Thirteen months to go, and even a Dirty Trick fans like myself can get a little weary of the barrage of political chicanery coming down the presidential line. When that happens, I like to go back to the very first time we tried this thing, in 1789.
“Welcome, mighty chief! Once more
Welcome to this mighty shore
Now no mercenary foe—
Aims at thee the fatal blow!”
--Ode to George Washington performed by thirteen girls (one for each of the new states) as Washington journeyed to his first inauguration
In the very beginning—before Mitt, Obama Hillary, John, Rudy et al—in the beginning, electing a president was a clean, sober and dignified business.
Before the first Presidential election, in 1789, Alexander Hamilton envisioned future candidates as men “most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite…to complicated investigations.” Those who chose such men would, by definition, be men of high seriousness and probity themselves—the kind of men who might pick a pastor for their church, or select the head of a new university.
And, the first time, it worked out pretty much that way.
In 1789, America had just been born—since the birth pains included a bloody and divisive war, a calming paternal figure was needed. The only one who really fit the bill was Commander-in-Chief George Washington, who was even then being called “the father of his country.”
Washington was not happy about being the anointed one. He was a genuinely reluctant leader who, at the age of 56, thought he was past his prime to undertake such a challenge (he told his future secretary of war Henry Knox: “My movement to the Chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”).
But Washington had chaired the Constitutional Convention, which met in Philadelphia in 1787 to create a coherent democratic governing system. His friends Alexander Hamilton and James Madison convinced him that America needed his presence—if only to make sure make sure that the gains of the Revolution did not disappear in factional in-fighting between state’s rights advocates and those who favored a strong central government.
Never mind that the General had some decidedly undemocratic ways about him—such as his habit of referring to himself in the third person and his refusal to shake hands (he preferred bowing). Washington was the man, all the way.
Not only was this presidential election the first in American history, but it was the quickest. Following rules set down in the newly ratified Constitution, each state chose its presidential electors in January, 1789 (all except for New York, which failed to appoint its allotted eight electors in time, and thus sat out this first election). There was no popular vote and there would not be one until 1828. With the first Electoral College thus constituted, the electors cast their votes for two different people—a point that would become extremely controversial in early American history. The man receiving the most votes would become President the person coming second in would be Vice-President.
During these winter months came the only hint of skullduggery in this first presidential election. The crafty Alexander Hamilton urged electors to “waste” their second votes, so that his rival John Adams—patriot and framer of the Declaration of Independence—would have absolutely no chance of becoming President.
This little bit of connivance was quite unnecessary, since Washington had everything sewn up from the beginning and walked away with all 69 electoral votes. The only effect it had was to royally piss Adams off and he would later complain about the “scurvy manner” in which he had been made vice-president.
It was a foreshadowing of things to come, but, for now, all was wonderful. Although a new government could not begin operation until April, instead of the early March date mandated in the Constitution—only a few senators and representatives had shown up when they were supposed to—Washington made his triumphal entry into New York, the nation’s temporary capital, on April 30, 1789. Thousands of spectators thronged the road that led from Mount Vernon, cheering and tossing flowers. Washington was ferried across the Hudson on a fifty-foot barge manned by thirteen white smocked sailors surrounded by a veritable flotilla of ships filled to the gunwales with celebrants who sang his praises to the spring skies.
In more ways than one, the election of 1789 was the smoothest sailing an American presidential candidate would ever have.