George Washington, the commander of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, is unanimously elected the first president of the United States by all 69 presidential electors who cast their votes. John Adams of Massachusetts, who received 34 votes, was elected vice president. The electors, who represented 10 of the 11 states that had ratified the U.S. Constitution, were chosen by popular vote, legislative appointment, or a combination of both four weeks before the election.
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According to Article Two of the U.S. Constitution, the states appointed a number of presidential electors equal to the “number of Senators and Representatives to which the state may be entitled in Congress.” Each elector voted for two people, at least one of whom did not live in their state. The individual receiving the greatest number of votes was elected president, and the next-in-line, vice president. (In 1804, this practice was changed by the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which ordered separate ballots for the office of president and vice president.)
New York—though it was to be the seat of the new United States government—failed to choose its eight presidential electors in time for the vote on February 4, 1789. Two electors each from Virginia and Maryland were delayed by weather and did not vote. In addition, North Carolina and Rhode Island, which would have had seven and three electors respectively, had not ratified the Constitution and so could not vote.
That the remaining 69 unanimously chose Washington to lead the new U.S. government was a surprise to no one. As commander-in-chief during the Revolutionary War, he had led his inexperienced and poorly equipped army of civilian soldiers to victory over one of the world’s great powers. After the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, Washington rejected with abhorrence a suggestion by one of his officers that he use his preeminence to assume a military dictatorship. He would not subvert the very principles for which so many Americans had fought and died, he replied, and soon after, he surrendered his military commission to the Continental Congress and retired to his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.
When the Articles of Confederation proved ineffectual, and the fledging republic teetered on the verge of collapse, Washington again answered his country’s call and traveled to Philadelphia in 1787 to preside over the Constitutional Convention. Although he favored the creation of a strong central government, as president of the convention he maintained impartiality in the public debates. Outside the convention hall, however, he made his views known, and his weight of character did much to bring the proceedings to a close. The drafters created the office of president with him in mind, and on September 17, 1787, the document was signed.
The next day, Washington started for home, hoping that, his duty to his country again served, he could live out the rest of his days in privacy. However, a crisis soon arose when the Constitution fell short of its necessary ratification by nine states. Washington threw himself into the ratification debate, and a compromise agreement was made in which the remaining states would ratify the document in exchange for passage of the constitutional amendments that would become the Bill of Rights.
Government by the United States began on March 4, 1789. In April, Congress sent word to George Washington that he had unanimously won the presidency. He borrowed money to pay off his debts in Virginia and traveled to New York.
On April 30, he came across the Hudson River in a specially built and decorated barge. The inaugural ceremony was performed on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street, and a large crowed cheered after he took the oath of office. The president then retired indoors to read Congress his inaugural address, a quiet speech in which he spoke of “the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” The evening celebration was opened and closed by 13 skyrockets and 13 cannons.
As president, Washington sought to unite the nation and protect the interests of the new republic at home and abroad. Of his presidency, he said, “I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn in precedent.” He successfully implemented executive authority, making good use of brilliant politicians such as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in his Cabinet, and quieted fears of presidential tyranny. In 1792, he was unanimously reelected but four years later refused a third term.
In 1797, he finally began his long-awaited retirement at Mount Vernon. He died on December 14, 1799. His friend Henry Lee provided a famous eulogy for the father of the United States: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
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