Who Ran Against George Washington?

George Washington
George Washington did not run unopposed for the first presidential election.

George Washington is famous for being the first to take on the position of President of the United States. His accession to the role came after years of debate over how the United States should govern itself as an independent nation. 

Between the Revolutionary War and Constitutional Convention, Washington secured his position as a trusted leader. But did he have any competition for the presidency?

Who ran against George Washington for the role of president?

The focus of George Washington’s rise to the presidency tends to lie with the unanimous support among electors. It is easy to forget that 12 other men were on the ballot for that first election in 1789, which is how we ended up with our first vice president. 

While many state that Washington ran unopposed the second time, this isn’t technically true. John Adams and George Clinton both played a part in each election. 

Washington Was the Clear Favorite for the Job

One of the reasons we rarely hear about the presidential race and competition for the top job was that Washington’s presidency was a foregone conclusion. Clearly, he was the man to lead the country based on his influence and experience. 

Washington statue
Washington’s military experience during the American Revolution worked in his favor.

Many were convinced by his role in politics to that point. He presided over the Constitutional Convention and encouraged some who were unsure about the new Constitution to add their signature. 

Of course, everyone also loves a president that served in the military as General Washington did. Washington’s position as a commander in the Revolutionary War against Great Britain placed him in high esteem. 

Washington Did Not Run Unopposed in 1789

While many would have surely handed the role straight to Washington, there had to be due process. This meant the first democratic presidential election. A series of electors from each state would cast their votes for the chosen candidates – one first-choice pick and one second-choice. 

Mount Rushmore
George Washington set a precedent for two-term presidencies.

The process began with each state having to choose its electors by January 7th, 1789. These men would cast their votes just under a month later, on February 4th. Three states eligible to do so declined due to political tensions at the time – North Carolina, Rhode Island, and New York. 

There Were 12 Candidates on the Final Ballot

A surprising fact about this ballot for the first United States presidential election was that there were 12 names on the ballot. This is a lot by current standards where we are used to our two-party system and maybe some independents. 

Portrait of John Adams
John Adams was the 1st Vice President of the United States.

Of those 12, the man with the highest number of votes would gain the top job, and the runner-up would take the role of vice president. The full list of candidates was as follows.

  • George Washington
  • John Adams
  • John Jay
  • John Hancock
  • John Routledge
  • R. H. Harrison
  • George Clinton
  • Benjamin Lincoln
  • James Armstrong
  • John Milton
  • Samuel Huntington
  • Edward Telfair

Many of these names are no longer of great significance following their loss and lack of later political achievement. Others would go on to great things. 

John Adams Was a Worthy and Popular Opponent

John Adams, who would later become President Adams, was the clear runner-up in this race, with 34 of the 64 electors casting their second vote for him. As a result, he became the first Vice President of the United States. 

Parisian bridge
John Adams and John Jay were both present for the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

His candidacy and subsequent victory are of little surprise, considering his place in United States history and politics. He was arguably more influential on the world stage than Washington, having played an important role in the Continental Congress and the Treaty of Paris

Other Significant Figures Didn’t Do As Well

From there, the rest of the field received very few votes each. The next highest total was that of Founding Father John Jay, who got nine of the second choice votes compared with six for both R.H. Harrison and John Routledge. John Hancock did even worse. 

Declaration of Independence
John Jay was a leading figure during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

John Jay was on a similar level to John Adams regarding his influence in politics and foreign affairs. He, too, was present for the signing of the Treaty of Paris and a leading figure during the creation of the Declaration of Independence. 

He was also one of the anonymous writers responsible for the Federalist Papers in the lead-up to the creation of the United States Constitution

He may have lost the vice president position, but he was appointed the 1st Chief Justice by President Washington following his victory. 

The First Choice Pick Was Unanimous

The battle for the vice presidency is an interesting one looking at the votes cast for the second choice. But, every single one of the 64 electors unanimously agreed on George Washington as their first pick. 

Washington, DC
Washington DC was named in President Washington’s honor in 1791.

He received the congressional notification about his win on April 16th, before taking part in the first-ever inauguration on April 30th. 

Washington’s Election for the Second Presidential Term

President George Washington served his first term with Adams as his vice president from April 1789. In 1792, it was time for the second United States presidential election to determine who would serve the next. 

This time, the field was a lot more narrow. President Washington ran unopposed, as he was the nominee for the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties. Neither side saw the need for a change. 

The White House
Interestingly, President Washington oversaw the construction of the White House but did not live in it.

However, officially, there were three names on the ballot, with the other two deemed presidential candidates on a technicality. 

The Federalists wanted Adams to remain as Vice President, while the Democratic-Republicans favored George Clinton.

The result is interesting, considering Clinton’s poor showing in the first presidential election. He took 50 votes against Adams’ 77. So, Washington and Adams held on to their roles for the next term. 

Washington Was Unanimously Approved but Not Unopposed

In short, we can celebrate the fact that Founding Father George Washington was so highly beloved and respected that every elector cast their first vote for him. And, of course, Washington DC was named in his honor.

However, we can’t forget that there was competition from 11 other men in that maiden presidential election. Those secondary votes allowed for the first vice president and would determine the direction of domestic politics for years to come. 

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