On this day in 1789, George Washington is unanimously elected President of the United States by the Electoral College. He would be elected unanimously, again, during the election of 1792. Washington was the first and only U.S. President to be unanimously elected.
Allegedly, one other President could have achieved this feat but for the fact that one elector wanted to protect Washington’s achievement. However, the story is a bit of a myth.
In 1820, James Monroe obtained 231 of 232 electors. The final elector, William Plumer, decided to vote for John Quincy Adams instead. However, Plumer did not make his choice to protect Washington. He genuinely did not want to vote for Monroe.
A letter that he wrote to his son on January 8, 1821, explains his vote:
“I was obliged from a sense of duty and a regard to my own reputation to withhold my vote from Monroe and Tompkins; from the first because he had discovered a want of foresight and economy, and from the second because he grossly neglected his duty.”
So, yes, Washington really was the only President to obtain a unanimous electoral vote! James Monroe came close, but he could not convince every elector to vote for him.
America needed and wanted Washington. But Washington would have been happier living out his days at Mt. Vernon. In late 1788, he wrote to Major General Benjamin Lincoln:
“At my time of life and under my circumstances, nothing in this world can ever draw me from [retirement], unless it be a conviction that the partiality of my Countrymen had made my services absolutely necessary . . . . I call Heaven to witness, that this very act would be the greatest sacrafice of my personal feelings & wishes that ever I have been called upon to make. It would be to fore go repose and domestic enjoyment; for trouble, perhaps; for public obloquy: for I should consider myself as entering upon an unexplored field, enveloped on every side with clouds & darkness.”
Fortunately for us, Washington was willing to make that great sacrifice of his “personal feelings & wishes.” Our country would not have been the same without him.
For further reading, please see: The Indispensable Electoral College: How the Founders' Plan Saves Our Country from Mob Rule.