1. George Washington’s Birthday: How It Started and Why We Celebrate As the first president of the United States, George Washington’s legacy remains strong in the American consciousness, and his birthday is celebrated in a variety of ways. In this article, readers can learn about the history of Washington’s birthday, how it has been celebrated, and why it continues to be observed today. 2. George Washington’s Mount Vernon Home Now Open For Tours George Washington’s Mount Vernon home is open for tours. This article details the history of the mansion, its restoration, and the various activities that guests can partake in while visiting the home. 3. George Washington: The Greatest American President This article examines the life and legacy of George Washington, highlighting his many accomplishments and contributions to the United States. It also looks at the reasons why he is widely considered to be the greatest American president. 4. George Washington: His Life and Accomplishments This article provides an overview of the life and accomplishments of George Washington. It looks at his service in the Revolutionary War, his presidency, and his role in shaping the United States. 5. George Washington’
This is a guest blog post by Sam Dinnie (they/them), a PhD student in early American history at The George Washington University. Sam is a 2023 Buchanan Burnham Fellow. The typical understanding of political allegiance during the American Revolution as binary—Patriot or Loyalist, American or British—obscures the very real tribulations people experienced and dismisses fluctuations […]
This is a guest blog post by Sam Dinnie (they/them), a PhD student in early American history at The George Washington University. Sam is a 2023 Buchanan Burnham Fellow. Political and military leaders of the opposing British and American forces understood that winning the Revolutionary War required more than military successes. General Henry Clinton, Commander […]
Nige Tassell and Professor Benjamin Carp consider the fate of the American colonies had George Washington not ordered his troops to retreat from the battlefield in August 1776
This is a guest blog post by Sam Dinnie (they/them), a PhD student in early American history at The George Washington University. Sam is a 2023 Buchanan Burnham Fellow. Ezra Stiles was born in North Haven, Connecticut, in 1727 to Reverend Isaac Stiles and Kezia Taylor Stiles. Stiles graduated from Yale in 1746 and was […]
On April 1, 1789, the U.S. House of Representatives achieved a working quorum for the first time in New York City’s Federal Hall—a full three weeks after the First Federal Congress had been scheduled to convene on March 4. Travel woes had contributed to the delay. Among the nearly three dozen Representatives who had made it to New York was James Madison, who had arrived on March 14 after completing a 330-mile journey over what he called the “unparalleled badness of the roads” from his home in central Virginia.The sparse attendance in the House stemmed from another consideration as well: some states had yet to even finish holding elections for Congress. New York and New Jersey were still counting votes from their respective elections. North Carolina and Rhode Island did not hold elections until the fall of 1789 and summer of 1790, respectively.Madison, who is widely credited as the architect of America’s system of direct House elections, openly wondered if the new government would succeed given that the states seemed to struggle to elect their lawmakers. “I see on the lists of [incoming] Representatives a very scanty proportion who will share in the drudgery of business,” Madison complained to Edmund Randolph, who became the country’s first Attorney General.Although the House’s system of direct elections is long familiar to Americans living in the twenty-first century, the practice was brand new for many eighteenth-century Americans—including Madison. Prior to the first federal elections, state legislatures had been responsible for selecting Delegates to the Continental Congresses. Following the ratification of the Constitution, America embarked on a new experiment in representational government: the direct election of House Members by the people.The contours of this experiment can be seen in Madison’s own career. His experience helping author the Constitution, running for office, and serving in Congress traced the arc of this important transition in America’s history as a democracy.Origins of Direct ElectionsIn the summer of 1787, 36-year-old James Madison of Virginia attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he became a leading proponent of the creation of a powerful national government. Madison’s proposal, known as the Virginia Plan, provided the general framework for what would become the U.S. federal system. After much compromise, the Delegates to the convention created a new government led by a bicameral legislature that included the House of Representatives and the Senate. The individual state governments would select members of the Senate. But the House was to be populated by lawmakers directly elected by the people, a feature that Madison called “essential to every plan of free government.” Otherwise, he cautioned, “the people would be lost sight of altogether” and the nation’s new democracy would struggle to survive.Madison’s plan built on efforts across the states to expand the voting rolls. Prior to the American Revolution, only White males who held property and were not indentured servants could vote for colonial or state assembly members. In turn, those legislators voted for the Delegates who served in the Continental and Confederation Congresses. But between 1776 and 1787, municipal voting rights in urban areas expanded significantly as states revised their constitutions to include taxpayers, regardless of property ownership status, as voters. The pool of officeholding candidates also expanded beyond landowners to include middle-class and working-class men.After the Constitution went to the states for ratification in the fall of 1787, Madison and two compatriots—John Jay and Alexander Hamilton—described the benefits of the new government in the Federalist, a series of articles that appeared in newspapers between the fall of 1787 and the summer of 1788. Madison focused on direct elections in two essays, in particular. In Federalist 10, he noted that a democracy with a large voting base would help defend against what he called “the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.” Moreover, if those Representatives were “chosen by a greater number of citizens,” Madison reasoned, “the suffrages of the people . . . will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.” In Federalist 52, Madison described the bond between a popularly elected legislature and its constituents as “essential to liberty that the government should have a common interest with people.” Frequent direct elections, he concluded, would enable the government to “have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.”The authors of the Constitution left the procedural details for carrying out the nation’s elections to the individual states, but with the Election Ordinance of 1788 they set “the first Wednesday in March” 1789 as the start date for the First Congress (1789–1791) and in the process ushered in a revolution in voting in America.Election MechanicsMost states passed laws between October and December 1788 to govern the upcoming federal elections, and as Madison predicted, states used a variety of methods to carry out the country’s first federal elections.States implemented the Election Ordinance in three ways. Six states—Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—used the at-large or general ticket system method, which allowed voters to select as many candidates as there were House seats until the winners were declared. Five states—Massachusetts, North Carolina, New York, South Carolina, Virginia—chose the single-Member district method in which states designated a certain number of geographically distinct districts based on estimates of state populations. Within each district, voters made their choice from a slate of candidates unique to that district. (This is the system that is used almost exclusively today, aside from states with populations small enough to warrant just one Representative.) Finally, Georgia and Maryland used a hybrid system in which candidates were nominated from single districts but allowed voters to cast ballots from anywhere in the state.Prior to the American Revolution, small groups of elite gentry had selected candidates for positions and secured their elections with a small number of supporters. As a result of revised state constitutions and the expansion of the candidate pool to include middle-class and working-class men during the Revolutionary era, all candidates eventually had to seek support either directly or through campaign surrogates. By the late 1780s, candidates often publicly declared their intention to serve but would do little campaigning; partisan supporters would work on their behalf to win elections. Finally, although suffrage technically expanded to include free African Americans in Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and for a brief period to women in New Jersey, full voting rights remained far out of reach for most Americans until the second half of the twentieth century.Unlike today, voters did not enter a booth and select their preferred candidates in private. Instead, eighteenth-century voters mainly used two rather public methods. Voters in New England and much of the Mid-Atlantic submitted their votes by written ballots to an election judge. In the South, voters called out their choices which were recorded by an election clerk and certified by an election judge. Polling places also varied by region. New England and Mid-Atlantic states used organized polling places at churches or town halls. In southern states, election officials used local courthouses along with taverns and churches for counties with large populations.Madison’s ElectionPerhaps the most consequential race for a seat in the First Congress occurred in Virginia’s Fifth District, where two future presidents—James Madison, the Pro-Administration (or Federalist) candidate, and James Monroe, the Anti-Administration (or Antifederalist) nominee—ran for a U.S. House seat. The district consisted of eight counties in Virginia’s central Piedmont region, including Madison’s home county of Orange, and held about 91,000 people, 30 percent of whom were enslaved African Americans. Madison faced significant headwinds from the opposition, and he acknowledged that he had a fight on his hands. “I am now pressed by some of my friends to repair to Virginia . . . for counteracting the machinations agst. my election into the H. of Reps,” Madison wrote to Edmund Randolph from New York City.Madison confessed that he was “extremely disinclined” to pursue the seat because it would “have an electioneering appearance which I always despised.” Nevertheless, he worked with local allies to develop a campaign strategy, directly interacting with voters and embracing newer election techniques by engaging Monroe in two public debates. Madison also published letters in local newspapers that outlined his views of the new Constitution. During the campaign, Madison told George Washington that he had “visited two counties, Culpeper & Louisa, and publicly contradicted the erroneous reports propagated against me,” refuting claims “that I am dogmatically attached to the Constitution.” Because many constituents expressed concern about the oversight powers of the new federal government, Madison assured them that he would offer a set of amendments that would be added to the new Constitution.On February 2, 1789, 2,280 voters braved subzero temperatures in Virginia’s Fifth District to cast ballots in its first federal election. Madison won election to the House with 57 percent of the vote, 1,308 to 972. Ten of the thirteen states—including Virginia—held elections between December 1788 and March 1789, within the timeline required by the Election Ordinance. Three states—New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island—held elections later that year after delays ratifying the Constitution.“Great Moderation and Liberality”Ultimately, Pro-Administration lawmakers held 37 of 65 seats in the First Federal Congress. But it was the Anti-Administration bloc’s demands for a constitutional Bill of Rights—a promise that Madison had campaigned on as well—that set the session’s legislative agenda.Even as Madison settled into his new job as a U.S. Representative, he remained apprehensive about the success of the new government. “It is not yet possible to ascertain precisely the complexion of the new Congress,” Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson prior to the House achieving a quorum. “I hope and expect that some conciliatory sacrifices will be made,” he said, “in order to extinguish opposition, or at least break the force of it” in order to help the new constitutional government succeed.Thirty-five Members of the new House had previously served in the Continental or Confederation Congresses, experience that surely helped things along. And by May, Madison was able to report that the “proceedings of the new Congress are so far marked with great moderation and liberality.” He also noticed that the “spirit which characterizes the House of Representatives . . . is already extinguishing the honest fears which considered the system as dangerous to Republicanism.”As a nominal floor leader, Madison faced the early challenges of finding consensus and keeping lawmakers united as he offered bills to create sources of revenue for the new nation. He would face greater challenges while submitting a set of amendments that would become the Bill of Rights two months later. But the House of Representatives that he had theorized and nurtured—and whose elections he had designed—was off to a fast start.Sources: House Journal, 1st Cong., 1st sess. (1 April 1789): 6; Annals of Congress, House, 1st Cong., 1st sess. 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Parsons, William W Beach, Dan Hermann, eds., United States Congressional Districts, 1788–1841 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005); Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); United States Constitution, art. 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