February 22, 2024

How George Washington Became President of the United States: It Was Weirder Than You Think


After serv­ing two terms as the first Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, George Wash­ing­ton refused to con­tin­ue on to a third. We now see this action as begin­ning the tra­di­tion of peace­ful relin­quish­ment of pow­er that has con­tin­ued more or less ever since (inter­rupt­ed, as in recent years, by the occa­sion­al trou­bled tran­si­tion). At the time, not every­one expect­ed Wash­ing­ton to step down, his­to­ry hav­ing most­ly offered exam­ples of rulers who hung on until the bit­ter end. But the new repub­lic’s cre­ation of not just rules but cus­toms result­ed in a vari­ety of unusu­al polit­i­cal events; even Wash­ing­ton’s elec­tion was “weird­er than you think.”

So declares his­to­ry Youtu­ber Pre­mod­ernist in the video above, an expla­na­tion of the very first Unit­ed States pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 1789. “There were no offi­cial can­di­dates. There was no cam­paign­ing for the office. There were no polit­i­cal par­ties, no nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tions, no pri­ma­ry elec­tions. The entire elec­tion sea­son was very short, and the major issue of this elec­tion was the Con­sti­tu­tion itself.” It also took place after thir­teen pres­i­dent-free years, the U.S. hav­ing been not a sin­gle coun­try but “a col­lec­tion of thir­teen sep­a­rate colonies,” each tied more close­ly to Britain than to the oth­ers; there had­n’t even been a fed­er­al gov­ern­ment per se.

The U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion changed that. Draft­ed in 1787, it pro­posed the exec­u­tive, leg­isla­tive, and judi­cial branch­es of gov­ern­ment, whose names every Amer­i­can who’s tak­en a cit­i­zen­ship exam (and every immi­grant who’s tak­en the cit­i­zen test) remem­bers. Set­ting up those branch­es in real­i­ty would prove no easy task: how, to name just one prac­ti­cal ques­tion, would the exec­u­tive — the pres­i­dent — actu­al­ly be cho­sen? Con­gress, the leg­isla­tive branch, could the­o­ret­i­cal­ly do it, but that would vio­late the now prac­ti­cal­ly sacred prin­ci­ple of the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers. The vot­ers could also elect the pres­i­dent direct­ly, but the framers reject­ed that option as both imprac­ti­cal and unwise.

Enter “the famous elec­toral col­lege,” a body of spe­cial­ized vot­ers cho­sen by the indi­vid­ual states in any man­ner they please. Hav­ing reject­ed the Con­sti­tu­tion itself, North Car­oli­na and Rhode Island did­n’t par­tic­i­pate in the 1789 elec­tion. Each of the oth­er states chose their elec­tors in its own way (exem­pli­fy­ing the polit­i­cal lab­o­ra­to­ry of Amer­i­can fed­er­al­ism as orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived), though it did­n’t go smooth­ly in every case: the wide­spread divi­sion between fed­er­al­ists and anti-fed­er­al­ists was pro­nounced enough in New York to cre­ate a dead­lock that pre­vent­ed the state from choos­ing any elec­tors at all. The elec­tors that did make it cast two votes each, with the first-place can­di­date becom­ing Pres­i­dent and the sec­ond-place can­di­date becom­ing Vice Pres­i­dent.

That last proved to be a “bad sys­tem,” whose mechan­ics encour­aged a great deal of schem­ing, intrigue, and strate­gic vot­ing (even by the sub­se­quent­ly estab­lished stan­dards of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics). Only with the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the twelfth amend­ment, in 1804, could elec­tors sep­a­rate­ly des­ig­nate their choice of Pres­i­dent and Vice Pres­i­dent. In 1789, of course, “Wash­ing­ton eas­i­ly got all 69 elec­toral votes,” and went on reluc­tant­ly to pre­vail again in the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, which more recent­ly became the sub­ject of its own Pre­mod­ernist video. Both of them mer­it a watch in this par­tic­u­lar moment, as the run-up to the U.S. con­test of 2024 gets into full swing. This elec­tion cycle cer­tain­ly won’t be as short as 1789, but it may well be as weird.

Relat­ed con­tent:

George Wash­ing­ton Writes to the First Jew­ish Con­gre­ga­tion of New­port, Rhode Island: “The Gov­ern­ment… Gives to Big­otry No Sanc­tion, to Per­se­cu­tion No Assis­tance” (1790)

Sal Khan & the Mup­pets’ Grover Explain the Elec­toral Col­lege

A Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca (1861): Fea­tures George Wash­ing­ton Punch­ing Tigers, John Adams Slay­ing Snakes & Oth­er Fan­tas­tic Scenes

Elect­ing a US Pres­i­dent in Plain Eng­lish

George Washington’s 110 Rules for Civil­i­ty and Decent Behav­ior

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.





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