Mount Vernon

January 7 is occasionally cited as the anniversary of the first presidential election in America.

That's only sorta right. The new Constitution called for an election, and it got started on the 7th, but not in the "casting ballots" sense, more of in the "choosing who casts ballots" sense.


So, while January 7th is not exactly the anniversary of the first election, it is the anniversary of white men beginning the process by which the president was chosen! Let's backtrack.

Following the Revolutionary War, the newly minted United States of America set out to decide what sort of government they'd like to be. After an initial attempt at a loosely connected, state-dominated government proved unsuccessful, a new constitution was drawn up with a centralized federal government. It was decided that a President would be elected to oversee everything. But how would this election happen?

If you guessed "Let every citizen over a certain age, regardless of wealth, sex, or race vote," you guessed wrong, of course. Instead, representatives from each state gathered on January 7, 1789 to name electors to the Electoral College.

Who chose the electors? White male property owners, of course.

RESOLVED, that the first Wednesday in January next, be the day for appointing Electors in the several States, which before the said day shall have ratified the said Constitution;

Each state's legislature decided how the electors would be chosen, with public vote for some and legislative action for others. Of the original 13 states though, only 10 actually ended up participating in the election. Rhode Island and North Carolina hadn't ratified the Constitution yet, and "a quarreling New York failed to choose electors in time." (New York politicians: at odds with each other since the beginning.)


Thus, the first election was mainly the elite choosing the elite, according to Counting the Votes by G. Scott Thomas. The Founders, "“whatever their party affiliation, agreed that the wealthy and the well-educated should remain firmly in charge." Therefore, "[t]he Constitution was designed so that a group of highly qualified experts would be designated to select the president and vice president." In fact, since only six of the states called for a popular election of the Electors, the first election wound up featuring only 1.3 percent of the population voting.

(Popular voting didn't come into play until 1824, after the property-owning qualification was dropped. That year saw 57.6 percent of eligible white men vote. Weirdly, in 2012, 57.5 percent of the eligible population voted.)


So, January 7th is the anniversary of white men choosing the president (not the first election) because it marked the Electoral College (all white men) being named. And everyone knew who they'd elect President.

George Washington had no serious competition in the election. The jockeying and intrigue came from who would be "elected" Vice President, as the runner-up for the main gig got the number two job. However, the electors, as part of the first Electoral College, didn't actually meet until February 4. And the electors only met with the other electors from their state. The Framers thought this would reduce shenanigans, gamesmanship, or strong-arming. There, the 69 electors who had been chosen in time gave 69 votes to Washington and divvied up their second votes (each elector got two votes, the second as their de facto Vice Presidential pick) among 11 others, with John Adams getting the most and being named VP, partially due to a campaign by Alexander Hamilton.


So, if you want to get technical, the first Presidential Election started on January 7, 1789 and then took a break for electors to meet up and actually cast their votes. The votes were finally counted in April.

To think, presidential elections used to only last around four months, and a lot of that was due to traveling. A shorter election cycle, those were the days! Except for the only-allowing-rich-white-men-who-own-land-to-vote part, of course.


David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on—hop on. Got a tip? Email him:

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