First Fifty Years of the American Republic

During the first fifty years of our country, we had six presidents. All came from prominent and well to do families: George Washington from Virginia, John Adams from Massachusetts, Thomas Jefferson from Virginia, James Madison from Virginia, James Monroe from Virginia, and John Quincy Adams from Massachusetts. Four of these men were slave owners in Virginia, the state known as “the mother of presidents.” Four were college graduates and possessed all the culture of that age.
But how were these first six presidents elected? At first there were no political conventions to select candidates and there were no political parties. So how did they go about it?
What does the Constitution say about how a president shall be elected? When we vote, do we actually elect the President? Each state appoints electors who actually elect the President. How many electors does each state appoint? The answer is one for each senator and congressman.
In the election of George Washington, the legislatures of each state appointed electors and they elected Washington to be President and John Adams, who ran second to Washington to be Vice President.
It was during George Washington’s eight years in office that political parties were first formed. The Federalist Party was led by Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury under Washington. The Federalists were favorable to the administration. The anti-Federalists or Republicans were led by Thomas Jefferson, who was Washington’s Secretary of State. Both of these parties had strong men in the House and Senate, so each group held a caucus and selected a candidate for president since there were no political conventions to name candidates.
When Washington decided to retire after two terms, John Adams was nominated by the Federalists and Thomas Jefferson was nominated by the Republicans. Adams won by only four electoral votes. Four years later, Jefferson was again nominated by the Republican Party and won over Adams by a big majority.
Following Jefferson’s two terms, the Republicans elected Madison for two terms, Monroe for two terms and John Quincy Adams for one term.
As we study the problems that faced these dedicated leaders, we should be grateful for their devotion to freedom and democracy. But we should also remember that in the early years of our republic, real power was held in the tight hand of the American aristocracy.

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