J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Common-Place & the Electoral College

The online magazine Common-place is one of the most interesting places for historical writing about early America, connecting academic historians, school teachers, and interested citizens. It just announced its summer 2006 contents.

This issue includes a not entirely complimentary review by Jeff Broadwater of The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy, by Bruce Ackerman. The review starts:

Bruce Ackerman takes seriously a phenomenon Americans often seem to overlook: the rapid evolution of a political system radically different from the one anticipated by the framers of the Constitution. Ackerman argues...that the Constitution’s procedures for electing a president were particularly ill suited to the realities of American politics and that the election of 1800 exposed these inadequacies.
I think the flaws in the original system for choosing a chief executive officer for the U.S. of A. were clear even before that. In this regard, the Constitution never worked the way its framers wanted.

Sure, the original system produced the election of George Washington in 1789 and 1792. But that was hardly a surprise. Once Washington was willing to enter national politics, any manner of choosing a leader short of drawing straws would have selected him for the top post:
  • A king? Most Americans would probably have been willing, considering that they'd grown up under a monarchy. They'd have assured themselves that their constitution held more safeguards against tyranny than Britain's had, and trusted Washington to avoid its temptations. To his credit, he was willing to forgo royal power and try something new.
  • A presiding officer for a congress of state delegations? That was the role of the presidents of the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and the chairmen before that. And the Constitutional Convention elected Washington to just that position.
  • A head of the executive branch, chosen by electors meeting separately in each state after being chosen by various means, each man casting two equal votes, and then forwarding all names to Congress to count and make the final determination by state delegations if necessary? That's how the Electoral College did work, unwieldy as it was.
But of course the founders were trying to design a system that would work after Washington had died or was otherwise unavailable. It got its first test in 1796. And what happened? The system produced something the Constitutional Conveners had wanted desperately to avoid: a party battle. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had used a trip north to form an alliance with Aaron Burr and other anti-Federalists. John Adams, as Vice President, was the default choice of the Federalists. I think history has shown that in American plurality-takes-the-office elections, with no parliament, the system evolves into two dominant parties. Sometimes a third party becomes strong enough to affect the outcome, but usually (as in 1860, 1912, 2000, and other years) not in the way its proponents want.

Furthermore, because of how the Constitution originally defined the Vice President as the Electoral College runner-up, Adams had Jefferson as his VP. In modern terms, that would be like Al Gore trying to govern as elected while Dick Cheney presided over the Senate. After four years of tense cooperation, the country's two top office-holders ran against each other again in 1800.

That time, Jefferson won. (Not because of the popular vote, but because the Electoral College gave more weight to states with lots of enslaved people, as Garry Wills discussed.) But then the election system really broke down: Jefferson and Burr got equal Electoral votes because Electors could not distinguish their votes for President and Vice President. The choice between running mates went to the House, where the Federalists still held the balance of power.

Many scholars think that the Constitutional Convention expected the Electoral College to produce a majority only rarely. Therefore, the House would usually make the final choice of President and Vice President. That system never took hold. Instead, after the election of 1800 the party maneuvering in and among House delegations got even worse.

It's no wonder that Congress soon passed the Twelfth Amendment, changing the way the U.S. of A. chose its President and Vice President. This was the first revision to the processes that the Constitution laid out; the preceding eleven amendments stated rights or clarified jurisdictions, but didn't change what had been written. In other words, the original presidential election system had crashed and burned, and founders like James Madison knew it.

It's too bad that the revised system retained indirect elections through the non-representative Electoral College. Since then, a handful of administrations failed in "deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed," as the Declaration of Independence states. This is one area where American respect for the founders has gotten in the way of American principles.

For folks who like to follow the public memory of the Revolution, the same issue of Common-place includes Steven Biel's article about Parson Weems' Fable, the painting by Grant Wood that spoofs young George Washington, Charles Willson Peale, Mason Weems, and cherry trees, all at once.

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