In the waning days of the Confederation Congress, it decided that members of the Electoral College would meet in their respective States on “the first Wednesday in February” to participate in choosing a President and a Vice President of the United States. Each elector would cast two votes, only one of which could be for a person from their own State. On the “first Wednesday in March next” Congress would convene and count the votes. The candidate who received a majority of votes would be elected President. The candidate with the second most votes would be elected Vice President.
On April 6, when both Houses of Congress achieved a quorum, a joint session of Congress was held to count the votes and certify the election. Each of the sixty-nine electors had voted for George Washington, making him the first and only unanimous choice for President. John Adams received thirty-four votes and became the first Vice President. Ten other candidates received votes, including John Jay (9), Robert Harrison (6), John Hancock (4) and George Clinton (3). Only ten States had voted; New York failed to select electors and neither North Carolina nor Rhode Island had yet ratified the Constitution.
Charles Thomson, secretary to Congress, was charged with delivering the news to General Washington at his home at Mount Vernon. In the form of a short letter drafted by John Langdon, President Pro tempore of the Senate, it was read formally to Washington by Thomson shortly after his arrival at Mount Vernon at noon on Tuesday, April 24.
Washington’s election was not unexpected, even by Washington. Not only was Washington humbly aware of the high regard in which he was held by his countrymen, Henry Knox, James Madison and others had kept him informed of events transpiring in New York as well as delays caused by the lack of a quorum in Congress, including its inability to count votes of the Electoral College. In the meantime, Knox noted, “opinions are various as to the manner of notifying the President of his appointment.” For Washington, however, the delay was a relief, one he “compared to a reprieve…for my movements to the chair of government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”
Confiding to Knox, Washington wrote that he was “so unwilling in the evening of a life consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skills – abilities and inclination necessary to manage the helm…integrity and firmness is all that I can promise.” For Washington, this was the “last great sacrifice…made for the good of my country.” For this, he “gave up all expectations of private happiness in this world.”
Anticipating Thomson’s arrival, Washington had prepared a written statement which he read to Thomson. Later in the day, he drafted a brief acceptance letter to Langdon, “having concluded to obey the important and flattering call of my country.” Two days later, he recorded in his diary, “About ten o’clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations that I have words to express, set out for New York in company with Mr. Thomson and colonel [David] Humphreys, with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”
Leaving Mount Vernon in the care of his nephew, George Augustine Washington, the General had already begun preparing for his new responsibilities. In March he had travelled to Fredericksburg “to discharge the last act of personal duty I may (from her age) ever have it in my power to pay my Mother.” Indeed, the two were never to meet again. Adding to his burdens was his precarious financial situation, due in great part to drought, crop failures and losses suffered during ten years of public service during the War for Independence and the consequent neglect of Mount Vernon. Already having obtained a loan of five hundred pounds to cover certain arrears, including past taxes, he now found it necessary to request an additional one hundred pounds to cover “the expenses of my journey to New York.”
By April 23, Washington and his companions reached Upper New York Bay where they were greeted by members of Congress, state officials, and a freshly painted barge steered by thirteen pilots in white uniforms ready to ferry him to Murry’s Wharf at the foot of Wall Street. There he was met by Governor George Clinton, Mayor James Deane, James Madison and a phalanx of official well-wishers. The sounds of roaring cannon, musicians, and thunderous applause from crowds lining the streets were merely the culmination of a constant stream of dinners, parades, processions, gifts and honors bestowed on him from the moment he left Mount Vernon for New York, travelling through Alexandria, Georgetown, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Trenton. The New York Daily Advertiser reported in gleeful detail the “joyful acclamations of every party and every description of citizens.” The day’s events terminated with Washington dining at the home of Governor Clinton.
Shortly after noon on April 30, a contingent of troops led a procession of legislators and foreign dignitaries to convey Washington from his Cherry Street residence toward Federal Hall. Alighting from his carriage, Washington walked the last several blocks through enthusiastic crowds and ascended the steps to the Senate chamber where he was met by Vice President John Adams, who taken his oath of office on April 21. Washington was then escorted to the balcony overlooking Broad Street. Robert Livingston, Chancellor of New York, administered the oath of office as Washington rested his hand on a Bible provided by St. John’s Masonic Lodge. Livingston turned to the crowd below and shouted, “Long Live George Washington, President of the United States.” The people’s return was deafening.
Washington bowed to the crowd, then retired to the Senate where he delivered his inaugural address, appealing “in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe…and presides in the councils of nations.” At the conclusion of his address, the assemblage adjourned to St. Paul’s Chapel for services. The second branch of government under the Constitution was now in place.