First President’s Election Was the Last Thing He Wanted

By Sarah Booth Conroy


As the battle for the presidency goes on, it’s a good time to look back at 1789, the year of our nation’s first presidential election. Unlike today’s candidates, George Washington did not want to serve, even though many believed him the only man for the job.

On Sept. 24,1788, Revolutionary War Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln was one of many writing, visiting and insisting that Washington agree to be the first president. Lincoln wrote Washington: “There never was an instance when it could have been more necessary to call into exercise the wisdom, the prudence and patriotism of the United States than in important transactions of appointing the executive and the legislative branches of the new government.”

Lincoln feared anti-federalist politicians “will endeavor . . . to prevent your Excellency’s acceptance of the Presidency. Your election they cannot hinder.”

Other supportive letters flooded Mount Vernon as if to wash Washington into the presidency. Many demanded his help for every problem that came up, such as the report that North Carolinians were anxious lest Congress surrender to Spain the navigation of the Mississippi. Equally thick was the stream of letters asking that Washington appoint the writers to government jobs when he became president. Alexander Hamilton was always asking something from Washington–as he had during the Revolution, when he was the general’s assistant. Hamilton wrote to Washington that “every public and personal consideration will demand from you an acquiescence in what will certainly be the unanimous wish of your country”

Washington replied to Hamilton in August 1788 that on the “delicate subject with which you conclude your letter, I can say nothing, because the event alluded to may never happen; and because, in case it should occur, it would be a point of prudence to defer forming one’s ultimate and irrevocable decisions . . . it is my great and sole desire to live and die, in peace and retirement on my own farm.”

On Oct. 3 of that year, Washington wrote again to Hamilton: “I should unfeignedly rejoice, in case the Electors, by giving their votes to another person would save me from the dreaded dilemma of being forced to accept or refuse.

“If that may not be–I am, in the next place, earnestly desirous of searching out the truth, and knowing whether there does not exist a probability that the government would be just as happily and effectually carried into execution without my aid.

“I call Heaven to witness, that this very act would be the greatest sacrifice of my personal feelings & wishes that ever I have been called upon to make.”

He added he would think he was “enveloped on every side with clouds and darkness.”

Washington finally wrote that if he were being prevailed upon to accept the appointment, he hoped that at a “convenient and early period, my services might be dispensed with, and that I might be permitted once more to retire–to pass an unclouded evening, after the stormy day of life, in the bosom of domestic tranquility.”

Washington had presided over the 1787 Constitutional Convention to legitimize and encourage the Constitution’s acceptance. His presence helped make the delegates unafraid that a strong executive branch would evolve into a monarchy.

Finally, after the letters insisting that he be president pushed him in that direction, Washington wrote Henry Knox that he felt “not unlike a culprit who is going to the place of his execution; quit a powerful a body for an ocean of difficulties without that competency of political skill-abilities and inclination necessary to manage the helm. Integrity and firmness is all I can promise.”

In September 1788, Congress declared Jan. 1, 1789, as the date for the states to select electors to vote for a president and vice president on the first Wednesday of March. The winter so ruined the roads that a quorum was not mustered until April.

On April 6, the senators and representatives met in New York and counted the electoral votes for president and vice president. Washington received all 69 votes for president, and John Adams–who, of course, would later become president himself–was elected to the vice presidency. Charles Thomson, long the old Confederation Congress secretary, reached Mount Vernon April 14 and informed Washington of his election.

For the full details, read the nine volumes of the The Papers of George Washington – Presidential Series, edited by Dorothy Twohig and W. W. Abbott for the University of Virginia Press, and Twohig’s George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment.

© 1998 The Washington Post Company

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