete.

Federalist electors Anti-Federalist electors Margin Not cast Citation
State Electoral
# % Electoral
# % Electoral
# %
Connecticut 7 No popular vote 7 No popular vote - - - -
Delaware 3 522 100.00 3 No ballots - 522 100.00 - [13]
Georgia 5 No popular vote 5 No popular vote - - - -
Maryland 6 (8) 11,342 71.65 6 4,487 28.35 - 6,855 43.3 2 [14]
Massachusetts 10 3,748 96.60 10 132 3.40 - 3,616 93.20 - [15]
New Hampshire 5 1,759 100.00 5 No ballots - 1,759 100.00 - [16]
New Jersey 6 No popular vote 6 No popular vote - - - -
New York 0 (8) Legislature did not choose electors on time - - -
North Carolina 0 (7) Had not yet ratified Constitution - - -
Pennsylvania 10 6,711 90.90 10 672 9.10 - 6,039 81.80 - [17]
Rhode Island 0 (3) Had not yet ratified Constitution - - -
South Carolina 7 No popular vote 7 No popular vote - - - -
Virginia 10 (12) 668 100.00 10 No ballots - 668 100.00 2 [18]
TOTALS: 69 (91) 24,750 82.39 69 5,291 17.61 0 19,459 64.78 4
TO WIN: 35 (46)

Electoral vote[edit]

Sixty-nine electors voted out of a possible 91: Two electors from Maryland and two from Virginia did not vote, the New York State Legislature was deadlocked and the state's 8 electors were not appointed (see below), and North Carolina and Rhode Island with 7 and 3 electoral votes respectively had not yet ratified the Constitution. As per the terms of the unamended constitution, each elector was permitted two votes for president, with a majority of "the whole number of electors appointed" necessary to elect a president. Of the 69 participating electors, each cast one vote for Washington, who was elected president. Of the remaining candidates, only Adams, Jay, and Hancock received votes from more than one state; with 34 votes, Adams finished second behind only Washington, and by virtue of which fact was elected vice president.

State Electors Electoral
GWTooltip George Washington JAdTooltip John Adams JJTooltip John Jay RHTooltip Robert H. Harrison JRTooltip John Rutledge JHTooltip John Hancock GCTooltip George Clinton (vice president) SHTooltip Samuel Huntington (statesman) JMTooltip John Milton (Georgia politician) JArTooltip James Armstrong (Georgia politician) BLTooltip Benjamin Lincoln ETTooltip Edward Telfair Blank
Connecticut 7 14 7 5 2
Delaware 3 6 3 3
Georgia 5 10 5 2 1 1 1
Maryland 8 16 6 6 4
Massachusetts 10 20 10 10
New Hampshire 5 10 5 5
New Jersey 6 12 6 1 5
New York 8 16 16
Pennsylvania 10 20 10 8 2
South Carolina 7 14 7 6 1
Virginia 12 24 10 5 1 1 3 4
TOTAL 81 162 69 34 9 6 6 4 3 2 2 1 1 1 24
TO WIN 37 37

Source: "The Electoral College Count for the Presidential Election of 1789". Washington Papers. University of Virginia. Retrieved October 28, 2022.

Failure of New York to appoint electors[edit]

Control of the bicameral New York State Legislature was divided following ratification of the federal constitution, and lawmakers could not reach an agreement to appoint electors for the forthcoming presidential contest. Federalists, backed by the great landed families and the city commercial interests, were the largest faction in the Senate, the smaller of the two chambers for which roughly a quarter of the state's free white male population was eligible to vote; but in the House of Representatives, with its larger membership and electorate, Anti-federalists representing the middling interests held the majority. The fight to ratify the United States Constitution was still fresh in the memories of the legislators, and the Anti-Federalists were resentful for having been forced by events to accept the constitution without amendments. Bills to govern the selection of electors were proposed in each house and rejected by the other, leading to an impasse. The deadlock still stood on January 7, 1789, the last day for electors to be chosen by the states, and New York thus failed to appoint the eight electors allocated to it by the constitution.[19][20]

Electoral college selection[edit]

The Constitution, in Article II, Section 1, provided that the state legislatures should decide the manner in which their Electors were chosen. State legislatures chose different methods:[21]

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 the two most popular 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 ten 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 also[edit]


  1. ^ New York had ratified the Constitution but its legislature failed to appoint presidential electors on time, while North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified. Vermont governed itself as a republic.


  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. ^ Maier, Pauline (2010). Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-684-86854-7., pp. 429-430.
  5. ^ Stephens, Frank Fletcher. The transitional period, 1788-1789, in the government of the United States, University of Missouri Press, 1909, pp. 67-74.
  6. ^ "Accepting the Presidency". George Washington's Mount Vernon. Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  7. ^ "A Saturday Session in the First Congress | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives". history.house.gov. Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  8. ^ Chernow, 272–273.
  9. ^ "VP George Clinton". www.senate.gov. Retrieved April 15, 2016.
  10. ^ Dubin, Michael J. (2002). United States Presidential Elections, 1788-1860: The Official Results by County and State. Jefferson: McFarland & Company. pp. 1–3. ISBN 9780786410170.
  11. ^ Johnson, Charles J. "Edward Telfair". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 24, 2022.
  12. ^ "A New Nation Votes".
  13. ^ "A New Nation Votes". elections.lib.tufts.edu. Retrieved December 31, 2020.
  14. ^ "A New Nation Votes". elections.lib.tufts.edu. Retrieved December 31, 2020.
  15. ^ "A New Nation Votes". elections.lib.tufts.edu. Retrieved December 31, 2020.
  16. ^ "A New Nation Votes". elections.lib.tufts.edu. Retrieved December 31, 2020.
  17. ^ "A New Nation Votes". elections.lib.tufts.edu. Retrieved December 31, 2020.
  18. ^ "A New Nation Votes". elections.lib.tufts.edu. Retrieved December 31, 2020.
  19. ^ Merrill Jensen, Gordon DenBoer (1976). The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections, 1788-1790. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 196–197.
  20. ^ Ratcliffe, Donald (2013). "The Right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy, 1787-1828". Journal of the Early Republic. 33 (2): 225–229. doi:10.1353/jer.2013.0033. S2CID 145135025.
  21. ^ "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.


External links[edit]