First U.S. Presidential Election

Congress sets January 7, 1789 as the date by which states are required to choose electors for the country's first-ever presidential election. A month later, on February 4, George Washington was elected president by state electors and sworn into office on April 30, 1789.

READ MORE: Every U.S. Presidential Election Since 1789

As it did in 1789, the United States still uses the Electoral College system, established by the U.S. Constitution, which today gives all American citizens over the age of 18 the right to vote for electors, who in turn vote for the president. The president and vice president are the only elected federal officials chosen by the Electoral College instead of by direct popular vote.

Today political parties usually nominate their slate of electors at their state conventions or by a vote of the party’s central state committee, with party loyalists often being picked for the job. Members of the U.S. Congress, though, can’t be electors. Each state is allowed to choose as many electors as it has senators and representatives in Congress. During a presidential election year, on Election Day (the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November), the electors from the party that gets the most popular votes are elected in a winner-take-all-system, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, which allocate electors proportionally. In order to win the presidency, a candidate needs a majority of 270 electoral votes out of a possible 538.

READ MORE: Why Was the Electoral College Created?

On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December of a presidential election year, each state’s electors meet, usually in their state capitol, and simultaneously cast their ballots nationwide. This is largely ceremonial: Because electors nearly always vote with their party, presidential elections are essentially decided on Election Day. Although electors aren’t constitutionally mandated to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state, it is demanded by tradition and required by law in 26 states and the District of Columbia (in some states, violating this rule is punishable by $1,000 fine). Historically, over 99 percent of all electors have cast their ballots in line with the voters. On January 6, as a formality, the electoral votes are counted before Congress and on January 20, the commander in chief is sworn into office.

Critics of the Electoral College argue that the winner-take-all system makes it possible for a candidate to be elected president even if he gets fewer popular votes than his opponent. This happened in the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016. However, supporters contend that if the Electoral College were done away with, heavily populated states such as California and Texas might decide every election and issues important to voters in smaller states would be ignored.

READ MORE: How the First 10 U.S. Presidents Helped Shape the Role of the Nation's Top Office

List of United States presidential elections by popular vote margin

In a United States presidential election, the popular vote is the total number or the percentage of votes cast for a candidate by voters in the 50 states and Washington, D.C. the candidate who gains the most votes nationwide is said to have won the popular vote. However, the popular vote is not used to determine who is elected as the nation's president or vice president. Thus it is possible for the winner of the popular vote to end up losing the election, an outcome that has occurred on five occasions, most recently in the 2016 election. This is because presidential elections are indirect elections the votes cast on Election Day are not cast directly for a candidate, but for members of the Electoral College. The Electoral College's electors then formally elect the president and vice president. [2] [3]

The Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1804) provides the procedure by which the president and vice president are elected electors vote separately for each office. Previously, electors cast two votes for president, and the winner and runner up became president and vice-president respectively.

The appointment of electors is a matter for each state's legislature to determine in 1872 and all elections since 1880, all states have used a popular vote to do so.

Election of 1800

The earliest election which scholars have identified as realigning was in 1800 when Thomas Jefferson defeated the incumbent John Adams. This election transferred power from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party to the Democratic-Republican Party which was led by Jefferson. Although some argue that this was the birth of the Democratic Party, in reality, the party was established in 1828 with the election of Andrew Jackson. Jackson defeated the incumbent, John Quincy Adams and resulted in the Southern States taking power from the original New England colonies.

The first presidential election

Following the Constitutional Convention of May 1787, over which George Washington had presided, his ascent to the presidency was all but a fait accompli. As commander of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, Washington had proven masterful at balancing the strategic and political demands of the office. His persistence and devotion to his men and his perpetual mindfulness of the ideals for which they were fighting won him the respect and loyalty of many. As a result, his signature on the new Constitution was a deciding endorsement for some of those who had opposed federalization.

Following the ratification of the Constitution by the necessary nine states in July of 1788, Congress set January 7 of the following year as the date by which states were required to choose electors. Those chosen would cast their votes a month later, on February 4. Washington was loath to leave the comforts of Mount Vernon, but his fellow Founding Fathers viewed his acceptance of the presidency as a foregone conclusion. On Feb. 4, 1789, electors convened in 10 states to cast their ballots. North Carolina, Rhode Island, and New York abstained from the process the former two states had not ratified the Constitution, and the latter was in the midst of an internecine legislative conflict. Of the 72 electors, all but three cast their ballots (electors voted for two candidates). Washington appeared on all 69 ballots, while nearly half the voters cast their second vote for John Adams, who was duly elected vice president. The remainder of the votes were divided among 10 other candidates.

On April 16, after receiving congressional notification of the honour, Washington set out from Mount Vernon, reaching New York City in time to be inaugurated on April 30 . His journey northward was a celebratory procession as people in every town and village through which he passed turned out to greet him, often with banners and speeches and in some places with triumphal arches. He came across the Hudson River in a specially built barge decorated in red, white, and blue. The inaugural ceremony was performed on Wall Street, near the spot now marked by John Quincy Adams Ward’s statue of Washington. A great crowd broke into cheers as Washington, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall, took the oath administered by Chancellor Robert Livingston and retired indoors to read to Congress his inaugural address. Washington was clad in a brown suit of American manufacture, but he wore white stockings and a sword after the fashion of European courts.

1960: Did the Daley machine deliver?

The� election pitted Republican Vice President Richard Nixon against Democratic U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy.

The popular vote was the closest of the 20th century, with Kennedy defeating Nixon by only about 100,000 votes – a less than 0.2 percent difference.

Because of that national spread – and because Kennedy officially defeated Nixon by less than 1 percent in five states (Hawaii, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico) and less than 2 percent in Texas – many Republicans cried foul. They fixated on two places in particular – southern Texas and Chicago, where a political machine led by Mayor Richard Daley allegedly churned out just enough votes to give Kennedy the state of Illinois. If Nixon had won Texas and Illinois, he would have had an Electoral College majority.

While Republican-leaning newspapers proceeded to investigate and conclude that voter fraud had occurred in both states, Nixon did not contest the results. Following the example of Cleveland in 1892, Nixon ran for president again in 1968 and won.

5. 1948

Democratic President Harry Truman was opposed by Republican candidate Thomas Dewey and by people within his own political party. He lost support of conservative Democrats in the south who didn’t agree with his stance on equal civil rights for African Americans and formed a new political party, called the Dixiecrats. According to a mid-October Gallup’s poll, Dewey would beat Trump by 5%. The results were not made public until Election Day and Truman believed he had lost the election. The Chicago Tribune even published the next day’s paper with a headline that read, “Dewey Defeats Truman”. The morning it published, the actual results showed that Truman had, in fact, won the election.

The First Real Two-Party U.S. Presidential Election in 1796

Washington's inauguration at Philadelphia: George Washington arriving at Congress Hall in Philadelphia, March 4, 1793.

On the day in April 1789 that he took the oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City as the first president of the United States, George Washington noted in his diary: ‘I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity, and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express.

Washington, who embodied the virtues exalted by his generation, had been given the unanimous vote of the new nation’s electors. He had done nothing to promote himself as a candidate for the presidency and had agreed to undertake the mammoth task with the utmost reluctance. Whatever his personal misgivings, Washington’s first term in office went smoothly. It was so successful, in fact, that in 1792 he once again received the electors’ unanimous endorsement.

Such smooth sailing of the ship of state could not be expected to last, however, and during President Washington’s second term, the United States–and thus its chief executive–began to experience the kinds of problems that plague any government. Relations with the former mother country deteriorated until it seemed that another war with Great Britain might be inevitable. And on the domestic front, groups of farmers, especially those in the westernmost counties of Pennsylvania, protested and rebelled against the Washington administration’s excise tax on the whiskey that they distilled from their grain, eventually rioting in the summer of 1794.

The hero of America’s revolution also suffered personal attacks on his character. Rumors had it that Washington was given to gambling, reveling, horseracing and horse whipping and that he had even taken British bribes while he was commanding American troops.

During the last weeks of 1795, reports spread through Philadelphia–then the national capital–that Washington planned to retire at the conclusion of his second term. It was true that similar rumors had circulated three years before, as the end of his first term drew near, but this time it appeared that he was determined to step down. Nearing his mid-sixties–a normal life span for a man in the eighteenth century–the president longed to retire to the tranquility of Mount Vernon, his beloved home in Virginia.

Although Washington said nothing to John Adams regarding his plans for retirement, his wife Martha hinted to the vice president near Christmas 1795 that her husband would be leaving office. Ten days later, Adams learned that the president had informed his cabinet that he would step down in March 1797.* You know the Consequences of this, to me and to yourself, Adams, aware that he might become the second president of the United States, wrote to his wife Abigail that same evening.

Adams’s ascension to the presidency would be neither automatic nor unanimous. Before achieving that high office, he would have to emerge victorious from America’s first contested presidential election.

* The March 4 date for the beginning of new terms of office went back to tradition begun under the Articles of Confederation and codified by Congressional legislation in 1792. The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1933, specified that henceforth Congressional terms would begin on January 3 and that an incoming president and vice president would take their oaths of office at noon on January 20 of the year following their election.

Eight years earlier, in September 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had considered numerous plans for choosing a president. They had rejected direct election by qualified voters because, as Roger Sherman of Connecticut remarked, a scattered population could never be informed of the characters of the leading candidates. The delegates also ruled out election by Congress. Such a procedure, Gouverneur Morris stated, would inevitably be the work of intrigue, cabal and of faction. Finally, the convention agreed to an electoral college scheme, whereby Each state shall appoint in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress. Presidential selection, therefore, would be decided through a state-by-state, rather than a national, referendum.

Each elector chosen by the voters or the legislature of his state would cast votes for two candidates, one of whom had to come from outside his state. The electors’ ballots would be opened in the presence of both houses of Congress.

If no one received a majority of the votes, or if two or more individuals tied with a majority of the electoral college votes, the members of the House of Representatives would cast ballots to elect the president.* Once the president had been decided upon, the candidate from among those remaining who had received the second largest number of electoral votes became the vice president.

* Not since 1824 has the winner of a presidential contest been decided by the House of Representatives. In that year, John Quincy Adams gained the presidency when one more than half of the members of the House cast their ballots in his favor, giving him the necessary majority.

The framers of the Constitution believed that most electors would judiciously cast their two ballots for persons of real merit, as Morris put it. Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist 68–one of a series of essays penned by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to encourage ratification of the Constitution in New York State–that it was a moral certainty that the electoral college scheme would result in the election of the most qualified man. Someone skilled in the art of intrigue might win a high state office, he wrote, but only a man nationally known for his ability and virtue could gain the support of electors from throughout the United States. Indeed, the electoral college plan worked well during the first two presidential elections in 1788 and 1792, when every elector had cast one of his ballots for Washington. But by 1796, something unforeseen by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had occurred men of different points of view had begun to form themselves into political parties.

The first signs of such factionalism appeared early in Washington’s presidency. On one side were the Federalists who yearned for an American society and national government established on the British model. Skeptical of the growing democratization of the new nation, the Federalists desired a centralized national government that would have the strength both to aid merchants and manufacturers and to safeguard America’s traditional hierarchical society.

By 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Congressman James Madison–both, like Washington, from Virginia–had taken steps to fashion an opposition party. Jefferson became the acknowledged leader of the new Anti-Federalists, a group soon known as the Democratic-Republican Party because of its empathy for the struggling republic that had emerged from the French Revolution of 1789. This party looked irreverently upon the past, was devoted to republican institutions, sought to give property-owning citizens greater control over their lives, and dreamt of an agrarian nation in which government would be small and weak.

Members of both parties ran candidates in congressional and state races in 1792, but they did not challenge President Washington. Partisanship, however, did surface that year in the contest for the vice presidency. Some Republicans acted behind the scenes in support . . . of removing Mr. A, as the clerk of the House noted, mainly because Adams’s writings on government included positive statements about the British monarchy. The movement came to naught because it did not have the support of Jefferson, who had known and liked Adams for nearly twenty years. Other Republicans rallied behind George Clinton, the newly elected governor of New York.

The activity of the Republicans threw a scare into the Federalists. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the acknowledged leader of the Federalists, was so worried that he urged Adams to cut short a vacation and campaign openly against those who were–as he said–ill disposed toward him. Adams, who regarded electioneering with contempt, refused to do so and remained on his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, until after the electors had cast their ballots.

By March 1796, when Washington finally told his vice president that he would not seek reelection, Adams had decided to run for the office of president. His decision was no light thing, he said, since he knew that as president he would be subjected to obloquy, contempt, and insult. He even told Abigail that he believed every chief executive was almost sure of disgrace and ruin. While she had mixed emotions about his decision, she did not discourage him from running. In fact, she told him that the presidency would be a flattering and Glorious Reward for his long years of service. Ultimately, Adams decided to seek the office because, he asserted, I love my country too well to shrink from danger in her service.

As he began his quest, Adams expected formidable opposition, especially from Jefferson. He foresaw three possible outcomes to the election: he might garner the most votes, with Jefferson running second Jefferson might win and John Jay of New York, long a congressman and diplomat, could finish second or Jefferson might be elected president, while he was himself reelected vice president. That last scenario was not one Adams was prepared to accept. He decided that he would not serve another term as vice president if he finished second again, he declared, he would either retire or seek election to the House of Representatives.

Adams considered himself the heir apparent to President Washington, having languished in the vice presidency–which he described as the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived–for eight years, awaiting his turn. Furthermore, he believed that no man had made greater sacrifices for the nation during the American Revolution than he. In addition to risking his legal career to protest British policies, he sat as a member of the First Continental Congress for three years and served abroad from 1778-88, making two perilous Atlantic crossings to carry out his diplomatic assignments. During that ten years, his public service had forced him to live apart from his wife and five children nearly ninety percent of the time.

Jefferson often proclaimed his disdain for politics, even though he held political office almost continuously for forty years. As 1796 unfolded, he neither made an effort to gain the presidency nor rebuffed the Republican maneuvers to elect him to that office. When he resigned as secretary of state in 1793, Jefferson had said that he did not plan to hold public office again and would happily remain at Monticello, his Virginia estate. But, while he did not seek office in 1796, neither did he say that he would not accept the presidential nomination. Adams –and most Republicans–interpreted Jefferson’s behavior as indicating that he wanted to be president.

The Constitution said nothing about how to select presidential nominees. In 1800, the Republican Party would choose its candidates in a congressional nominating caucus in 1812, the first nominating conventions were held in several states and the first national nominating convention took place in 1832. But in 1796, the nominees seemed to materialize out of thin air, as if by magic. In actuality, the party leaders decided on the candidates and attempted to herd their followers into line.

The Federalists’ support centered on Adams and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina. Pinckney, who had recently negotiated a successful treaty with Spain that established territorial and traffic rights for the United States on the Mississippi River, was chosen for the second slot on the ticket by the party moguls–without consulting Adams–in part because as a Southerner, he might siphon Southern votes from Jefferson.

On the Republican side, Madison confided to James Monroe in February that Jefferson alone can be started with hope of success, [and we] mean to push him. The Republicans also endorsed Senator Aaron Burr of New York.

All this transpired quietly, for Washington did not publicly announce his intention of retiring until the very end of the summer. Not that the parties’ plans were a mystery. Before Washington finally informed the nation of his decision on September 19, 1796, in his Farewell Address–which was not delivered orally but was printed in Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser–the keenly partisan Philadelphia Aurora declared that it requires no talent at divination to decide who will be candidates. . . . Thomas Jefferson & John Adams will be the men.

But Washington’s address, said congressman Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, was a signal, like dropping a hat, for the party racers to start. During the next ten weeks, the presidential campaign of 1796 was waged, as Federalists and Republicans–with the exception, for the most part, of the candidates themselves–worked feverishly for victory.

Adams, Jefferson, and Pinckney never left home. While their parties took stands on the major issues of the day, these men embraced the classical model of politics, refusing to campaign. They believed that a man should not pursue an office rather, the office should seek out the man. They agreed that the most talented men–what some called an aristocracy of merit–should govern, but also that ultimate power rested with the people. The qualified voters, or the elected representatives of the people, were capable of selecting the best men from among the candidates on the basis of what Adams called the pure Principles of Merit, Virtue, and public Spirit.

Burr alone actively campaigned. Although he did not make any speeches, he visited every New England state and spoke with several presidential electors. Many Federalist and Republican officeholders and supporters spoke at rallies, but most of the electioneering took place through handbills, pamphlets, and newspapers.

The campaign was a rough and tumble affair. The Republicans sought to convince the electorate that their opponents longed to establish a titled nobility in America and that Adams–whom they caricatured as His Rotundity because of his small, portly stature–was a pro-British monarchist. President Washington was assailed for supporting Hamilton’s aggressive economic program, as well as for the Jay Treaty of 1795, which had settled outstanding differences between the United States and Britain. The Philadelphia Aurora went so far as to insist that the president was the source of all the misfortunes of our country.

The Federalists responded by portraying Jefferson as an atheist and French puppet who would plunge the United States into another war with Great Britain. They also charged that he was indecisive and a visionary. A philosopher makes the worst politician, one Federalist advised, while another counseled that Jefferson was fit to be a professor in a college . . . but certainly not the first magistrate of a great nation. Newspapers such as the Gazette of the United States and Porcupine’s Gazette asserted that Jefferson’s election would result in domestic disorder.

Behind-the-scenes maneuvering included a plan by Hamilton, who felt that Pinckney could be more easily manipulated than Adams, to have one or two Federalist electors withhold their votes for Adams. Hearing rumors of the ploy, several New England electors conferred and agreed not to cast a ballot for Pinckney.

Even the French minister to the United States, Pierre Adet, became involved in the election by seeking to convey the impression that a victory for Jefferson would result in improved relations with France. As one historian has noted: Never before or since has a foreign power acted so openly in an American election.

Sixteen states took part in the balloting. The 138 electors were chosen by popular vote in six states and by the state legislatures of the remaining ten. Seventy votes were required to win a majority.

Adams expected to receive all of New England’s 39 votes, but he also had to win all 12 of New York’s votes and 19 from the other middle and southern states to win. He concluded that was impossible, especially after learning of Hamilton’s machinations. On the eve of the electoral college vote, Adams remarked privately that Hamilton had outgeneraled all the other politicians and stolen the election for Pinckney.

The electors voted in their respective state capitals on the first Wednesday in December, but the law stipulated that the ballots could not be opened and counted until the second Wednesday in February. And so for nearly seventy days, every conceivable rumor circulated regarding the outcome of the election. By the third week in December, however, one thing was clear, Jefferson could not get seventy votes. Although 63 electors were Southerners, the South was a two-party region, and it was known that Jefferson had not received a vote from every Southern elector. In addition, because the Federalists controlled the legislatures in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, it was presumed that Jefferson would be shut out in those states.

Beyond that, nothing was certain. Many believed that Pinckney would win, either because of Hamilton’s supposed chicanery or because all the Jeffs, as Ames called the Southern Republican electors, supposedly had cast their second ballot for the South Carolinian in order to ensure that a Southerner succeed Washington. A good number of Americans fully expected that no candidate would get a majority of the votes, thus sending the election to the House of Representatives.

By the end of December, better information arrived in Philadelphia when Ames informed Adams that he had at least 71 electoral votes. On December 28, Jefferson wrote Adams a congratulatory letter and at Washington’s final levee in 1796, the First Lady told the vice president of her husband’s delight at his victory. Persuaded that he was indeed the victor, an ebullient Adams wrote his wife at year’s end that he had never felt more serene in his life.

Finally, on February 8, 1797, the sealed ballots were opened and counted before a joint session of Congress. Ironically, it was Vice President Adams, in his capacity as president of the Senate, who read aloud the results. The tabulation showed that Adams had indeed garnered 71 votes. Every New England and New York elector had voted for him. The tales about Hamilton’s treachery had been untrue ultimately, the former treasury secretary found the prospect of a Jefferson administration too distasteful to risk the subterfuge necessary to defeat Adams, who also got, as expected, all ten votes from New Jersey and Delaware. And in a sense, Adams won the election in the South, having secured nine votes in Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Jefferson, who finished second with 68 votes, automatically became the new vice president.* One Federalist elector in Virginia, the representative of a western district that long had exhibited hostility toward the planter aristocracy, voted for Adams and Pinckney, as did four electors from commercial, Federalist enclaves in Maryland and North Carolina. Whereas Adams secured enough votes in the South to push him over the top, Jefferson did not receive a single electoral vote in New England or in New York, New Jersey, or Delaware. Pinckney, not Adams, was the real victim of Hamilton’s rumored duplicity. To ensure that the South Carolinian did not obtain more votes than Adams, 18 Federalist electors in New England refused to give him their vote.

* This first contested presidential election demonstrated a flaw in the Constitution’s electoral college scheme since the country now had a Federalist president and a Republican vice president. Four years later, the two republican candidates, Jefferson and Burr, each received 73 electoral votes. Although it was clear during the election campaign that Jefferson was the presidential candidate and Burr the vice presidential, Burr refused to concede, forcing a vote in the House of Representatives that brought Jefferson into office. To correct these defects the Twelfth Amendment, which provided for separate balloting for president and vice president, was adopted in 1804.

Had Pinckney received 12 of those votes, the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives. Instead, he finished third with 59 electoral votes. Burr polled only thirty votes. Southern Republicans–perhaps sharing the sentiment of the Virginia elector who remarked that there were traits of character in Burr which sooner or later will give us much trouble–rejected him.

Even among the enfranchised citizens, few bothered to cast ballots in this election. In Pennsylvania, a state in which the electors were popularly chosen, only about one-quarter of the eligible voters went to the polls. But the contest in Pennsylvania was an augury of the political changes soon to come. The Republicans swept 14 of the state’s 15 electoral votes, winning in part because they outpoliticked their opponents by running better-known candidates for the electoral college and because Minister Adet’s intrusive comments helped Jefferson among Quakers and Philadelphia merchants who longed for peace. Many voters had rejected the Federalist Party because they thought of it as a pro-British, pro-aristocratic party committed to an economic program designed to benefit primarily the wealthiest citizens.

And what occurred in Pennsylvania was not unique. Jefferson won more than eighty percent of the electoral college votes in states outside New England that chose their electors by popular vote. In an increasingly democratic United States, the election of 1796 represented the last great hurrah for the Federalist Party.

On March 4, 1797, America’s first orderly transferal of power occurred in Philadelphia when George Washington stepped down and John Adams took the oath as the second president of the United States. Many spectators were moved to tears during this emotional affair, not only because Washington’s departure brought an era to a close, but because the ceremony represented a triumph for the republic. Adams remarked that this peaceful event was the sublimist thing ever exhibited in America. He also noted Washington’s joy at surrendering the burdens of the presidency. In fact, Adams believed that Washington’s countenance seemed to say: Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest.

This article was written by By John Ferling and originally published in the December 1996 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!

The Presidential Election of 1960

John F. Kennedy, a wealthy Democratic senator from Massachusetts, was elected president in 1960, defeating Vice President Richard Nixon. Though he clearly won the electoral vote, Kennedy's received only 118,000 more votes than Nixon in this close election.

In his inaugural address, Kennedy said, "Let the word go forth . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans-born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage." Kennedy also challenged Americans to think of ways they could serve, saying "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." This statement and Kennedy's enthusiasm appealed to many young idealists. But Kennedy also had won the votes of many traditional Democratic voters-members of labor unions, African Americans, and members of other ethnic groups.

Some analysts see the 1960 election as a turning point in American politics. Following the election, some aspects of the political process seemed to have changed forever. As you examine the documents listed to the right, look for factors that made the 1960 election different from preceding elections. What helped account for John Kennedy's appeal? What set him apart from Richard Nixon and from previous presidential candidates? In what ways was he like other candidates?

Format of the First Televised Presidential Debate

An estimated 70 million Americans tuned in to the first televised debate, which was the first of four that year and the first time two presidential candidates met face-to-face during a general election campaign. The first televised debate was broadcast by CBS affiliate WBBM-TV in Chicago, which aired the forum in place of the regularly scheduled Andy Griffith Show.

The moderator of the first 1960 presidential debate was CBS journalist Howard K. Smith. The forum lasted 60 minutes and focused on domestic issues. A panel of three journalists—Sander Vanocur of NBC News, Charles Warren of Mutual News, and Stuart Novins of CBS—asked questions of each candidate.

Both Kennedy and Nixon were allowed to make 8-minute opening statements and 3-minute closing statements. In between, they were allowed 2 and a half minutes to respond to questions and a short amount of time for rebuttals to their opponent.

First U.S. Presidential Election - HISTORY

1789 to the present

* (asterisk) indicates the earliest date Presidential Electors could be "appointed" in a State (whether by Popular Vote or not) in these Presidential Elections, the latest date such Electors could be chosen (presumably, by methods other than Popular Election, such as- for example- choice by the Legislature) was, of course, the date Electors were scheduled to cast their votes in any event.

A date in italics indicates that a date other than the statutorily-defined date was utilized due to special circumstances (as explained below this table).

Four times in American History a Tabulation Joint Session of Congress itself did not declare a person to be elected either President or Vice-President (or both) on the date on which it met: a list of these circumstances follows:

  • Election No. 4 (1800) A tie in the Electoral Vote for President (at the time, each Elector voted for two persons for President) resulted in the U.S. House of Representatives (voting by State- and not as individual Congressmen)- after 36 ballots held over several days- electing Thomas Jefferson President (the other candidate in the Electoral Vote tie, Aaron Burr, became Vice President under the constitutional provisions of the time).
  • Election No. 10 (1824) No candidate having received a majority of the Electoral Vote for President (by now, under terms of the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Electors voted separately for President and Vice-President: John Calhoun had already received a majority of the Electoral Vote for Vice-President), the U.S. House of Representatives, voting (by State- and not as individual Congressmen) on a single ballot, elected- as President- John Quincy Adams, who had finished second to Andrew Jackson in the Electoral Vote for President.
  • Election No. 13 (1836) No candidate having received a majority of the Electoral Vote for Vice-President (Martin Van Buren had already received a majority of the Electoral Vote for President), the U.S. Senate (voting as individual Senators- not by State) elected, as Vice-President, Richard Mentor Johnson.
  • Election No. 23 (1876) As described more fully below this table, disputed Electoral Votes coming out of several States made it impossible for Congress- via the ordinary constitutional machinery- to determine just who had been elected both President and Vice-President.

Election No. [for (N)th Administration]:

As is the case with Congresses of two years' duration each, Presidential Administrations of four years' duration- likewise- can be numbered (in fact, the number of a given four year "Administration" is half of the number of the later of the two Congresses in office during that Administration: for example, because it was the 110th Congress that was meeting during the last two years of President George W. Bush's second term, those four years of that term make up the 55th Administration [110/2 = 55]).

Although it is altogether unofficial, Presidential Elections can be numbered according to the number of the Administration of the President that has been elected therein (thus, the 2004 Presidential Election- which resulted in President George W. Bush being elected to a second term [again, the aforementioned 55th Adminstration]- was Presidential Election No. 55).

Date Presidential Electors "appointed" [Presidential Election]:

Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of Electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.
from Article II, Section 1, clause 2 of the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES

The "appointment" (to use the proper constitutional language, as seen above) of Presidential Electors is what ordinary Americans mean when we say 'Presidential Election' - even though many Americans are most unaware that they are really choosing a slate of Electors rather than, as they would describe what they are doing, "voting for President" (and- obviously, at the very same time- Vice President).

The Congress may determine the time of choosing the Electors.
from Article II, Section 1, clause 4 of the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES

Nowadays, this is the day United States citizens resident in the 50 constituent States of the Union and the District of Columbia who wish to vote in said Presidential Election (and are, indeed, eligible [and have registered] to do so) go to their respective polling places and cast their votes (although several States now permit Early Voting and, even apart from this, many Americans will vote by Absentee Ballot- in each case, actually casting votes well before this date [but their votes will not be counted until this date])- but, in the earliest days of the Federal Republic, it was merely the date- or dates- on which each State formally chose its Presidential Electors (whether such choice was by Popular Vote of the State citizenry or not-- not until 1836 did all but one State allow for Popular Vote for President [in reality, the People of the States "appointing"- to use the language found in the U.S. Constitution itself- their State's Presidential Electors thereby]).

What follows is the actual text of the regulations for said Presidential Election (again, this being the date Presidential Electors are to be "appointed") and the election years in which a given regulation was actually in effect:

. [T]he first Wednesday in January next be the day for appointing Electors in the several States.
from Resolution of 13 September 1788 by the Confederation [=Continental] Congress

. [E]lectors shall be appointed in each State for the election of a President and Vice-President of the United States, withint thirty-four days preceding the first Wednesday in December, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-two, and within thirty-four days preceding the first Wednesday in December in every fourth year succeeding the last election, which Electors shall be equal to the number of Senators and Representatives, to which the several States may by Law be entitled at the time.
from 1 Stat. 239, Section 1

. [T]he Electors of President and Vice-President shall be appointed in each State on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November of the year in which they are to be appointed.
from 5 Stat. 721

although the date of the Presidential Election itself was not at all changed, the verbiage in the relevant statute was later tweaked as follows:

The Electors of President and Vice President shall be appointed, in each State, on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November, in every fourth year succeeding every election of a President and Vice President.
from 62 Stat. 672, now codified as United States Code: Title 3, section 1 [3 USC 1]

Date Electors cast their votes in the several States:

The Electors shall meet in their respective States and vote by ballot.
from Article II, Section 1, clause 3 of the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES (language retained in the 12th AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution)

The Presidential Electors so "appointed"- nowadays, however indirectly, by vote of the People in each of the several States of the Union (and D.C.)- must later meet in each jurisdiction (note that- despite prevalent use of the term- there is no such thing as a single "Electoral College" all meeting together rather, the Electors from each State [and D.C.] meet separately- thus, there are really 51 separate "electoral colleges") and cast their votes for President and Vice-President.

[The Congress may determine]. the day on which [the Electors] shall give their votes, which day shall be the same throughout the United States.
from Article II, Section 1, clause 4 of the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES

Even though they do meet separately, the Electors must meet on the very same day and the actual text of the regulations governing just which day is to be the date of these separate "electoral colleges"- along with the election years in which said regulations were in force- follow:

. [T]he first Wednesday in February next be the day for the Electors to assemble in their respective States and vote for a President.
from Resolution of 13 September 1788 by the Confederation [=Continental] Congress

. [T]he Electors shall meet and give their votes on the. first Wednesday in December.
from 1 Stat. 239, Section 2

. [T]he Electors of each State shall meet and give their votes on the second Monday in January next following their appointment.
from 24 Stat. 373, Section 1

The Electors of President and Vice President of each State shall meet and give their votes on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December next following their appointment
from 62 Stat. 673, now codified as United States Code: Title 3, Section 7 [3 USC 7]

Date Electoral Vote tabulated by a Joint Session of Congress:

. The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates [containing the Electoral Vote from each jurisdiction], and the votes shall then be counted.
from Article II, Section 1, clause 3 of the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES (language retained in the 12th AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution)

Even with the Presidential Electors having met and fufilled their constitutional obligations, a President (or, for that matter, Vice President) of the United States is not officially elected unless and until the Congress of the United States says he or she is. In this regard (and despite the oft-heard claim that the U.S. Supreme Court "really" elected George W. Bush President back in 2000), Congress is- more or less- the "umpire" or "referee" in any and all Presidential Elections.

A Joint Session of Congress counts and tabulates the Electoral Vote sent to it by the "electoral colleges" in the several States and the District of Columbia (thus, this meeting of the Federal legislature is colloquially referred to as the "Tabulation Joint Session") and then- assuming, of course, that a candidate has received a majority of the total Electoral Vote- officially declares just who has been elected President (and Vice President).

As with the dates of the Presidential Election (that is, "appointing" of the Electors) and the several "electoral colleges" themselves, the date on which Congress holds this Tabulation Joint Session is also regulated by statute. What follows is the actual text of such regulations (and, again, the elections for which they were in effect):

. [T]he first Wednesday in March be the time. for commencing proceedings under the. Constitution.
from Resolution of 13 September 1788 by the Confederation [=Continental] Congress
(NOTE: Thus, 4 March 1789 was the earliest date on which the Electoral Vote could be formally counted by Congress as things turned out, the First Congress did not achieve a quorum in both houses [necessary in order to hold a Joint Session of the entire Congress] until 6 April 1789 and, so, the Electoral Vote coming out of the first Presidential Election was not counted and tabulated by Congress until that date)

1792 through 1872 1880 through 1932:

. Congress shall be in session on the second Wednesday in February, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three, and on the second Wednesday in February succeeding every meeting of the Electors, and the certificates [containing the Electoral Vote from each jurisdiction]. shall then be opened, the votes counted, and the persons who shall fill the offices of President and Vice-President ascertained and declared, agreeably to the Constitution.
from 1 Stat. 239, Section 5
[NOTE: The Election of 1876 (the [in?]famous 'Disputed Election' between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes) was a special case-- please see what immediately follows]

. [T]he Senate and House of Representatives shall meet. on the first Thursday in February, anno Domini eighteen hundred and seventy-seven.
from 19 Stat. 227, Section 1

It became apparent, well before the Tabulation Joint Session of Congress following this Presidential Election (that is, the "appointing" of Electors by the People of the several States via the ballot) was scheduled to meet on 14 February 1877, that something was terribly wrong with the Electoral Vote coming out of the meetings of more than a few "electoral colleges" held on 6 December 1876: not only would the Electoral Vote be altogether close (as could be easily discerned from the reports of the Popular Returns in each State as already published in newspapers around the Nation) but at least three States in the South (this still being the era of post-Civil War Reconstruction) were sending two sets of Electoral Votes- one in favor of each Major Party presidential candidate- to Congress. To make matters worse, one of these Major Parties controlled one house of the (in those days, it was the outgoing ["lame duck"]) Congress, while the other Party controlled the other (so there was no possibility of a mere Party line vote in Congress electing one Party's candidate President in any event).

To this end, Congress quickly passed legislation (it was signed into law by outgoing President Ulysses S. Grant on 29 January 1877) completely bypassing the whole, more usual, process of Electoral Vote counting, instead requiring Congress to hold what would otherwise be the normal Tabulation Joint Session early- in this case, on 1 February 1877- to discern just which States were in dispute and then formally handing such disputes over to a so-called "Electoral Commission" consisting of Senators, Congressmen and U.S. Supreme Court Justices appointed to the task by Congress itself (the earlier-than-usual meeting of Congress in Tabulation Joint Session was intended to buy the Electoral Commission more time [an extra fortnight] in which to resolve these disputes, for there was ever a looming deadline of 4 March 1877, on which date a new President- whoever it turned out to be- would have to take office [if only because, by a combination of constitutional fiat and Federal statute, President Grant's term ended- no matter what!- on that very date]).

. [after the Electoral Commission has determined which Electors' vote shall be officially counted in each of the disputed States] the two houses shall again meet, and such decision [of the Electoral Commission] shall be read and entered in the journal of each House, and the counting of the [Electoral] votes shall proceed in conformity therewith.
from 19 Stat. 227, Section 2

Congress, thus, would have to hold a "follow-up" Joint Session after the Electoral Commission had reported its decision as regarded each State re: which its Electoral Vote was in dispute and the last such Joint Session to count and tabulate a disputed State's Electoral Vote as decided by the Electoral Commission was held on 2 March 1877, just two days before the new President thereby elected [Rutherford B. Hayes] would constitutionally take office (interestingly, Hayes was not publicly inaugurated until 5 March 1877 because 4 March- the date on which, at the time, a newly-elected Congress as well as a newly-elected President took office- happened to fall on a Sunday that year however, because the 1876 Presidential Election dispute had been so politically charged [the vote of the Electoral Commission itself had been along Party lines, 8-7 in favor of the Republican Electors, in all disputed cases], there were actual fears of a coup d'etat instigated by supporters of Tilden! Thus, Hayes was first sworn in privately, at the White House on the invitation of outgoing President Grant, on the evening of Saturday 3 March [it also didn't help that neither Constitution nor statute made clear just when, on 4 March, the President actually took office inaugurating the President during the day was traditional but there was an argument to be made that his Term of Office, as well as those of Congressmen and newly elected or re-elected U.S. Senators- had actually begun at Midnight Local Mean Time in Washington (Standard Time was still a decade away in 1877): to this end, an outgoing Congress- never all that sure it had any authority to act early on a given 4 March- always adjourned sine die no later than 3 March. it is for this very reason that the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution- which moved up the beginnings of terms of members of Congress to 3 January and the term of a President to 20 January- purposely makes clear that terms of office begin- and end- at Noon in the Nation's Capital (now on Eastern Standard Time, of course)]).

Congress shall be in session on the sixth day of January succeeding every meeting of the Electors. [and] all the certificates and papers purporting to be certificates of the electoral votes. shall be opened, presented, and acted upon.
from 62 Stat. 675, now codified as United States Code: Title 3, section 15 [3 USC 15]

There have been, since the 1936 Presidential Election, six exceptions to 6 January being the date for the Tabulation Joint Session: two of these were merely because 6 January happened to fall on a Sunday- in 1957 and 1985- and, in each such case, the Tabulation Joint Session was held on the following day (thus, these do not appear in italics in the table above).

Four other cases, however, were expressly permitted by statute:

[I]n carrying out the procedure set forth in section 15 of Title 3, United States Code, for 1989, `the fourth day of January' shall be substituted for `the sixth day of January' in the first sentence of such section.
102 Stat. 3341 (adopted 9 November 1988)--
thereby, the Tabulation Joint Session of Congress resulting from the 1988 Presidential Election was held two days early relative to the statutory date- on 4 January 1989

The meeting of the Senate and House of Representatives to be held in January 1997 pursuant to section 15 of Title 3, United States Code, to count the electoral votes for President and Vice President cast by the electors in December 1996 shall be held on January 9, 1997 (rather than on the date specified in the first sentence of that section).
110 Stat. 3558 (adopted 11 October 1996)--
thereby, the Tabulation Joint Session of Congress resulting from the 1996 Presidential Election was held three days late relative to the statutory date- on 9 January 1997 (this last was necessitated by the newly-elected 105th Congress not even first convening for its First Session until 7 January of that year)

The meeting of the Senate and House of Representatives to be held in January 2009 pursuant to section 15 of title 3, United States Code, to count the electoral votes for President and Vice President cast by the electors in December 2008 shall be held on January 8, 2009 (rather than on the date specified in the first sentence of that section).
122 Stat. 4846 (adopted 15 October 2008)--
thereby, the Tabulation Joint Session of Congress resulting from the 2008 Presidential Election was to be held two days late relative to the statutory date- on 8 January 2009 (this last necessitated by the newly-elected 111th Congress not even first convening for its First Session until 6 January of that year)

The meeting of the Senate and House of Representatives to be held in January 2013 pursuant to section 15 of title 3, United States Code, to count the electoral votes for President and Vice President cast by the electors in December 2012 shall be held on January 4, 2013 (rather than on the date specified in the first sentence of that section). 126 Stat. 1610 (adopted 28 December 2012)--
thereby, the Tabulation Joint Session of Congress resulting from the 2012 Presidential Election was to be held two days early relative to the statutory date- on 4 January 2013 (this last necessitated by the fact that 6 January happened to fall on a Sunday that year).

In these four cases immediately above, the date of the Tabulation Joint Session does appear in italics in the table.

Presidential Election of 1789

George Washington&rsquos cabinet included just four original members: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. Washington set the precedents for how these roles would interact with the presidency, establishing the cabinet as the chief executive's private, trusted advisors.

Mount Vernon Collections

The Material Culture of the Presidency

Aware that he would be closely scrutinized, Washington self-consciously chose clothing and household furnishings that would convey a particular message about his style and character.


The Inauguration

Historian Edward J. Larsen discusses Washington's first inauguration in this video from Mount Vernon on Vimeo.

In 1789, the first presidential election, George Washington was unanimously elected president of the United States. With 69 electoral votes, Washington won the support of each participating elector. No other president since has come into office with a universal mandate to lead.

Between December 15, 1788 and January 10, 1789, the presidential electors were chosen in each of the states. On February 4, 1789, the Electoral College convened. Ten states cast electoral votes: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia. New York, however, failed to field a slate of electors. North Carolina and Rhode Island were unable to participate because they had not yet ratified the Constitution. After a quorum was finally established, the Congress counted and certified the electoral vote count on April 6.

Washington was both an obvious first choice for president and possibly the only truly viable choice. He was both a national hero and the favorite son of Virginia, the largest state at the time. Washington ascended to the presidency with practical experience, having served as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

According to Article II of the Constitution, each elector in the Electoral College possessed two votes. The candidate who received a majority of the votes was elected president. The candidate with the second most votes in the Electoral College, whether a majority or a plurality, was elected vice president. Behind Washington, John Adams, who most recently had served as the first U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, finished with 34 electoral votes and became the first vice president of the United States. Being from Massachusetts, Adams&rsquo election provided the administration a regional balance between the South and North. Other candidates receiving multiple electoral votes were John Jay (9), Robert Harrison (6), John Rutledge (6), John Hancock (4), and George Clinton (3). Five candidates split the remaining seven votes. Upon hearing the news of his decisive election, Washington set out from Mount Vernon to take his place in presidential history. Though filled with great anxiety, Washington reported for duty "in obedience to the public summons" and explained that "the voice of my Country called me."

On April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City, the first capital of the United States, Washington took the presidential oath of office. With a hand on the Bible, a "sacred volume" borrowed from a local Masonic lodge and subsequently known as the "George Washington Inaugural Bible," he said, "I, George Washington, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." At that moment, the Chancellor of the State of New York, Robert Livingston, the person who administered the oath to the first chief executive, exclaimed, "Long live George Washington, President of the United States!"

D. Jason Berggren
Georgia Southwestern State University


Boller, Paul, Jr. Presidential Campaigns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Greenstein, Fred I. "Presidential Difference in the Early Republic: The Highly Disparate Leadership Styles of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson," Presidential Studies Quarterly 36, no. 3 (September 2006): 373-390.

Landy, Marc, and Sidney M. Milkis. Presidential Greatness. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

McDonald, Forrest. The Presidency of George Washington. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1988.

Michaelsen, William B. Creating the American Presidency, 1775-1789. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987.

Watch the video: The First Presidential Election Explained (January 2022).