On this day (Feb. 4) in 1789, George Washington was unanimously elected president of the United States in the Electoral College.
Notably “The Indispensable” Virginian was elected the country’s chief executive again, in 1792, by every one of the 132 electors who cast votes that year, thus becoming the only U.S. president (of the 43) to have ever been elected unanimously.
Interestingly, even when James Monroe ran unopposed for president in 1820, he received only 231 of the 235 electoral votes cast (there were three abstentions and William Plummer of New Hampshire voted for John Quincy Adams), thus reserving for the “Father of His Country” the singular distinction of receiving a unanimous electoral vote.
The Electoral College is surely the most unusual and convoluted method of selecting a chief executive. Established by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, it reads: “Each state shall appoint in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.”
Not intended to be at all democratic, it established a system (especially, at least, for the first 10 or 11 elections) for electors (the elite) to cast votes for two different individuals without specifying whether their votes were for president or vice president. This method of voting was changed to the present system by the passage of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804.
The individual receiving the highest number of electoral votes was elected president and the second highest vice president.
Thus, on this day in 1789, Washington received one electoral vote from each of the 69 electors, who scattered their second votes with John Adams (with 34 electoral votes) becoming the first U.S. vice president.
As originally drafted, the Electoral College was a compromise between election by the national legislature and election by the popular vote of the people. Clearly, the framers feared “mobocracy” (i.e., election by what they considered an indifferent or uninformed citizenry), but at the same time wanted to avoid legislative election, which they thought would violate the separation of powers between the three branches of government.
The compromise is what prevailed most notably until 1828, with electors (presumably the wiser, more knowledgeable local politicians) actually selecting the nation’s leaders. Beginning with the controversial election of 1824 and intensified in 1828, the votes of the populous slowly became significant in the selection of electors.
To date, there have been 57 presidential elections, of which 53 have, despite the Framers obvious aversion to establishing a truly “democratic” system, been relatively democratic in that those elected did in fact receive (after 1824, when popular votes were officially recorded) a majority or at least a plurality of the popular votes of the American voters.
The four presidential elections where the electoral winners received fewer popular votes than the losers were: 1824, John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson; 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden; 1888, Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland; and 2000, George W. Bush over Al Gore.
There has been, ever since the early 19th century, numerous attempts to establish a more democratic system of choosing a president and vice president than the Electoral College, but the proposals never have been able to garner the necessary two-thirds votes in Congress needed to start the amendment process, as mandated in Article V (the amendment article) of the U.S. Constitution.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.