April 30, 1789 – George Washington became the first U.S. President as he took the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City.
The ratification of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the American Revolutionary War, did not create the United States. Instead, it created 13 states independent from England – and each other. The loose affiliation of these states under the Articles of Confederation, by which they jointly fought against their common enemy, England, proved woefully insufficient to face the challenges that independence brought. Consequently, in 1787, the political elite from these states held a convention in Philadelphia to write a new Constitution and create a new, united nation.
Although the authors of this new constitution agreed early on to a government with three separate branches – legislative, executive, and judicial – one of the main sticking points was the method by which the head of the executive branch – the President – was to be selected. A number of proposals were made and rejected, including election by popular vote, selection by the legislative branch, selection by the state legislatures, and selection by the state governors. The impasse was finally broken with a solution that nobody really liked but had enough grudging support to pass: the president was to be selected by “electors,” with those electors selected by the individual states in whatever manner they so chose.
Following the ratification of the new United States Constitution in June of 1788, the stage was set for selecting the first President of the new Republic. Under the Electoral College system adopted in the Constitution, the method for choosing those electors varied state to state: in four states, electors were chosen by the State Legislatures; in the remaining six, voters chose those states’ electors in a regular election (as is the norm today). Three states did not vote for President in this first election: Rhode Island and North Carolina had not yet ratified the Constitution and so were not yet a part of the new nation, and the New York legislature was unable to agree on a method for choosing its electors, and so was unable to participate.
At the time, there were no organized political parties, no system for choosing presidential candidates, and no official presidential candidates running for office, although it was clear who the obvious candidates were: the leaders of the revolution and the former Continental Congress. Modern political campaigns were unknown then; no “candidate” held public rallies, made speeches, or asked anyone to vote for him. “Gentlemen” simply didn’t behave that way – in public, at least.
It was obvious who was going to win: George Washington. The only real question was who would be selected as his Vice-president. Under the Electoral College system, each elector had two votes to cast, for two different men. After all the elector votes were counted, the man who won became President, and the man coming in second place became Vice-president.
The actual election was held between Monday, December 15, 1788, to Saturday, January 10, 1789. Due to a number of delays caused by some practical difficulties in establishing a brand new government, the electoral votes were not officially counted and certified until April 6, 1789. Overall, 69 electors had been selected, and all cast one vote for Washington, who was thereby unanimously elected President. Second place went to John Adams, with 34 electoral votes. The remaining second-place votes were scattered among several different men.
On April 14, 1789, Washington was notified of his victory, and he headed from his home in Virginia to New York to be sworn in as President (at that point no capital of the new nation had been established; New York and Philadelphia were the two leading candidates. For Washington’s first administration, New York was to be the seat of government). He arrived on April 23rd to great fanfare – thousands lined the wharf where he landed by barge, and several cannon salutes were fired.
On April 30th, Washington was sworn in on the balcony of Federal Hall in full view of a large crowd that had gathered in the street. He wore a red overcoat and carried a sword at his side. The oath of office, as spelled out in the Constitution, was administered by the New York Chancellor, Robert Livingston. Washington, on his own, brought a bible to swear the oath upon (contrary to popular belief, the Constitution does not require it; in fact, to the contrary, the Constitution specifically prohibits any requirement of a religious oath for any federal office).
As soon as Washington finished the oath, “I do solemnly sear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Livingston shouted, “Long live George Washington, the President of the United States!” to cheers from the crowd and a 13 gun cannon salute. Popular myth has it that Washington finished his oath with, “So help me god,” and kissed his bible. As with most such myths, however, it most likely never happened: the first mention of this happening came 60 years later, and contemporary accounts make no note of either happening.
Washington’s use of his bible, however, became a tradition for future presidential inaugurations, simply because Washington did it.