Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1788

In the wake of winning his country's independence and then overseeing the formation of its government, George Washington thought he had done enough. He desperately wanted to go home and live a quiet life, but Americans wanted no one else to lead them. No other person was seriously considered. America's first presidential campaign was really its citizens' efforts to convince Washington to accept the office. Letters poured into Mount Vernon—from citizens great and small, from former comrades in arms, even from other shores. Many told Washington that his country needed him more than ever and that there was no justification for his refusal. While he warmed slightly to the idea, he still told a friend, "I feel very much like a man who is condemned to death does when the time of his execution draws nigh."

As specified by the Constitution, the President was chosen by the Electoral College. In 1788, the method for selecting electors was decided by each state legislature—by public vote in some states and by legislative selection in others. Each state had as many electors as senators and representatives. The election was administered only in ten of the states because Rhode Island and North Carolina had yet to ratify the Constitution and a quarreling New York failed to choose electors in time. Each elector was given two votes to cast for President. Washington received the support of every one of the electors, each of whom cast one of the two ballots for him. John Adams, who received thirty-four votes, was the runner-up and was thus named vice president.

The Campaign and Election of 1792

Washington badly wanted to retire at the conclusion of his first term in 1792. He was now sixty years of age, his eyesight and hearing were deteriorating, and the peace and quiet of Mount Vernon beckoned. But he slowly realized that it was not to be, for many crucial issues remained unresolved. For example, there were ongoing problems stemming from the continuing French-British rivalry. Additionally, the political schism between America's northern and southern halves was so severe that there was even talk that the southern states might try to form a separate nation. Washington's advisers warned him that the times were too volatile to risk surrendering the presidency to someone lacking his popularity and moderation. Thus, one more time he won an election with a unanimous vote. Adams was again elected vice president.

Thomas Jefferson, tired of endless jousting with Hamilton and frustrated with Washington's tendency to side with his Treasury secretary, resigned his position as secretary of state in 1793. He was replaced by Attorney General Edmund Randolph, one of Washington's close friends. Jefferson had high political ambitions of his own that would require close watching. And Randolph would later break faith with his President.