November 15, 2023

Why Rhode Island Didn't Vote For George Washington

The first United States Presidential Election (December 1788-January 1789) is remembered for 'unanimously' electing George Washington as our first President. While that is technically true, three of the thirteen states did not participate in the election at all—New York, North Carolina and that bastion of New England quirkiness, Rhode Island. Why? (you might ask). Well, New York couldn't get its act together in time to send a slate of electors to the Electoral College. And both North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the U.S. Constitution. So, technically, they were not part of the new government and were floating out there on their own.

The battle to ratify the Constitution was extremely divisive—pitting Federalists (or Cosmopolitans) against Anti-Federalists (or Localists). The Anti-Federalists were suspicious of the centralized authority in the new federal government—and also resented being pressured into ratification without the amendments they deemed essential (what ultimately became the Bill of Rights).

Between 1787 and 1790, the Rhode Island legislature rejected the Constitution eleven times. Things got so bad, the state was nicknamed "Rogue Island". The state didn't even send a delegation to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In addition to their general dislike for a central government, they also wanted to continue printing their own paper money (the Rhode Island Pound). Ultimately, the legislature gave in after the new United States threatened an embargo against the state for holding out on ratification. But, because of the delay, they missed out on the first Presidential election.

Rhode Island has continued its contrarian ways—even until recently. It took the legislature 101 years—until 2013—to ratify the 17th amendment (allowing for direct election of Senators). They also rejected the 16th (income tax) and 18th (Prohibition) amendments. They may be small, but they are feisty!