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Monday, February 18, 2008

Presidential Campaign History: 1789 &1792

(Editor's note: On this Presidents' Day, I thought it would be appropriate to begin a multi-part history of Presidential campaigns. This combines two of my three obsessions (history and politics), and I'm going to see if I can fit in the third (sports) somewhere along the way. The series will be added to during down times of the election, so check back for a few months. Enjoy.)

Part 1: The Washington Years (1789, 1792)

In 1789, George Washington became the first and only President to garner unanimous support from the United States Electoral College. In the earliest form of the presidential election process, outlined by Article Two, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College, most of which was not at all beholden to the voting public, was made up of 69 electors, each of whom would cast two votes for president. The American (note: NOT politician) with the most votes became President, and the runner-up became Vice-President.

At the time, there were no political parties, nor was there bickering or campaigns. To campaign for oneself, or to declare oneself as a candidate for any high office, was considered arrogant and unbecoming. It was understood that if a person was a desirable leader, then someone else would nominate them for the office. The nomination would be seconded, and all groundwork for the candidate's campaign would be done by supporters - never by the candidate.

All 69 electors cast one of their two votes for George Washington in the election of 1789, a surprise to no one, and thusly he won the first presidential election in United States history. John Adams amassed votes on 34 of those ballots - the plurality among the runners up - thus becoming the nation's first Vice-President.

It was the United States' last election without political partisanship.

Article Two had thus far served its purpose - it set up a system where George Washington was guaranteed a victory. However, as the idea of Washington's mortality in office became clearer, the Framers had hardly prepared for jockeying from heirs who wanted to ideologically steer the country (either left to Federalism or right to Anti-Federalism) in the direction of their choosing. By the election of 1792, while no one would dare dream of a political opponent to the fantastically popular incumbent president, political parties had their first taste of a competitive national election, a dish they have been devouring ever since.

Washington himself, while never a member of any political party, usually leaned toward federalism. His most trusted advisor, Alexander Hamilton, was the most brilliant Federalist of the era, and pushed across a Federalist agenda as Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, including the institution of a national bank, much to the chagrin of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson and his states' rights platform naturally became the leader of the Anti-Federalist party, though he served dutifully under Washington and Adams. Still, he knew as well as anyone that the president to come after Washington could control the agenda of the executive branch.

With no illusions, private or public, of unseating Washington, the target of partisan attacks from the Anti-Federalists was his next in line, John Adams. His vice-presidency was targeted by the Anti-Federalists, who wanted the already predictable incumbency advantage to greater ensure the rights of states would be addressed and favored by Washington's successor.

Dating back to the country's first steps of independence, Adams had always argued in favor of a strong central government, similar to that of Great Britain. Treasury Secretary Hamilton often steered President Washington in such a direction, and therefore approved of a Federalist remaining as Washington's heir-apparent, though Hamilton's stance on Adams would eventually change. In opposition were the Anti-Federalists, who, needing a less resistive name, labeled themselves as Democratic-Republicans. They were led by State Secretary Jefferson and James Madison, a Virginia congressman who was a former Federalist when he had written the Constitution, but had broken ranks to join Jefferson after disagreeing with Hamilton on several fundamental issues.

These four goliaths of American politics, whom, along with Washington and Ben Franklin, were most responsible for the foundation of United States government, were now split in two groups. Vice-President Adams and Secretary Hamilton on one side; Secretary Jefferson and Congressman Madison on the other. In the late 18th century, these titanic fathers of American government were also the fathers of American partisan politics.

In an historical sense, the fight for the vice-presidency in 1792 served only as a prologue to the landmark presidential election of 1796, which in turn is only a prologue to the timeless election of 1800, but at the time, those watershed elections were still hidden over the horizon.

The Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison, wanted New York Governor and fellow Republican George Clinton to be Washington's Vice-President, and both tried to rally Republican electors across the country. However, the Republicans ended up fractured on whom they wanted to come in second to Washington. As an example of this confusion, Jefferson himself received six electoral votes after championing Clinton for months. Therefore, not only did Adams end up once again coming in second to renew the Washington-Adams Administration, but he did it by a larger margin than in 1789.

The American people had their first taste of Four More Years.

It seemed as though the only thing Jefferson and Hamilton had agreed upon as Washington's advisors was to push him toward a second term, for the sake of the country, despite Washington's reluctance to do so. Once that mission was a success in his 1792 re-election, they were free to return to divisiveness. Washington's second term was filled with strife in his divided cabinet, though one can argue it could have been worse for Washington. In early 1793, France's chief executive, Louis XVI, was guillotined. In comparison, a divided cabinet didn't seem so bad.

It was absolutely clear to all involved that Washington's second term would be his last, despite no law restricting a third term. (No such law would be created until ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951.) Thus, the election of 1796, the first presidential election sans Washington, was the first election where the winner was not a foregone conclusion - Washington was unopposed in '89 and '92 - and therefore became the first contested election in the country's history.

To read about the election of 1796, check back later today.

2 comments:

Jonathan said...

IC, are you published at all? This read very well! I look forward to more.

The Dude said...

Washington was a Titan...


like Roger Clemens.

I'd like to thank Rep.Dan Burton


Hows that for a sports tie-in ?

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