As Americans head to the polls after a very (very) long election season, it is difficult to comprehend a presidential election with no primaries, no campaign rallies, no endless stream of advertisements, and no debates. But this was the case when George Washington was elected as the nation’s first president. In fact, Washington did not even have an opponent.
Although he did not actively run for office, as president of the Constitutional Convention Washington knew that he would probably be tapped to lead the new country once the Constitution was ratified. Sure enough, on February 4, 1789, the Electoral College voted unanimously to elect George Washington as the first president of the United States. On April 14, Secretary of the Congress Charles Thomson delivered the momentous news to George and Martha at Mount Vernon.
Although he expected it, Washington was ambivalent about being elected. Having just retreated to his beloved home on the Potomac after a long and illustrious career in the public eye, the retired general was eager to devote himself to his family and farms. But Washington also felt duty-bound to serve the country he had fought so hard to create. In his mind, he had no choice but to bid “adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, to domestic felicity…with the best disposition to render service to my country in obedience to its calls, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”
On April 16, 1789, George Washington left Mount Vernon for the eight-day trip to New York (then the nation’s capital) for his inauguration. He entered the city on a barge as enthusiastic crowds cheered wildly from the shore. Nineteenth-century artist Henry Brueckner imagined this dramatic entrance in a painting entitled “First in Peace,” a reference to Henry Lee’s famous eulogy for Washington, in which Lee declared the President “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” In Brueckner’s scene, Washington stands on the bow of a boat propelled by rowers representing each of the thirteen original states. This painting was widely reproduced in the nineteenth century, when images of Washington abounded in American print culture. Mount Vernon owns an engraving of the painting by John C. McRae, published in 1867. You can see a large-scale reproduction of this image in the Donald W. Reynolds Education Center.
Although this scene is largely allegorical and not a truly accurate depiction of the new president’s arrival, it suggests the public excitement and affection that greeted George Washington upon his election. The election process may have been different, but then–as now–emotions ran high.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Gibby, 1984 [WB-47A1]
Jessie MacLeod, Assistant Curator
Tags: election day