The Curious Creation (and Unintended Consequences) of the Electoral CollegeHistorians/History
Congress Hall in Philadelphia in 2007. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
What were the framers of the Constitution even thinking? Why did they bequeath to us the Electoral College, which grants the people of Ohio the power to choose the nation’s president and which has produced four winners who actually lost the popular vote?
The short answer: the men who wrote the Constitution believed they were producing a system not only different from but antithetical to the one that soon emerged.
Their first thought was that Congress should choose the executive, but in that case the president would be subject to the “intrigue & faction” they knew would characterize that body. (These are Gouverneur Morris’s words, echoed often by other framers.) Pennsylvania’s James Wilson suggested that the people, the source of all authority, should make the selection, but this radical notion was rejected overwhelmingly three times. Virginia’s George Mason spoke for many when he said that allowing the people to elect the chief executive would be as “unnatural” as referring “a trial of colours to a blind man.” Popular election also ran counter to the interests of states with small populations and those with large numbers of slaves, who added to a state’s representation in Congress but who of course would not be voting in presidential elections.
Politically, popular election of the president was off the table, yet was there another alternative to congressional selection?
Following the initial defeat of his motion for popular election, Wilson suggested that the people select electors and these in turn select the president. This idea fit nicely with James Madison’s modified notion of popular sovereignty: whereas the people must have some say, they must be separated from their government by “successive filtrations.” Yet Wilson’s innovative plan was deemed too novel, and like popular election, it was voted down three times. Frustrated by the second defeat of the elector idea but determined to shield the president from maneuverings within Congress, Wilson proposed a wilder scheme: 15 members of Congress, chosen by lot to avoid intrigue, would choose the president. This desperation move never warranted a vote.
On the final day of August, by a sleight of hand that misrepresented a prior vote, Wilson’s colleague Gouverneur Morris managed to send the issue to a committee charged with addressing unsettled business-- even though congressional selection of the president had been begrudgingly approved and twice confirmed. Within that committee, Morris and other members hammered out the complex scheme embodied in Article II, Section 1, Clauses 2 and 3 of the Constitution, what we now call the Electoral College. (That name, though, came later, borrowed from the latter days of the French Revolution.) On the Convention floor, Morris espoused its chief merit. “As Electors would vote at the same time throughout the U. S. and at so great a distance from each other, the great evil of cabal was avoided. It would be impossible also to corrupt them.” Electors, chosen for their judgment, would cast their votes free of all influence.
Nobody challenged Morris’s facile reasoning. Delegates had been meeting in charged and emotional sessions for over three months, and they were eager to be done with it all. Willfully or not, they avoided an obvious question that would have prolonged debate: were electors really immunized against all political influence, simply because they met simultaneously in their separate states? They approved the committee’s plan with only one change: switching the runoff, in case the electors produced no clear winner, from the Senate to the House of Representatives, with each state delegation having one vote.
Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist No. 68, echoed Morris’s optimism. “The convention have guarded against all danger” of “cabal, intrigue, and corruption” because electors, voting independently “under circumstances favorable to deliberation,” would “enter upon the task free from any sinister bias.”
Ten days before electors were to cast votes for the first president, Hamilton himself attempted to game the system he had declared immune to political manipulation. Noting the “defect” in the Constitution that instructed electors to cast two votes without distinguishing between president and vice-president, he wrote to political allies in six of the eleven states voting in that election, urging them to lean on electors to “throw away” seven or eight votes for John Adams so he would not overtake Washington. Hamilton was engaging in what any reasonable person would call “intrigue,” and what some might label “sinister bias,” to further the interests of his own “faction.”
Again in 1796, Hamilton attempted to manipulate the election by leaning on electors. This time he urged Federalist electors in the North not to throw away any votes for their party’s vice presidential candidate, South Carolina’s Thomas Pinckney. Secretly, he hoped that Pinckney would overtake their presidential candidate, John Adams. If Pinckney became president, he would owe his office to Hamilton and his friends, while Adams, if he prevailed, would have earned it in is own right. In the words of Hamilton confidant Robert Troup, “we [will] have Mr. Pinckney completely in our power.”
Hamilton tried to game the system yet again in 1800, this time telling Federalist electors to stay loyal to another vice-presidential candidate from South Carolina, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. By then electors of both parties had learned the value of loyalty. In 1796, because a few Federalist electors had not voted for Thomas Pinckney, the Republican Thomas Jefferson came in second and assumed the vice-presidency. To grab the vice-presidency as well as the presidency, Republicans in 1800 voted for both Jefferson and Burr, and each wound up with 73 votes, narrowly beating Adams.
But which one would be president? Although Jefferson had been running for president and Burr only for vice president, the two had actually tied, so in accordance with the Constitution, the election was thrown into the House of the Representatives. The “defect” in the Constitution that Hamilton had noticed and tried to exploit three times had become painfully evident. In the House, Federalists continued to game the system, supporting Burr, who seemed pliable, rather than Jefferson, their avowed enemy. (Ironically, Hamilton was one of the few Federalists at this juncture not to support Burr, his long-standing political enemy in New York politics. Four years later, their rivalry continuing, Burr would kill Hamilton in a duel.)
The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, removed the defect that created this whole mess -- failure to distinguish between votes for president and vice-president -- but the damage had already been done. By creating a single, independent executive, not present in a strict parliamentary system, the framers inadvertently triggered the formation of two political parties on a national scale, each putting forth a candidate. Those candidates then engaged in single combat to see which party would prevail. Today, we see the logical extension of this system: the debate stage, with an impressionable public judging the competing knights as much by a grin or a downward gaze as by substance. Perhaps George Mason had one good point. Basing a democratic government around a single individual, he warned, could produce “a more dangerous monarchy, an elective one.”
Ever since 1800, presidential electors have pledged to cast their votes according to predetermined affiliation. Initially expected to exercise superior discretion, these allegedly apolitical figures quickly turned into mere placeholders in a fiercely politicized competition, absolutely bound by prior commitments. Although the framers’ system broke down from the start, one residual component still defines presidential politics: the allocation of electors by states. Today, candidates must game the system to their best advantage. All attention to Ohio and Wisconsin, forget New York and Texas.
The framers had created electors to liberate the president from “intrigue & faction,” but like Oedipus, they realized their worst fear in striving to escape it.
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