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Title: Blog by Novelist William S. Frankl, MD

George Washington Elected

On Februart 4, 1789, the first Electoral College convened and elected George Washington as the first president of the United States. Only 10 states were represented in the college. Some had not held their presidential election yet, and others hadn’t yet ratified the Constitution and were therefore ineligible to vote. Congress finally certified the results on April 6, after a quorum was established. Each elector had two votes: all 69 electors present cast one of their votes for Washington. The second vote went toward determining who would be the vice president. John Adams was the runner up, with 34 votes. He provided balance to the ticket, too: he was from Massachusetts, and Washington was from Virginia, which was the largest state at that time.

Washington had led the Continental army to victory in the American Revolution, and he had served as the president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, so he was an easy choice, and perhaps the only choice. But he really didn’t want the job. He wrote to a friend, “My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to his place of execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties …”

At his inauguration on April 30, Washington wore a simple suit of brown broadcloth. According to the journal of a senator who was present at his swearing in, Washington was very nervous: “This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or musket.” Washington admitted as much in his inaugural address to Congress: “Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order.”

The details of the office — and indeed, the entire system of American government — were still being hammered out when he took office. Throughout his presidency, Washington took great pains to distance himself from the monarchical customs and ceremonies of Britain. When the Senate asked him how he wanted to be addressed, and offered “His Highness” as an option, he turned them down in favor of the less lofty “Mr. President.” He didn’t wear a military uniform or any robes of state to official functions, appearing instead in a black velvet suit.

Washington served two terms and then stepped down in 1797, despite many calls for him to continue in office. He believed that it was crucial to set the precedent for a peaceful transition, and he longed for a quiet retirement at Mount Vernon, his Virginia plantation. He composed his 32-page farewell address with the help of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. In his speech, he urged the nation to think of itself as a unified body. He said that partisanship “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion.”

Washington only got to enjoy the quiet life at Mount Vernon for two years. He died of epiglottitis, a severe throat infection, in 1799.

 

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