No! The Electoral College Was Not about Slavery!

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tags: slavery, election 2016, Electoral College, Trump



Gary L. Gregg II, Ph.D. holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the University of Louisville and is author of "Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College."

Related Link How the Electoral College Protected Slavery By Paul Finkelman

The American people have learned much about the Electoral College since the November election. Much has been learned about the origins, evolution and contemporary functioning of our system of presidential elections. We have debated the merits of our system versus allowing a simple national popular vote. We have seen an unprecedented campaign to try to get electors to vote against their pledge. And some have tried to instruct us on the nuances of the founding environment that created our unique electoral system.

But among all the good information and honest debates have arisen a misleading half-truth aimed at undermining the Electoral College.

Law professor Paul Finkelman ominously opines that Americans would be “disgusted” if they knew the real origin of the Electoral College was in protecting slavery. Following the 2016 election, the New York Times called for the abolition of the Electoral College, labeling it “a living symbol of America’s original sin.” In Time constitutional law scholar Akhil Reed Amar recently offered that “Standard civics-class accounts of the Electoral College rarely mention the real demon dooming direct national election in 1787 and 1803: slavery.”

The Electoral College as a living symbol of slavery? Slavery doomed the dream of a national popular vote for president? Reading the debates at the Constitutional Convention regarding how to elect a president would disgust us? What evidence is there for such extraordinary and hyperbolic attacks?

Yale’s Akhil Reed Amar, who may be the originator of this peculiar reading of the Constitution, cites one remark on one day by one member of the Constitutional Convention. And that remark comes two months before the final Electoral College is debated and settled upon. In his remarks, James Madison discusses the importance of separated powers and the difficulty of electing a president, offering that a direct election by the people may be the best option so far on the table. However, he offers that the down side of a direct popular election would be that the southern states would have no hope of electing presidents since their voting populations were so much smaller than those in the north. He offered having electors represent the people might obviate this imbalance.

It’s a thin reed that gets thinner when you realize that Madison was responding to New Jersey’s William Paterson who spoke immediately before him and endorsed a system of electors. Paterson, you see, was a dedicated opponent of slavery and surely did not propose such a system in order to uphold the institution he was otherwise working to undermine. As is typical of opponents of the Electoral College, Professor Amar seems more interested in tarnishing the institution than providing a complete and nuanced picture of the Constitutional Convention and the institution’s origins. ...





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