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Presidential Election of 1792

In 1792, the second presidential election, George Washington was unanimously re-elected president of the United States. Carrying large and small states, northern and southern states, Washington received 132 electoral votes, one vote from each participant in the Electoral College. Fifteen states cast electoral votes in 1792: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia. The second presidential election represented and reflected the democratic idea that presidential elections every four years would be a regular and frequent feature of American politics.

The unanimity of the vote in favor of Washington masked the nascent emergence of political parties and the bitter partisanship that would come characterize the rest of the 1790s. Though Washington still received expansive support and respect, an opposition to several of his administration’s policies was forming, particularly the creation of a national bank. Thomas Jefferson resigned his post as Secretary of State in 1792, while James Madison organized an anti-administration front in the Congress. The opposition led by Jefferson and Madison would become known as the Democratic-Republican Party. Defenders of Washington’s policies would become the Federalist Party.

The Landsdowne portrait of President Washington by Gilbert Stuart

Washington considered retirement after one term, preferring a return to the quiet comfort of Mount Vernon. He was bothered and disheartened by the emerging political divisions. However, Washington also feared that the country would irreparably pull and split apart, and was implored by his close associates to serve an additional four years. Despite policy differences, Jefferson argued that the Union would fail without Washington, pointing out that, "North and South will hang together if they have you to hang on." As the only true national, interregional hero, Washington--the inevitable president in 1789--had become the indispensable president in 1792.

Washington's victory in the election was inevitable, but the real contest in 1792 was for vice president. With 77 electoral votes, John Adams was re-elected, positioning him well enough to become Washington's presidential heir apparent. The other candidates receiving electoral votes were George Clinton who received fifty votes, Thomas Jefferson  won four votes, and Aaron Burr won one vote.

Regional and partisan divisions were evident in the vote distribution. Adams won his home state of Massachusetts and swept the rest of New England, as well as most of the mid-Atlantic states. But Washington's tremendous popularity was not transferable to Adams across the country, as the Vice President lost the South. Adams lost all of the electoral votes of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia. Washington was especially beloved in his native region and Southerners took special pride in his presidency. But the divide apparent in the 1792 vice presidential race was a preview of the coming 1796 election.

On March 4, 1793 in Philadelphia, Washington, as required by Article II of the Constitution, took the presidential oath of office for the second time. Commenting on his re-election, Washington proclaimed, "I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its chief magistrate."

D. Jason Berggren
Georgia Southwestern State University

Bibliography
Boller, Paul, Jr. Presidential Campaigns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Cooper, William J., Jr. Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1983.

Dahl, Robert A. On Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Reichley, A. James. The Life of the Parties: A History of American Political Parties. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.