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WHEN WAS THE FIRST US PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE?

That is not an easy question to answer as there were two US Constitutions; the Articles of Confederation which created the "Perpetual Union" of the United States and the Constitution of 1787 which formed "The More Perfect Union".

Under the First Constitution there was only one branch of government, The United States in Congress Assembled and the first man to hold the office as President of the United States of America, Samuel Huntington, assumed the helm when the Continental Congress ceased to exist with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781. The First Office under the Articles was true to the meaning of the word President, "to preside". In this one branch government the "Presiding Officer" changed his hats often from Speaker of the House to Chief Justice to US President duties depending on the business of the day. Samuel Huntington was referred to as the President of Congress for legislative matters, typically His Excellency for judicial matters such as presiding over settling state border disputes, and President of the United States in Congress Assembled for duties such as signing military commissions, treaties and receiving foreign dignitaries. In fact the Treaty signed by King George III in 1784 that finally ended the War with Great Britain was signed "Under the Great Seal of The United States of America witnessed our President Thomas Mifflin".

The ratified Articles of Confederation called for an election of the President of the United States by the delegates of the United States of America in Congress Assembled. Each of these delegates were elected by the people as we now do electing members of the Electoral College. There were, however, two MAJOR exceptions. First no matter how many delegates a state sent to Independence Hall each delegation had only one vote on the Presidency and all other matters before The United States of America in Congress Assembled. So Rhode Island, who has four electoral votes vs. Pennsylvania twenty-five electoral votes under the current Constitution, was just as powerful when it came to the election under the Articles as the Keystone State with one vote each. Second, since the same Delegates who elected the President also governed the United States the debates and campaigns were not held before the people. Debates were conducted before the United States in Congress Assembled and the letters of the Delegates reflect many lively exchanges between the candidates.

The first such "electoral" debate occurred on July 9, 1781 due to the resignation of Samuel Huntington. On this "Presidential Race" historians really do not know who all the nominees were as Congress met under an oath of secrecy. What is discerned can only be found in the Official Journals of the United States in Congress Assembled and through the personal letters of the Delegates which strangely silent on this first election (i.e. Elias Boudinot's election in 1782 was particularly heated and many personal letters of the members record the event). We do know that in July 1781 most of Southern States were lost to the British (Former Continental Congress President Henry Middleton of Charleston actually claimed his allegiance to the King after the fall of Charleston South Carolina) and few committees in 1781 had been established to run the various segments of the Unicameral US Government. This meant that the burdens of the office were Herculean with no pay provided for the "Presiding Officer" of the United States. The office, consequently, was quite unpopular in 1781 and virtually no men of competence actively sought the Presidency.

We do know that two members were recruited as candidates, Thomas McKean and Samuel Johnson. They agreed to run but noted they would only serve from July 9th, 1781 until the new Congress took office in November of 1781. McKean added that if the United States of America in Congress Assembled was not out of session by early October he would have to resign to fulfill his paying position as Chief Justice of Pennsylvania. This coupled with the actuality that most Delegates believed the one year US Presidency should be rotated, each term, between the Southern and Northern States ultimately led to North Carolinian Johnson's election as former President Huntington was from Connecticut. The letters of the delegates show, on this particular occasion, that the debate was over competent candidates explaining WHY THEY COULD NOT SERVE AS PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES of America in Congress Assembled. A vast difference from the 2004 election.

Samuel Johnson from North Carolina was duly elected President of the United States on July 9th, 1781. On July 10th he surprised everyone by turning down the office of President of the United States of America. President-elect Samuel Johnson was the only man ever to decline the office after being elected. The Journals of the United States of America in Congress Assembled records this on July 10th:

Mr. [Samuel] Johnston having declined to accept the office of President, and offered such reasons as were satisfactory, the House proceeded to another election; and, the ballots being taken, the hon. Thomas McKean was elected.

The reasons for Johnson's refusal to not serve are unclear because at that time the Journals reflected almost no debate due to the strict Oath of Secrecy. Some historians claim Samuel Johnson's letter of July 30th 1781 clearly indicates that he was in no position to accept the Presidency as it offered no salary:

Having no prospect of being relieved or supplied with money for my expenses and my disorder, which abated a little on the first approach of warm weather, returning so as to render me of little use in Congress I left Philadelphia the 14th, for which I hope I shall be held excusable by this state.

North Carolina with this decline lost her opportunity to declare one of her sons held the Presidency of the United States of America in Congress Assembled.

Even President Thomas McKean who accepted the Presidency on July 10th wanted to leave before his term ended. Despite Washington's success in Yorktown and President McKean's public review of the troops and the colors not with a salute but his hand held over his heart as they paraded through Philadelphia still did not dissuade his decision to take his seat as Pennsylvania's Chief Justice and abandon the Presidency. The October 23, 1781 Journals of the United States in Congress Assembled reports:

The secretary laid before Congress a letter from the President in the words following: Whereupon, Sir: I must beg you to remind Congress, that when they did me the honor of electing me President, and before I assumed the Chair, I informed them, that as Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, I should be under the necessity of attending the Supreme Court of that State, the latter end of September, or at farthest in October. That court will be held to-day; I must therefore request, that they will be pleased to proceed to the choice of another President. "

I am, sir, with much respect, your most obedient humble servant,

Thos. McKean.

This was at first accepted with the vote for a new President being postponed until the following day. Congress did not elect a new President on the 23rd instead they required McKean to continue his service as President until new Congress convened in November.

As for the When was the First Presidential Debate under the Constitution of 1787? Well most people believe it either started with Lincoln-Douglas or Kennedy-Nixon. Both are incorrect but that story is for another commentary.

Stanley L. Klos


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