Samuel Miles is noted in many sources as the first “faithless” presidential elector. Although he had run as a Federalist, he voted for Thomas Jefferson instead of John Adams. A famous angry letter to the editor, written in the American Gazette in 1796, records one outraged Federalist voter’s sentiments:
Do I chuse Samuel Miles to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson shall be President? No! I chuse him to act, not to think!
A little more background is warranted. Samuel Miles was an officer in the Revolutionary War who had previously fought in the French and Indian Wars. After the Revolutionary War, he lived in Philadelphia; he was appointed a Court of Appeals judge in 1783 and elected to the city’s Council of Censors in 1787.
Following his election to the Council of Censors, he was charged (almost certainly falsely) with fraud and perjury by John Nicholson, then Controller-General of Pennsylvania. The courts settled decisively in favor of Miles, who then went on to say that Nicholson had made the accusation in order to cover up his own misdeeds.
Miles threatened to resign from office if Nicholson wasn’t removed; when the Assembly tabled the motion and didn’t continue working on it the next day, Miles followed through and resigned immediately.
Against his own expressed wishes, he was elected to the Philadelphia city council in 1788, advanced to alderman in 1789, and elected mayor in 1790. He was re-elected as mayor in 1791, and at that point finally escalated his reluctance to the point of outright refusal, declining to serve an additional term as mayor. In 1793 he retired with his family to a farm.
In 1794, the Pennsylvania state legislature impeached Controller-General John Nicholson for a variety of crimes. While the Pennsylvania Senate came up short of the two-thirds majority necessary to convict Nicholson, the controller-general resigned.
From what we know of Samuel Miles today, he seems to have been a man known for integrity, a strict sense of honor, and a desire not to be seen putting himself forward. You may notice some parallels at this point to a more prominent public figure of his time: George Washington.
The presidential election of 1796
On September 19th, 1796, George Washington — in keeping with his original intentions and his failing health — announced he would not run for a third term in office. The great Revolutionary War general wanted to retire once again to his farm.
The country was divided by two political parties in their infancy, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Both parties held quick informal caucuses and put forth their candidates. The Democratic-Republicans nominated Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr; the Federalists nominated John Adams and Thomas Pinckney.
In Pennsylvania, fifteen presidential electors were chosen by popular vote across the entire state. The presidential election, in other words, had thirty candidates. Among the fifteen candidates they chose was Samuel Miles; an officer of the Revolutionary War who had retired to a farm after being reluctantly elected to a series of public offices seemed like a good choice.
In one sense, it proved a good choice: Miles placed 14th out of 30, making him one of only two successful Federalist candidates. Unfortunately, Miles hadn’t yet decided who would make the better president.
Samuel Miles had supported the new Constitution and the Federalists thought he was one of their number. However, he did not feel obligated to vote for whomever the Federalists decided. Miles thought his duties as an elector were like those described in the Federalist Papers (see #68 in particular): He was supposed to deliberate, discern, and analyze, and from that analysis choose the best candidate for president. In his own words:
From the perspective of Samuel Miles, he was simply doing his duty as an elector by choosing the person most likely to do a good job as president. He did, however, decide to cast his second vote for Thomas Pinckney, the Federalist candidate for vice president. He followed neither party’s ticket; but he did follow his conscience and what he saw as his duty.
For this, he has gone down in the books as the first “faithless” elector.
Footnote on first in faithlessness
Samuel Miles was not the only elector to deviate from the parties’ designated tickets in 1796; many electors did so. Twenty-one northern Federalist electors did not vote for Pinckney, South Carolina’s eight electors voted for Jefferson and Pinckney, and only half of Jefferson’s other electors supported Burr.
A rumor circulated that Hamilton had convinced South Carolina’s electors to vote for Pinckney but not Adams. (Prior to the passage of the 12th amendment, there weren’t separate votes for president and vice president.) In response to that rumor, a number of New England Federalists decided to scatter their second votes in order to foil Hamilton’s scheme.
As a result of this scattering, Pinckney placed third — and Jefferson became vice president.