Who Voted in the First Two American Presidential Elections?

The Constitution starts with the words "We the People," but how many people actually voted in the first two presidential elections? You might be surprised.

1776
White men with property have the right to vote but Catholics, Jews, Quakers and others are barred from voting

1787
African Americans make up 19 percent of the population, which the vast majority are slaves and thus, cannot vote.
– Native Americans were not counted, although there were likely over 80 tribes with 150,000 persons.
– For white Americans, the average age is under 16. Most white families are large, with an average of eight children born.

First Presidential Election - 1787


(a) Only 6 of the 10 states casting electoral votes chose electors by any form of popular vote.
(b) Less than 1.3% of the population voted: the 1790 Census would count a total population of 3.0 million with a free population of 2.4 million and 600,000 slaves in those states casting electoral votes in this election, but only 38,818 people voted.
(c) Those states that did choose electors by popular vote had widely varying restrictions on suffrage via property requirements.


1790
The Naturalization Act bars Asian Americans from becoming citizens.

Presidential Election of 1792


(a) Only 6 of the 15 states chose electors by any form of popular vote.
(b) Less than 0.5% of the population voted: the 1790 Census counted a total United States population of 3.9 million with 3.2 million free population and 700 thousand slaves. Only 13,332 people voted out of that 3.9 million.
(c) Those states that did choose electors by popular vote had widely varying restrictions on suffrage via property requirements.

Popular vote figures are suspect because (1) only 6 of the 15 states chose electors by any form of popular vote, (2) pre-Twelfth Amendment electoral vote rules obscure the intentions of the voters, and (3) those states that did choose electors by popular vote often restricted the vote via property requirements.

There may be a reason for the very low percentage of voters. The quote from Alexander Hamilton below sums up how many of the wealthy felt about the majority of the people.

"All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well-born; the other the mass of the people ... turbulent and changing, they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class [the wealthy] a distinct, permanent share in the Government ... Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence [lack of wisdom] of democracy."