Defending the Electoral College since 2009
An oft-repeated but false claim about the Electoral College is that it was created as part of a bargain to preserve slavery and bolster the political power of Southern states. A recent op-ed in the Hickory Daily Record, a local paper in North Carolina, repeats this inaccurate charge, and a few others as well. In the interest of correcting the record, below is a refutation of the two most significant inaccurate statements in the piece.
The Founding Fathers didn’t trust a “democratic mob” to elect a president. Instead, the people would elect wise, sober “electors” to pick the president. Elitism beat out populism.
The first sentence has some truth to it, but the rest implies that the choice faced by the Founding Fathers was direct election of the president or the Electoral College. In reality, the two main options were having Congress appoint the president or using electors. There was little support for direct election – delegates to the Constitutional Convention cited many reasons to oppose it, including the fear by small states that they would be made irrelevant and a general concern that in so large a nation, most voters would not be familiar with the candidates.
For most of the convention, delegates intended to have the president selected by Congress (both the “Virginia Plan” and the competing “New Jersey Plan” proposed the national legislature appoint the president), but there was concern that the chief executive would be too beholden to Congress and unable to serve as an effective check on its power. The use of electors, which was proposed on several occasions, was viewed as a way to ensure the president would be independent of the legislature.
Slavery came in when it came to deciding how many electors each state would have. Southern states wouldn’t go for assigning electors according to free white residents only. Then the North would dominate. The result was the infamous “three-fifths compromise” that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person.
The noxious three-fifths compromise was not at all connected to the assigning of electors, contrary to this assertion. It could not have been for the simple reason that the three-fifths compromise was first adopted on June 11, well before the convention switched from Congressional appointment of the president to using electors. The three-fifths compromise was about representation in Congress, not for an Electoral College that had yet to be invented.
To understand the role slavery may have had in the creation of the Electoral College, it’s also worth considering which states and delegates to the Constitutional Convention favored the use of electors to select the president, and which opposed it most stridently.
The first to suggest the use of electors was James Wilson, an anti-slavery delegate from Pennsylvania. Those who later proposed the use of electors were also anti-slavery delegates from the North, including Oliver Ellsworth, Elbridge Gerry, Alexander Hamilton, Rufus King, Gouverneur Morris, and William Patterson.
As for opposition to the Electoral College in the Constitutional Convention, it primarily came from the South. The first two times using electors was proposed, in early June and mid-July, every Southern state voted against it – but so did nearly every other state. By July 19, however, after opposition had grown to having Congress select the president, the convention settled on electors by a vote of 6-3, with the three “no” votes coming from Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, the three most ardently pro-slavery states at the convention. The only delegate recorded as speaking against it was John Rutledge of South Carolina.
The convention reversed itself five days later, with most states (including Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) voting to revert to Congressional selection. The delegate who proposed switching back to Congressional appointment of the president was William Houstoun of Georgia, seconded by Richard Spaight of North Carolina.
The use of electors didn’t receive much discussion again at the Constitutional Convention until after the so-called “Committee of Eleven,” which had been established to hash out compromises on unsettled questions towards the end of the convention, proposed it on September 4. Arguing against using electors instead of Congress was Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, among the most stridently pro-slavery delegates at the Convention.
The question was finally settled on September 6, when the convention adopted a slightly modified version of what the “Committee of Eleven” originally proposed (the main change was that the House of Representatives, not the Senate, would select the president if no candidate received a majority of electoral votes), on a vote of 9-2. The two holdout states opposing the adoption of the Electoral College were North Carolina and South Carolina.
The record of the Constitutional Convention is fairly clear – using electors to select the president was adopted largely because it was viewed as the best way to keep the president from being too dependent on Congress. It had nothing to do with slavery, and in fact the use of electors to choose the president was generally opposed by Southern states while Northern, anti-slavery delegates were the main supporters of the idea – exactly the opposite of what would have been the case if the Electoral College was designed as a tool to protect slavery.
NOTE: All of the information cited here is based on the notes James Madison took at the Constitutional Convention, which are easily the most extensive and authoritative of all the records. Madison’s notes are available at multiple sites online, including The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. Key dates regarding discussion of presidential selection methods include June 1, 2, 13, 15, 18, July 17, 19, 20, 24, August 24, September 4, 6.
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