This Day in History: George Washington & the first presidential veto

On this day in 1792, George Washington issues his first presidential veto. The subject of vetoes had long been a touchy topic in the American colonies, so his action was a bigger deal than you might imagine.

Before the American Revolution, vetoes could be used against the colonial assemblies in one of two ways: The Royal Governor in a state could issue a veto or the King himself could issue a veto. Unfortunately, the Royal Governors often abused their power, and the colonists became quite upset about the issue. At times, they felt that they were being controlled. Things became so bad that the Declaration of Independence included two grievances related to the misuse of vetoes. These grievances were listed first, leading the long list of complaints against George III. They stated:

“[The King] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance . . . .”

Given this history, it’s easy to see why the subject of vetoes was touchy. The Constitutional Convention considered several variations on the veto before settling upon the process that we have. And, once inaugurated, Washington was understandably reluctant to use the power too soon.

In the end, he issued only two vetoes during his time in office. The first had to do with the issue of apportionment and representation. Without overly complicating the story, there were a few mathematical formulas being considered. The one that was passed seemed to favor the North. Washington didn’t really want to use his veto to protect the southern states, because he was from the southern state of Virginia. How would it look? Ultimately, though, he became convinced that the apportionment scheme illegally favored the North. He vetoed it with a simple statement: “The Constitution has also provided that the number of Representatives shall not exceed 1 for every 30,000 . . . [but] the bill has allotted to eight of the States more than 1 for every 30,000.”

The second veto had to do with a military matter. Congress had approved a bill that included a provision to disband two companies of light dragoons. Washington pointed out several logistical problems that had been created and vetoed the legislation. Congress approved a second bill that cured the problem.

Thomas Jefferson later wrote that everyone was relieved to have the “first veto” officially in the history books: “A few of the hottest friends of the bill expressed passion,” he noted, “but the majority were satisfied, and both in and out of doors it gave pleasure to have, at length, an instance of the negative being exercised.”