National Elections of 1788
National Elections of 1788
Electoral College. The framers of the Constitution designed a method of electing the president that grew out of their fear of democracy and political corruption and their desire to maintain the separation of powers that was the basis of the federal system of government. Under that system it was critical that the chief executive be independent of the control of any individual or body of individuals. It was also critical that the office be filled, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist, number 68, “by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” Many of the framers associated democracy with corruption. Allowing the common people to elect the president would subject them to the control of unprincipled men who could use their social position or bribes to influence the lower classes to choose the “right” candidate. The president would then become the “creature” of the individuals who had manipulated his election. Allowing Congress to elect the president, as James Madison had originally advised, could also jeopardize the president’s independence because he would owe his election to the legislative branch. Instead, the framers invented the electoral college, in which the people of each state chose “electors,” equal to the number of their senators and representatives in Congress. The states played an important role by deciding how the electors were chosen. In the first presidential election the legislatures in four states chose electors, while the people did in four others, and, in Massachusetts and New Hampshire electors were chosen by a combination of the people and the legislature. Each elector cast two votes for president. The candidate with the highest vote became president, and the candidate with the second highest vote became vice president. If no candidate received a majority, the House of Representatives decided the election, with each state having one vote. As Hamilton explained, this system would guarantee the high quality of candidates and prevent political intrigue. “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.”
No Party, Nomination, or Campaign. The first presidential election had none of the trappings of modern politics: nominating conventions, party platforms, or campaign speeches. No one sought the presidency. Most Americans did not accept political parties as desirable institutions, shunning them as associations of dishonest, self-interested individuals. On 4 February 1789 electors in ten states (North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution, and a dispute in New York prevented that state from choosing electors) convened in their respective states to choose the first president of the United States. The sixty-nine electors unanimously cast their first vote for George Washington. Alexander Hamilton tried to reduce John Adams’s influence in the new government by encouraging electors not to vote for him, but Hamilton’s maneuvering was probably unnecessary. Adams, who received thirty-four votes, was elected vice president, with thirty-five remaining votes divided among ten other candidates. Washington had made no speeches; his countrymen declared him a candidate by their votes. His public record as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, commander in chief of the Continental Army, and president of the Constitutional Convention attested to his long-standing support for republican government and the Constitution.
The First Congress. Only 5 to 8 percent of the eligible white male population voted in the first congressional elections. The absence of national political parties to attract voters through campaign rhetoric and political organization reduced voter turnout, but the anticipation of Washington’s election no doubt influenced the choice of representatives who were supporters of the Constitution and a strong national government. In the First Congress, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton took the lead in mobilizing support for his financial program by monitoring legislative debates and providing favorable arguments and statistics to congressional supporters. Congressman James Madison and Clerk of the House John Beckley of Virginia responded by organizing opposition in Congress. Members of the First Congress objected to aspects of Hamilton’s financial program, but their opposition was not yet sufficient to overcome their distrust of permanent political parties. During the second and third sessions of the First Congress, after opposition to Hamilton’s policies began forming, 42 percent of the members of the House of Representatives still did not vote consistently with either of the two developing parties on at least two-thirds of all important legislation. During the Second Congress (1791–1793), as the supporters of the Washington administration more openly identified themselves as Federalists and their opponents began calling themselves Republicans, the percentage of nonparty voting in Congress dropped to an average of 20 percent. At this formative stage in party development, however, neither party could ignore nonaligned or independent members of Congress.
Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993);
Eugene H. Roseboom and Alfred E. Eckes Jr., A History of Presidential Elections, fourth edition (New York: Collier, 1979).