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1789: The Electoral College Meets for the First Time

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With all but two relatively obscure states—Rhode Island and North Carolina—having ratified the Constitution, the Confederation Congress was now ready to put the new federal government in place. As soon as New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify, Congress dutifully created a committee to get the new Constitution up and running. Only the doughty Abraham Yates dissented—in a sense, the last attempt to block the Constitution as a whole. To the determined Antifederalists throughout the county, their next tack was forcefully imposed upon them by the very course of the ratification struggle: they must mobilize and put their plans into Congress in order to fulfill their pledge for restrictive amendments, preferably by calling another constitutional convention that would redress the imbalance of the first.

It was relatively easy for the old Confederation Congress to decide to hold elections and choose electors for the president the following January 7, to assemble the Electoral College to vote for a president on February 4, and to assemble the new U.S. Congress on March 4, 1789.

Attendance at, and interest in, the old Confederation Congress drifted away, and its last day with a quorum was October 10, 1788. There was a flurry of hope in January of the new year, when everyone awaited the new government, and members began to drift into the old Congress, where the faithful Charles Thomson, secretary ever since the opening of the glorious first Continental Congress, sat waiting for the old Congress to meet yet another time, and also to preserve its tenuous existence so that he could hand over the reins to the new government. When March 4 arrived, the old executive departments of Congress were passed into the new Congress for a traumatic period—the nation could not be permitted to live for a few days without the continuity of an executive bureaucracy. Poor old Thomson lounged around for several months and hopefully expected to find a place in the swollen bureaucracy of the New Order. But he found it not, and resigned his office at the end of July to sink into a life of obscurity. In a sense, the passing of Charles Thomson from the political scene paralleled the passing of the Confederation Congress: both met the end of their days humbly, passively, resignedly, and making not a peep.

The old Congress’ most important problem was to decide where the site of the national capital would be. Every large city wanted the honor, and of the two leading Federalists, Hamilton wanted the site to be in New York, and Madison wanted to see it located on the Potomac. Wherever it was, the Federalists would undoubtedly be strong at that location, and the Federalists of that location would correspondingly control the levers of power in the national government. Baltimore, pushed by the southern states, was accepted in early August 1788. However, within a month Hamilton had succeeded in changing the vote to have the capital be New York City. Shrewdly, he was able to argue that since the capital site was agreed by all to be strictly temporary, there was no point in moving the Confederation Congress to another location. As a result, Madison repeated his bitter accusation that Hamilton and the New York Federalists’ shrewd acceptance of the convention’s circular letter was made to have the state ratify in time to retain the capital in New York City.1

The capital would be temporary because the nationalists had made a proviso that the Constitution empowered the Congress to receive a district no larger than one hundred square miles of land, which its governing state or states may cede to it; Congress might then treat the District as its fief—its seat of national government over which it can exclusively rule. This specter of such a protected Federal city, an enclave for super-government unique in the world, was one of the points of contention by the Antifederalists. But, as the new government loomed on the horizon, Maryland, at the end of December 1788, offered to cede a district that Congress might decide upon for the eventual capital.

The Constitution provided that at the meeting of the Electoral College, the person garnering the majority number of votes would be chosen president; the person with the second highest to be vice-president and presiding officer of the Senate. It was a foregone conclusion that George Washington would be the president, but the victorious Federalists had to decide on whom they would choose for the second post. Since Washington was a Virginian, the vice-president must obviously be from the North, which meant either New York or Massachusetts. New York was out of the question, for while the Federalists now grew more powerful in the state and were able to control the choice of U.S. senators, Governor Clinton was still the commanding personality. Clinton, who had abstained from the final vote at the New York Convention, was the Antifederalist candidate for vice-president and planned on pushing for restrictive amendments. Due to political gridlock, New York was to cast no electoral votes in 1789.

Massachusetts it was, then; here, there were clearly only two possibilities: Governor Hancock, who had been promised the post, and John Adams, who had returned from his term as minister to England in the spring of 1788 and chosen as a member of the House of Representatives for Massachusetts. The Federalists realized full well that Hancock was a vain, flighty opportunist whose views, such as they were, differed greatly from their own, so it was a pleasure for them to double-cross the Massachusetts governor. This left John Adams.

Adams, of course, was a hard pill for Hancock and the Federalist leaders to swallow, for they remembered all too well Adams’ radical role during the Revolutionary War and the powerful Left leadership of the Adams-Lee faction in Congress. But Adams had come a long way since those days. As Hamilton wrote to the Massachusetts Federalist Theodore Sedgwick: “his further knowledge of the world seems to have corrected those jealousies which he is represented to have once been influenced by.”

Adams, conservative enough in the postwar period, had indeed shifted staunchly and significantly rightward during his term in England—rightward enough to take his full place in the “high mounted” new Federalist order. Away in England from 1785 to 1788, he found there in the British imperial monarchy the model of ideal government, and his admiration for monarchical statism deepened and intensified under the shock of Shays’ Rebellion. During his stay in London, Adams published in 1787–1788 his newly developed views in his A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. In this original work, Adams developed and advocated what would later be called the social philosophy of “Bonapartism”—from Napoleon’s role in French politics. In the analysis of Bonapartism, Napoleon was supposed to have maintained himself in power by playing off against each other the two great power groups in France: the masses and the aristocracy. John Adams’ theory was an exalted and precursory view of essentially the same process. Adams, too, saw the world as basically divided into the aristocracy and the democracy, or “the common people,” and these two great classes, he believed, were permanently destined to war against each other. The fundamental task of government, for Adams, was to hold the equal balance between these two vast groups and to enforce impartial justice upon them both. Both groups should be equally represented in government, i.e., the rich in an upper house, the common man in a lower house, of the country’s legislature. Where, then, shall the all-important, impartial arbiter of justice come from? He is to appear, according to Adams, in the pen of the executive, the great man who, with an absolute veto over the legislature, is to be exalted above all mere conflicting groups and classes in society and to dispense equal justice for all.

But by what mysterious process is this noble deus ex machina to appear and perform his great work? What is to ensure that the Great Man will really perform in this exalted way? The traditional solution to this problem, of course, was the Divine Right of Kings; the king operating as the vehicle of divine wisdom by definition, so that takes care of that. But John Adams, after all, as a man of the eighteenth century, couldn’t accept this kind of solution. Instead, he thought he saw the answer in sheer self-interest. In a kind of parody of the theory of the free market, the king (or president) was to advance the social interest by serving his own:

It is the true policy of the common people to place the whole executive power in one man, to make him a distinct order in the state, from whence arises an inevitable jealousy between him and the gentlemen; this forces him to become a father and protector of the common people.

Assuming, as we must, that John Adams was serious in this apologetic for executive power, the naïveté of this interesting theory is staggering. In the first place, it is by no means given that the self-interest of the dictatorial Chief Executive is to spend his days as the supreme balancing agent of impartial justice. On the contrary, as the head and will of the full-time executive bureaucracy, the Chief and his followers constitute an independent class interest of their own and will exploit the rest of the population for his and their own benefit. Secondly, in order to catapult himself into power, the Chief will undoubtedly purchase allies among either of the two classes, more profitably so among the influential aristocracy. We can only conclude that the vaunted “realism” of John Adams’ conservative social theory is actually the worst naïve kind of utopian fancy, a fancy, however, that does perform the required function of spinning plausible apologies for executive depredation and oligarchical statism.

The chief executive, Adams believed, should have the absolute power to appoint, make war, and conclude treaties. Only with a single chief executive at the helm with the entire nation looking up to him can one “hope for uniformity, consistency, and subordination …” In fact, Adams, as his ultimate ideal, yearned for a hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. Privately he wrote that hereditary monarchy and aristocracy are

the only Institutions that can possibly preserve the Laws and Liberties of the People, and I am clear that America must resort to them as an Asylum against discord, Seditions and Civil War, and that at no very distant period of time. … Our Country is not ripe for it, in many respects … but our ship must ultimately land on that shore or be cast away.

Adams felt that the English government exemplified his ideal: it was, he wrote grandiosely, “the most stupendous fabric of human invention.” Only ancient Macedonia could come close to this standard. In this admiration, derived from Montesquieu, Adams did not realize that England at the time was far less of an absolute monarchy and far more of a parliamentary oligarchy than what Adams desired.

Adams was particularly enamored of titles of nobility, and even for elective officers, Adams held titles to be absolutely necessary to maintain the dignity and honor of the federal government, and above all “to make offices and laws respected.” Apparently, the real choice was between titles of nobility and anarchy: “I do not abhor Titles, nor the Pageantry of Government. If I did I should abhor Government itself—for there never was, and never will be, because there never can be, any government without Titles and Pageantry.”2 So enamored was Adams of the title, indeed, that he spent a good part of his first year as vice-president trying to persuade the Senate to adopt a system of titles.

It is apparent that Alexander Hamilton was right; John Adams had indeed learned much, and his ideological worldview had matured compared to so many years ago. He was obviously as ready as any man could be to assume the exalted post of vice-president of the United States of America.

The way the electoral system worked, then, was along the design that the vice-presidential and presidential nominees might tie, so it was obviously expedient to arrange the “throwing away” of a few votes so that the agreed upon vice-presidential choice might place second. Hamilton, however, still suspicious of Adams, secretly threw himself into this task with excessive relish, and Adams ended with thirty-four electoral votes to Washington’s sixty-nine. The latter vote was unanimous except for New York, which, due to a clash between a Federalist New York Senate and Clintonian Assembly, never agreed on a choice of electors. Adams was bitterly upset at the results, for he thought he had a real chance to be the supreme arbiter of justice.

While Washington and Adams were elected in February, the Constitution could not go into effect until the opening of the new Congress, scheduled for March 4, 1789. But a quorum of the new Congress did not appear until April 6 when the electoral votes were officially counted; the presidential inauguration then took place on April 30, 1789, the effective starting date of the new government.

This passage is excerpted from Murray N. Rothbard's Conceived in Liberty, vol. 5, The New Republic: 1784–1791.

  • 1. [Editor’s footnote] E. Wilder Spaulding, New York in the Critical Period, 1783–1789 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), pp. 270–71.
  • 2. Manning J. Dauer, The Adams Federalists (Boston: Johns Hopkins Press, 1953), p. 48n. [Editor’s remarks] Ibid., pp. 37–54, 78–83.

Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.

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