The least exciting Presidential Election in United States history was held on February 4, 1789. On that day the votes of the first Electoral College under the shiny new Constitution were opened, read, and counted before the House of Representatives in the new temporary capital of New York City. Earlier, the Electors of each participating state had assembled in their state capitals to cast their votes. Of the 69 Electors who voted, 68 were Federalists—not yet a party but avowed supporters of the new Constitution—and one, from Georgia, was an Anti-Federalist.
Electors were chosen in a variety of ways. A minority were directly elected either state-wide or by Congressional or special electoral districts. Most were elected by state legislatures, most frequently by a state’s upper chamber or Senate. Because of that, property restrictions on voting, exclusion of Blacks slave or free, and of women, less than 1.3% of the adult population of the nation got to cast a popular vote for an elector, and thus indirectly for President. The total popular vote was only 38,818.
Only 10 of the 13 states participated in the election. North Carolina and Rhode Island could not because they had not yet ratified the Constitution. In New York Anti-Federalists led by Governor George Clinton and Federalists controlled by Alexander Hamilton deadlocked in the state legislature and failed to select their allotted 8 Electors. In addition, one Virginia district failed to report returns and was thus had no Elector. One Virginia and two Maryland Electors did not vote.
A total of 12 candidates were nominated for the Presidency, led by Revolutionary War Commander in Chief George Washington. But at first it was not certain that Washington would accept the post. Other candidate’s either hoped that Washington would stay in Virginia, or hoped to be selected Vice President. The candidates included the well-known— Minister to Great Britain John Adams, Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts, Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation John Jay, General Benjamin Lincoln, and governors of Connecticut, South Carolina, and Georgia. New York Governor Clinton was the best known Anti-Federalist. And there were less well known candidates—Robert H. Harrison of Maryland, Georgia Secretary of State John Milton, and James Armstrong who was so obscure that historians are not entirely sure about who he was or if he was from Pennsylvania or from Georgia, where one Elector pledged to him was elected.
In fact all of the secondary candidates had at least one pledged Elector, with Adams leading the pack.
When Washington finally signaled his willingness to serve, all participating Electors cast their votes for him, making him the only man ever unanimously elected president with 69 votes.
But under the new Constitution, each Elector cast two votes for President. The top total vote-getter—if he achieved a majority in the College—would be President and the second place finisher would be Vice President. Although locked out of the procedure by New York’s stalemate, Alexander Hamilton, acting as a Federalist whip, made sure that votes were withheld from Adams to ensure a clear victory for Washington. Other electors cast their second vote among the other candidates. Adams won with 36 votes, only one more than the needed 35.
Adams felt slighted by Hamilton’s work to keep his support down among Federalists. It was the beginning of a long, bitter rivalry for leadership of the Federalists as they morphed into a real political party.