1789 and 1792: George Wins in a Wash
Spearheading the Continental Army to miraculous victory in the American Revolution gave George Washington the aura of a hero without equal. Luckily for the young republic, he had no intention of turning his reputation into absolute power. So with the level-headed Washington as the only real candidate, the biggest question in the first presidential election was not who would be president, but whether or not the newborn electoral system would work.
The delegates to the constitutional convention agreed that the country needed an effective executive, but they feared the abuses and dangers of royal or imperial power, which had sealed the fate of Rome's republic. The delegates compromised on a system of presidential electors. They assumed that electors would be property-owning white men in the states they served, and that they would have the knowledge to cast intelligent votes (women, other races, and young people were not considered). Even a system based on electors was controversial, however, because the idea of allotting electors to states simply on the basis of population encountered many of the same objections as a system of direct popular election. Solution: The number of electors from each state would equal the number of senators and representatives, thus ensuring that all states as well as populations would be represented in the election of the president. The concern that most electors would simply vote for men from their own states was dealt with by the stipulation that one of each elector's two votes must be cast for someone outside his own state.
Under these guidelines, the electoral college met in 1789 and again in 1792, and both times, not a single elector cast a vote against Washington. He is the only president elected unanimously—twice. According to the new system, the person with the second highest electoral vote became vice president, who in both 1789 and 1792 was John Adams. His strenuous new tasks included breaking tied votes in the Senate and taking over the presidency if the president should resign or die. Adams called the job "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."
American presidential memorabilia kicked off with the fashioning of metal garment buttons for GW's inauguration. They bore legends such as "Long Live the President" and "March the 4th 1789 Memorable Era." (Memorable Era? As you can see, we had a long way to go.) One design featured the initials GW surrounded by chains of thirteen oval links encircling abbreviations of the original states, which Washington sported when he took the oath of office.
Many of these early objects were the ancestors of later presidential campaign items. Small brass and copper tokens similar in manufacture and design to Washington's would become the most ubiquitous of nineteenth-century campaign items, while Washington's portrayal in uniform on various tokens and china would be repeated for future soldier-statesmen Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor.
1796: The Odd Couple
Washington's stepping aside to retire to Mount Vernon led to the first real presidential race and the formation of the forever-feuding factions known as political parties. In one corner sat the stuffy Federalists, with vice president John Adams at the helm, supporting a strong centralized government and life terms for senators. In the other corner, the more freewheeling Democratic-Republicans, spearheaded by former secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, favored more power for the states and limited terms in public office. The Democratic-Republicans had veiled their displeasure long enough out of respect for President Washington, but with his departure, the pot finally boiled over. The cordial comradeship Adams and Jefferson had enjoyed during the American Revolution quickly dissipated into fierce rivalry.
Washington's endorsement secured victory for Adams, but Jefferson came in second, becoming Adams's vice president, the only time in American history that the president and vice president were members of opposing political parties (making for some tense private dinners, I'm sure).
These sections include mostly inauguration items as opposed to campaign items, because at this point, there were no real campaigns. Because a small, stubborn group of politicians chose the next president without taking the popular vote into account, there was no reason for candidates to strive for mass appeal.
John Adams's inauguration memorabilia included china pitchers with his picture, and a button featuring a stylishly bewigged Adams, referring to him with the hip nickname, "Jo."
1800 and 1804: Burr's Betrayal
Working under the same roof for four years didn't help relations between Adams and Jefferson, and they matched wits again in 1800. Early American etiquette forbade the candidates from openly attacking each other and making public appearances and speeches on their own behalf, but that didn't stop their party members from throwing some solid roundhouses. The Democratic-Republican press battered Adams, but the still-in-power Federalists issued the Sedition Act, unconstitutionally prohibiting badmouthing Adams's administration, to squelch their competitors.
When the electoral college convened, Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received seventy-three electoral votes, defeating the Federalist ticket of John Adams and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina. Prior to the election, Jefferson and Burr had made a pact that Jefferson would be president, and Burr vice president. But with the vote tied, backstabbing Burr saw his opportunity to achieve the nation's highest office, and smugly shrugged off Jefferson's insistence that he back down. The tie tossed the election to the House of Representatives, where after thirty-five separate ballots, the vote remained deadlocked.
With the fledgling nation appearing weak and indecisive, Alexander Hamilton hesitantly stepped to the plate. With a strong influence on Federalist members of Congress, Hamilton had the power to break the stalemate, but faced an awkward dilemma. Hamilton and Jefferson never got along, but Hamilton found him far more trustworthy and competent than the pigheaded Burr. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Hamilton persuaded several congressmen not to vote at all, swinging the election to Jefferson, who became the third president of the United States.