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The Congressional Election of 1789

Politicians who redraw voting districts based on their own agendas. Candidates who flip-flop on the issues. Supporters who round up voters and transport them to the polls. What election year is this, anyway?

Welcome to the election of 1789!

If some of the tactics seem desperate (or familiar), it’s because the stakes were high in that first election under the new Constitution. The Constitution had become official when the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified it on June 21, 1788. Virginia and New York soon followed, on June 25 and 26. With eleven states on board, the old Confederation Congress (which included James Madison Jr. among its members) set the stage for an orderly transition to a new government, directing that states select their new Congressional representatives and senators as soon as possible, so that the new Congress could convene in March 1789.

A series of cartoons in the Massachusetts Centinel portrayed each ratifying state as adding a pillar to support “the great National Dome.” This August 2, 1788 cartoon depicted eleven pillars, including Virginia and New York, and foretold that a golden age was soon to come. (“Redeunt Saturnia regnal,” a quote from the Roman poet Virgil, translates as “the return of Saturn’s reign.”) For North Carolina’s pillar, the cartoonist predicted “Rise it will” – thanks, apparently, to that helpful hand reaching down from the clouds. Rhode Island’s pillar looked a little shakier, although the cartoonist wrote hopefully, “The foundation good – it may yet be SAVED.”

Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Not everyone was content with the new plan of government. The Constitution had its enemies, the anti-federalists,1who had fought bitterly against it during the ratification process. The results of the upcoming election would determine whether the new government would be filled with friends or foes of the Constitution. If enough anti-federalists were elected to Congress, they could set up the new government in ways that would obstruct or undermine the spirit of the Constitution. They could even call for another convention to dramatically revise the work of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.


Patrick Henry Pulls Strings

Virginia’s former governor Patrick Henry fiercely opposed the Constitution, fearing that the people’s liberties were endangered by “consolidating” power in a strong central government. He had tried to prevent the Constitution’s ratification at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, and he wanted to see anti-federalists represent Virginia in the new federal government. Keeping James Madison out of Congress now became a priority item on Patrick Henry’s to-do list as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Patrick Henry as depicted in a ca. 1835 watercolor portrait by James Barton Longacre, after Lawrence Sully’s 1795 miniature. Patrick Henry’s to-do list is not shown.

Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

According to Article 1, Section 3 of the new Constitution, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof.” (It was not until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913 that the people were able to elect senators directly.) Henry accordingly did all he could to ensure that the Virginia General Assembly would not choose Madison to represent Virginia in the U.S. Senate. Instead, on November 8, 1788, Henry nominated anti-federalists Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson and successfully pressed the General Assembly to appoint them as Virginia’s U.S. senators.2

Attempting to keep Madison out of the House of Representatives as well, Henry and his supporters made sure that the Fifth Congressional District was drawn to group Madison’s home county, Orange, with five counties that had sent anti-federalist delegates to the Virginia Ratifying Convention (Amherst, Culpeper, Fluvanna, Goochland, and Spotsylvania), and one county (Louisa) whose delegation had been split between federalist and anti-federalist. Orange and Albemarle were the only counties in the district who had elected only federalists to the ratifying convention.3 Surely the majority of voters in the Fifth Congressional District would favor an anti-federalist candidate over James Madison.

Patrick Henry, in other words, was gerrymandering before anyone had coined the term.

Madison knew that attempts were being made to keep him out of the new Congress.  Writing to Edmund Pendleton in November 1788, Madison expressed surprise that he received as many votes as he did in the Virginia General Assembly, even though he lost the appointment for the U.S. senator for Virginia. (Although 98 votes were cast for Richard Henry Lee and 86 for William Grayson, Madison still received a respectable 77 votes.)4 Madison’s prospects for the House of Representatives, he believed, depended entirely on how the voting districts were being drawn. If Orange was to be in a predominantly federalist district, Madison would probably run unopposed. If Orange ended up in an anti-federalist district, Madison was certain that he would lose.

Madison’s friends wanted him to come back to Virginia and actively campaign for a seat in the House of Representatives. Not only did this seem pointless, Madison told Randolph, but

“It will have an electioneering appearance which I always despised and wish to shun.”5


Electioneering, 18th-Century Style

It’s no wonder that Madison, who was quiet and reserved by nature, shied away from the extroverted style of 18th-century elections, described by historian Rhys Isaac as “the ethos of intense yet decorous contest.”6 Candidates often sat at a table at the county courthouse, where voters stood and stated their choices aloud. According to a description of a later Congressional election in 1799, the sheriff asked out loud,

“Mr. Blair, who do you vote for?”

“John Marshall,” said he;

and thereupon the future Chief Justice of the United States replied, “Your vote is appreciated, Mr. Blair.”

As the next voter approached the sheriff inquired: “Who do you vote for, Mr. Buchanan?”

“For John Clopton,” he answered;

and Clopton, at the other end of the table, responded: “Mr. Buchanan, I shall treasure that vote in my memory. It will be regarded as a feather in my cap for ever.”7


To Treat or Not to Treat

“Treating” voters to liquor, cake, or a barbecue was another widespread election tradition that made Madison uncomfortable. But candidates did it, and voters expected it. Candidates treated before the election, promised to treat after the election, and even treated near the courthouse on election day. A candidate might treat just a few voters, or an entire militia company. Another member of the gentry could also treat on a candidate’s behalf.

Treating was not an exchange for votes – that was illegal! The treat was typically offered to all the voters present, whether or not they agreed to support the candidate. However, if one candidate treated and the other didn’t, resentful voters were likely to turn against the candidate who seemed too stingy to treat.8

James Madison had experienced the wrath of untreated voters himself in the 1777 election for the Virginia legislature. In an autobiographical sketch, Madison later recalled that it had been common for

“…the Candidates to recommend themselves to the voters, not only by personal solicitation, but by the corrupting influence of spirituous liquors, and other treats having a like tendency. Regarding these as equally inconsistent with the purity of moral and of republican principles; and anxious to promote, by his example, the proper reform, [Madison] trusted to the new views of the subject which he hoped would prevail with the people; whilst his competitors adhered to the old practice. The consequence was that the election went against him: his abstinence being represented as the effect of pride or parsimony.”9

Voters, it seemed, preferred “the corrupting influence of spirituous liquors” to the “purity of moral and of republican principles.” (Or maybe it just didn’t feel like Election Day without the rum, cake, and barbecue.)


Getting Out the Vote

Just as candidates and their friends might treat the voters, they could also “get out the vote” for their candidate by providing transportation to other probable supporters. Rounding up voters and bringing them to the polls was an accepted practice, as reflected in an account of a disputed 1762 election for Burgess in Elizabeth City County.

That particular dispute centered on whether the rounded-up voters were qualified (some did not own property, and one was alleged to be incompetent), and whether the sheriff had deliberately closed the polls too early, instead of waiting for two voters that he knew were being brought to the polling place by others. (Sheriffs were supposed to close the polls when they determined that everyone present had voted, and they could use their discretion if, for example, voters were delayed by bad weather. Since the election was decided by two votes, the sheriff’s action had potentially affected the outcome.) The practice of transporting voters to the polls, however, was not part of the complaint; it seems to have been accepted as normal.10


Campaign 1789: Madison against Monroe

Understanding 18th-century campaign practices helps explain Madison’s misgivings about the ungentlemanly appearance of “electioneering.” Despite these misgivings, and despite his belief that he couldn’t win once Orange was placed in an anti-federalist district, Madison let his supporters talk him into returning to Virginia to campaign. Madison’s opponent was James Monroe, making this the only election (to date) in which two future presidents have run for the same Congressional seat.11

James Monroe in 1816, painted after winning election to an even higher office – the Presidency.

Oil portrait by John Vanderlyn, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Coming back to Montpelier from New York after Christmas 1788, Madison realized how hard the fight would be. Madison’s first challenge was to correct voters’ mistaken impression of his views. Anti-federalists had convinced influential groups of Baptists that Madison was opposed to amending the Constitution in order to protect the right of conscience. Madison, who had supported full religious freedom in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, would now have to convince the voters that he supported a Bill of Rights at the federal level.12 This was a little tricky, since Madison was against the Bill of Rights before he was for it.


Madison’s Position Evolves

While that would probably be characterized as a flip-flop today, Madison had reasons for changing his mind. During the Constitutional Convention, Madison had not felt the need for a Bill of Rights on a national level, believing that the people’s rights were fully protected by each state, through documents like the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The ratification process, however, had opened Madison’s eyes to the fact that “We the People” cared very much about adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

Madison reached out to George Eve, the minister of Blue Run Baptist Church in Orange, asking him to contradict what anti-federalists were saying about his position,

“…being informed that reports prevail not only that I am opposed to any amendmends whatever to the new federal Constitution; but that I have ceased to be a friend to the rights of Conscience.”

Madison explained, “I freely own that I have never seen in the Constitution as it now stands those serious dangers which have alarmed many respectable Citizens.” He had been opposed to states adding amendments during the ratification process simply because they would prolong the states’ arguments over the Constitution. Now, however,

“The Constitution is established on the ratifications of eleven States and a very great majority of the people of America… Under this change of circumstances, it is my sincere opinion that the Constitution ought to be revised… [to recommend] the most satisfactory provisions for all essential rights, particularly the rights of Conscience in the fullest latitude, the freedom of the press, trials by jury, security against general warrants &c.”13

Madison’s letter apparently convinced George Eve. Madison’s neighbor Benjamin Johnson reported that when a participant in a meeting claimed that Madison thought that the Constitution was without defect,

“Mr. Eve took a very Spirited and decided Part in your favour, he Spoke Long on the Subject, and reminded them of the many important Services which you had rendered their Society, in particular the Act for establishing Religious Liberty, also the bill for a general Assessment;14 which was averted by your Particular efforts; Mr. Eve urged that he thought they were under Obligations to you, and had much more reason to place their Confidence in you, than Mr. Monroe…”15


“The Distinction … Between Political and Personal Views”

Both Madison and Monroe supported a Bill of Rights. Their political views diverged, however, on the issue of direct taxation by the federal government. The Constitution permitted it, and Madison supported it. Monroe, however, opposed direct taxation, believing it was unnecessary when the federal government could levy taxes on imported goods, sell Western lands, or requisition funds from the states. It would be up to Madison to show that direct taxes would spread the tax burden more equitably, ultimately supporting the long-term union of the states.16

Despite their competition for the same office, Madison and Monroe remained cordial. Madison wrote Jefferson shortly after the election,

“It was my misfortune to be thrown into a contest with our friend, Col. Monroe. The occasion produced considerable efforts among our respective friends. Between ourselves, I have no reason to doubt that the distinction was duly kept in mind between political and personal views, and that it has saved our friendship from the smallest diminution.”17


Debating in the Snow

In the weeks leading up to the January 1789 election, Madison agreed to debate Monroe in several courthouses and churches, including Hebron Lutheran Church.18 Forty years later, Madison described the debate at Hebron to his younger friend and protégé Nicholas Trist:

“We used to meet in days of considerable excitement, and address the people on our respective sides; but there never was an atom of ill will between us. On one occasion we met at a church up here (pointing towards the northwest). There was a nest of Dutchmen19 in that quarter, who generally went together, and whose vote might very probably turn the scale. We met there at a church. Service was performed, and then they had music with two fiddles. They are remarkably fond of music. When it was all over, we addressed these people, and kept them standing in the snow listening to the discussion of constitutional subjects. They stood it out very patiently — seemed to consider it a sort of fight, of which they were required to be spectators. I then had to ride in the night, twelve miles to quarters; and got my nose frost-bitten, of which I bear the mark now (touching the end of his nose to the left side).”20

Was Madison’s frostbite scar distinct enough in 1825 to be captured on a plaster mold of his face? Look closely at this bust, based on John H. I. Browere’s life mask of the 74-year-old ex-president, and judge for yourself.

Montpelier Foundation reproduction of an original in the collection of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, gift of Stephen C. Clark.

Madison’s cousin Francis Taylor noted in his diary that he went to Orange Courthouse on January 26, 1789 (a “Fine morning”) and “saw Col Madison jr & Mr Monroe the Candidates for Member of Congress,” presumably in another debate. Taylor did not record his impression of the candidates’ performances, but – like most of his Orange County neighbors – Taylor likely favored Madison.21


“Put Me Down for Colonel Monroe”

The polls opened on February 2, 1789. Fearing the election was likely to go to Monroe, Madison’s supporters did their best to round up voters with federalist leanings and bring them to the polls. In one case, it didn’t work out quite as planned. Paul Jennings, Madison’s enslaved body servant during his retirement years, shared this anecdote in his 1865 book, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison:

“About ten years before Mr. Madison was President, he and Colonel Monroe were rival candidates for the Legislature. Mr. Madison was anxious to be elected, and sent his chariot to bring up a Scotchman to the polls, who lived in the neighborhood. But when brought up, he cried out: ‘Put me down for Colonel Monroe, for he was the first man that took me by the hand in this country.’ Colonel Monroe was elected, and his friends joked Mr. Madison pretty hard about his Scotch friend, and I have heard Mr. Madison and Colonel Monroe have many a hearty laugh over the subject, for years after.”22

Although Jennings was a decade off in dating the election, his telling of the story was nearly identical to the version told by Edward Coles, Dolley’s cousin who served as Madison’s private secretary. Historian Hugh Blair Grigsby recorded Coles’s version of the anecdote ca. 1850:

“Gov. Coles informs me that Madison and Monroe were rival candidates for a seat in the first House of Representatives; that the[y] travelled together and slept in the same room – and discussed their subjects freely and without personal allusions. When they were on the hustings, the following incident occurred: As the polls were kept open three days,23 every voter, sick and well, was brought to the polls. One such man who had been brought a long distance by the friends of Madison was asked by the Sheriff for whom he would vote, and replied by inquiring who was Jemmy Monroe? The Sheriff politely pointed to Monroe and said the candidate can answer for himself. Much excitement was created at the polls. When the Voter learned that Jemmy Monroe was the son of his father, he observed to the crowd that the father of Monroe had befriended him on his arrival in this county when he was in great destitution, and that he meant to vote for Jemmy Monroe.”24

In Jennings’s version of the story, Madison sent his own chariot to bring the voter to the polls, and Monroe himself had befriended the man when he was a poor immigrant. The Coles/Grigsby version adds some layers of detail, as Madison’s friends transported the voter and Monroe’s father was the voter’s benefactor. The immigrant’s ethnicity was not specified in the Coles/Grigsby version, but Jennings recalled him as a Scot. These small differences in an often-repeated anecdote are not surprising.


Counting the Votes

Francis Taylor eagerly recorded the results for each locality in his diary as he heard them reported over the next two weeks. In Orange, Madison received a resounding 216 votes to Monroe’s 9. In Monroe’s home county of Spotsylvania, Monroe was in the lead with 74 more votes than Madison. The vote was split somewhat more evenly in other counties, where Madison was favored 256 to 103 in Culpeper, and 174 to 105 in Albemarle.25

When all votes were counted, Madison won by 336 votes (1,308 to 972) – in the district that had been specifically created to prevent his victory.26


Then and Now

With Henry’s supporters drawing the voting districts to their advantage, Madison’s flip-flop on the Bill of Rights, and the Madison campaign’s attempts (not always successful) to get out the vote, the election of 1789 shared some of the hardball qualities of any American election. A lot was at stake. Both sides wanted to win.

But the Congressional election of 1789 had an uplifting aspect as well. Madison not only changed his mind about the Bill of Rights, but followed through on his campaign promise to make it a reality. Madison’s first major effort as a Congressman was to draft these amendments himself. As he explained in a speech in Congress on June 8, 1789,

“…if we can make the Constitution better in the opinion of those who are opposed to it, without weakening its frame, or abridging its usefulness in the judgment of those who are attached to it, we act the part of wise and liberal men to make such alterations as shall produce that effect.”27


The election of 1789 was also notable for the degree that Madison and Monroe were able to separate their political differences from their personal friendship – a friendship that lasted until Monroe’s death on July 4, 1831. How many candidates since then have “travelled together and slept in the same room” on the debate circuit? How many have “discussed their subjects freely and without personal allusions”?

Madison himself seem to recognize this unusual aspect of their rivalry:

“Perhaps there never was another instance of two men brought so often, and so directly at points, who retained their cordiality towards each other unimpaired through the whole.”28


We can learn a lot from the election of 1789!