United States presidential election, 1788–89

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United States presidential election, 1788–89

December 15, 1788 – January 10, 1789 1792 →

69 electoral votes of the Electoral College
35 electoral votes needed to win
  Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington.jpg
Nominee George Washington
Party Independent
Home state Virginia
Electoral vote 69
States carried 10
Popular vote 43,782
Percentage 100%

Presidential election results map. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes allotted to each state. (Note: North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution, the New York legislature was deadlocked, and Vermont was operating as a de facto unrecognized state.)

President before election

None (Office created by the US Constitution)

Elected President

George Washington

The United States presidential election of 1788–89 was the first quadrennial presidential election. It was held from Monday, December 15, 1788 to Saturday, January 10, 1789. It was the first presidential election in the United States of America under the new United States Constitution, which was adopted on September 17, 1787, and the only election ever to take place partially in a year that is not a multiple of four. In this election, George Washington was unanimously elected for the first of his two terms as president, and John Adams became the first vice president.

Before this election, the United States had no chief executive.[1] Under the previous system agreed to under Articles of Confederation, the national government was headed by the Confederation Congress, which had a ceremonial presiding officer and several executive departments, but no independent executive branch.[2]

The enormously popular Washington essentially ran unopposed. The only real issue to be decided was who would be chosen as vice president. Under the system then in place, each elector cast votes for two persons; if a person received a vote from a majority of the electors, that person became president, and the runner-up became vice president. All 69 electors cast one vote each for Washington. Their other votes were divided among eleven other candidates; John Adams received the most, becoming vice president. The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, would change this procedure, requiring each elector to cast distinct votes for president and vice president.


No political parties existed at the time of the 1788–89 presidential election. Candidates were either Federalists, meaning they supported the ratification of the Constitution, or Anti-Federalists, meaning they opposed ratification. These groups were not established political parties, however, and were united in supporting Washington for president.

Washington's immense popularity made the question of who would be the first president only a technical one. The real race was for the vice presidency, which was contested by nine individuals of varying prominence in the United States. However, because the voting procedure of the time did not distinguish between votes for president and vice president, all were technically candidates for president along with Washington.

Federalist candidates

Anti-Federalist candidates

General election

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

In the absence of conventions, there was no formal nomination process. The framers of the Constitution had presumed that Washington would be the first president, and once he agreed to come out of retirement to accept the office, there was no opposition to him.

The real question was who would assume the office of vice president, which under the system then in place went to the runner-up in the presidential election. Because Washington was from Virginia, many assumed that a vice president would be chosen from one of the northern states to ease sectional tensions. In an August 1788 letter, U.S. Minister to France Thomas Jefferson wrote that he considered John Adams and John Hancock to be the top contenders, with John Jay, James Madison, and John Rutledge as other possible candidates.[3]

Electors were selected by the individual states, and each cast one vote for Washington. The electors used their second vote to cast a scattering of votes, many voting for someone besides Adams. This was due largely to a scheme perpetrated by Alexander Hamilton, who feared that Adams would tie with Washington, throwing the election to the House of Representatives and embarrassing Washington and the new Constitution. Thus, Adams received only 34 of 69 votes.

As the electors were being selected, rumors spread that there was an Anti-Federalist plot afoot to elect Richard Henry Lee or Patrick Henry president over Washington, with George Clinton as their choice for vice president. These rumors may have been encouraged by those sympathetic to the Federalists, who wished to discourage electors from voting for Clinton. If so, this strategy was effective: Clinton received only three electoral votes, possibly due to a fear within the electoral college that a vote for Clinton was effectively a vote against Washington.[4]

Only ten states out of the original thirteen cast electoral votes in this election. North Carolina and Rhode Island were ineligible to participate as they had not yet ratified the United States Constitution. New York failed to appoint its allotment of eight electors because of a deadlock in the state legislature.


Popular vote

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 6 of the 10 states casting electoral votes chose electors by any form of popular vote.
(b) Less than 1.3% 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 in this election.
(c) Those states that did choose electors by popular vote had widely varying restrictions on suffrage via property requirements.

Electoral vote

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 35

Source: "Electoral College Box Scores 1789–1996". National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 30, 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

(a) Only 6 of the 10 states casting electoral votes chose electors by any form of popular vote.
(b) Less than 1.3% 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 in this election.
(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.

Results by state

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 4 no popular vote 1 - GA
Maryland 6 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 0 did not participate (legislature deadlocked) - NY
North Carolina 0 did not participate (didn't ratify Constitution) - NC
Pennsylvania 10 6,711 90.90 10 672 9.10 - 7,383 PA
Rhode Island 0 did not participate (didn't ratify Constitution) - RI
South Carolina 7 no popular vote 7 no popular vote - SC
Virginia 10 3,040 70.16 7 1,293 29.84 3 4,333 VA
TOTALS: 69 39,624 90.50 65 4,158 9.50 4 43,782 US
TO WIN: 35

Electoral college selection

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:[5]

Method of choosing Electors State(s)
each elector appointed by the state legislature Connecticut
New Jersey
New York(a)
South Carolina
  • two electors appointed by state legislature
  • each remaining elector chosen by state legislature from list of top two vote-getters in each congressional district
each elector chosen by voters statewide; however, if no candidate wins majority, state legislature appoints elector from top two candidates New Hampshire
state is 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, so was not eligible to choose electors North Carolina
Rhode Island

(a) New York's legislature deadlocked, so no electors were chosen.
(b) One electoral district failed to choose an elector.

See also


  1. Ellis 1999, p. 1.
  2. Ellis 1999, p. 2.
  3. Meacham 2012
  4. http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/VP_George_Clinton.htm
  5. "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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


External links