What were the Founding Fathers thinking when they created the Electoral College in 1787? This is what they were thinking.

Picture: senate.gov. credit: “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by artist Howard Chandler Christy

Signing the Constitution on September 17, 1787 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia

55 of some of the greatest American political minds of the 18th century (Thomas Jefferson called them “demi-gods”.) met in that hot summer in Philadelphia in 1787 to create the U.S. Constitution that is still going strong after almost 250 years.

Some of the following ideas on the Electoral College are mine but most have been taken from the following 12 great books, unless specifically noted. Since my blog posts are meant for the average voter, not constitutional scholars, I have included few footnotes. My high school English teachers would role over in their graves over my egregious lack of footnotes, so please don’t tell them.

Sources:

1. “55 Men, The Story of the Constitution, Based on the day-by-day notes of James Madison” by Fred Ridell, 1936 (Paperback 1986). Amazon $19.95

2. “A More Perfect Union, The Making of the United States Constitution” by William Peters, 1987. Amazon $22.27

3. “Original Meanings, Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution” by Jack N. Rakove, 1996. Amazon $15.16

4. “A Brilliant Solution, Inventing the American Constitution” by Carol Berkin, 2002. Amazon $12.83

5. “Constitution Making, Conflict and Consensus in the Federal Convention of 1787” by Calvin C. Jillson, 2002. Amazon $29.95

6. “David Brearley and the Making of the United States Constitution” by Donald Scarinci, 2005. Amazon $55.50 (Used-Very Good)

7. “The Constitutional Convention, A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison” by Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship, 2005. Amazon $15.40

8. “The Founders, The 39 Stories Behind the U.S. Constitution” by Dennis Brindell Fradin, Illustrations by Michael McCurdy, 2005. Amazon $5.98 (Used-Very Good)

9. “The Summer of 1787, The Men Who Invented the Constitution” by David O. Stewart, 2007. Amazon $9.60

10. “Decision in Philadelphia, The Constitutional Convention of 1787” by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier, 2007. Amazon $9.00

11. “Plain, Honest Men, The Making of The American Constitution” by Richard Beeman, 2010. Amazon $14.61

12. “The Framers’ Coup, The Making of the United States Constitution by Michael J. Klarman, 2016. Amazon $15.11

Note: Amazon prices as of April 27, 2019

 

The 13 original states of the United States of America, which acted more like 13 independent countries jealously guarding their individual sovereignty, were afraid of creating a powerful, tyrannical government in America after getting rid of a powerful, tyrannical government in Great Britain. So they deliberately created a weak, national government under the Articles of Confederation.

But only four years after they had won independence from Great Britain, they discovered that the government they had created was too weak and was just not working. The country was on the verge of collapse. Many feared that their freedoms gained in the Revolutionary War would be lost.

So 55 men, a.k.a. Founding Fathers, went to a constitutional convention in Philadelphia in May, 1787 to fix the Articles of Confederation. (They were mostly the “elites” of their day, wealthy, well educated and lawyers, politicians or both. Not a small farmer or working class man among them.)

Their biggest problem was how to give the national government more power so it would function effectively without giving it too much power and so lose their literally hard fought freedoms.

The second major problem was that the small population states feared always being outvoted by the large states. The small states threatened to leave the union if the large states had too much power in the new constitution.

“[Gunning Bedford, politician and attorney general from the small state of Delaware]…the large states dare not dissolve the Confederation. If they do, the small ones will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice.” (Source #1, page 82)

The third major problem was slavery. The Southern slave states wanted to preserve slavery, which was the basis of their wealth and way of life, but many in the Northern states wanted to abolish slavery. The Southern slave states would have left the union if the new constitution abolished slavery.

“It was the turn of the [Southern] slave states to threaten to leave the Convention. A similar threat seemed to have worked wonders for the small states’ interests. So Davie of North Carolina…was sure ‘that North Carolina will never confederate on any terms that do not rate the blacks at least as three-fifths. If the [Northern] states…exclude [blacks] altogether, the business is at an end.’” (Source #1, page 96)

Note: Gaining broad national support for electing the president or preventing one part of the country from dominating the presidential election was not a priority for the Founding Fathers, but these goals are important today.

For four months in the summer of 1787 solving these three problems was a huge challenge facing the Founding Fathers. (The constitutional convention was supposed to start on May 14 but they couldn’t get a quorum until May 25. And you thought our Founding Fathers were perfect.)

They all knew that if they failed to reach an agreement on a better constitution than the Articles of Confederation, the infant democracy of the United States of America would not survive. No pressure at all.

By the middle of July the delegates had been arguing bitterly for a month and a half about one thing: representation in the new Congress. Would the representation in Congress be one equal vote for each of the 13 states or would the votes of the states be apportioned by population? The small states wanted one equal vote for each state, and no surprise here, the large population states wanted representation to be apportioned by population because then the large states would have more power in the government.

New Hampshire missed the whole raucous fighting on the representation in Congress because they didn’t show up until July 23; something about the state of New Hampshire not wanting to reimburse their delegates’ travel expenses. No fat per diem expense accounts for the delegates from cheap New Hampshire.

Rhode Island never did send a delegation to the convention. And two delegates from New York went home early on July 10th leaving only Alexander Hamilton. (He was an illegitimate child born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, an aide to Washington during the Revolutionary War and wanted the president to be elected for life.) The convention rules required a state to have at least two delegates for their state to have a legal vote, Therefore, after July 10th New York had no say in writing the Constitution.

The New York delegation felt that the new constitution would create a national government that was too powerful and trample on the rights of the states. Also, Congress had only authorized the Constitutional Convention to revise the Articles of Confederation not create a whole new constitution. Therefore the new constitution the convention was creating was illegal. But the other eleven states at the convention seemed to be more flexible and breaking the law to create a new constitution was not a problem for them.

But finally on July 16 the small states and the large states worked out a compromise on representation in the new Congress. The Founding Fathers were more willing to compromise than today’s politicians.

It was now July 17th and they could start on how to choose the president. They had three options and all of them were seriously flawed.

1. The first option was to have the 13 state legislatures select the president. But the whole purpose of creating a new constitution was to increase the power of the federal government in relation to the states. They were concerned that allowing the states to select the president would give too much power to the states relative to the federal government.

2. Why not elect the president by direct popular vote? James Wilson of Pennsylvania thought this was a great idea and tried to get the other delegates to support him. (He served on the first U.S. Supreme Court and would die in poverty facing debtor’s prison due to speculation in western land.) The states voted on July 17 and it was defeated 9-1! Our Founding Fathers clearly did not want the people to choose the president by direct popular vote in 1787.

Many people think the reason the Founding Fathers did not want the president to be chosen by direct popular vote was the average voter in 1787 was not intelligent enough or educated enough to make good choices for president. (Some still think the average voter is not intelligent enough or educated enough to make good choices for president.)

Some of the Founding Fathers did think this way, but their biggest argument against the people choosing the president directly was the poor transportation and communication in the 18th century. For example, when John Adams went from Boston to Philadelphia (about 350 miles) to help write the Declaration of Independence, it took two weeks by horse drawn carriage. (Source needed) The only mass media was about 100, 2-4 page newspapers, that mostly had ads and local news, and were only available in the cities and larger towns. And those newspapers spread only at the speed of a horse or a sailing vessel dependent on which way the wind was blowing. And In the North 10% of the people were illiterate and in the South 30% of the people were illiterate. (Source needed)

Because of the poor transportation and communication in 1787, the average voter might be familiar with candidates for president from their home state but wouldn’t have a clue about candidates from neighboring states, let alone candidates from states 1,000 miles away.

Without knowledge of all of the candidates for president from different parts of the country how could the people make intelligent choices for the best president?

“In fact, only a small minority of delegates [to the Constitutional Convention] believed that the ordinary citizens of America were insufficiently intelligent to make a wise choice for their president….Rather, nearly all of the delegates–with the notable exception of Wilson [my hero]–believed that the sheer expanse of America would frustrate any effort to create an informed electorate.” (Source #9, pages 130-131)

There were two other reasons why the vote was 9-1 against choosing the president by Direct Popular Vote. First the Southern slave states didn’t like it because they would be at a disadvantage because 30% of their population were slaves and couldn’t vote. Second the small states didn’t like Direct Popular Vote because they were afraid of always being outvoted by the big population states.

3. The third option was to have Congress choose the president, like they do in Great Britain (United Kingdom). There the Prime Minister is elected by the members of parliament, not by the people.

This option would create problems with the separation of powers between the president and Congress. Congress already had the power to impeach the president and if Congress had the power to choose the president too that would give Congress too much power. Since Congress could “hire and fire” the president, the president would be beholden to Congress and he would not have enough independence to act as a check on excessive power by Congress.

These were their only real options but they had to figure out some way to chose a president. The delegates finally decided to have Congress choose the president as the “lesser of three evils”.

But on August 24 the issue was brought up again as to whether Congress or the Electoral College, which had previously been dismissed, should choose the President. The delegates voted again and now were evenly divided on which to use. So they were back to square one on how to choose the president.

It is now August 31 with only 17 days left before the delegates ended the convention and went home. But they still had many important issues to work out, including how to choose the president. To address these undecided issues, they created the Committee of Eleven of Postponed Matters consisting of one member from each state present at the convention to make recommendations on how to finish creating the new Constitution so they all could go back home to their families, farms and businesses after debating and arguing in that long, hot summer in Philadelphia.

And remember, no A/C in 1787. And to make the heat even more unbearable, the windows were closed to keep out the biting flies and eavesdroppers because the convention rules required the proceedings to be kept secret until the convention was over.

The committee was chaired by David Brearley of New Jersey, (Brearley fought with Washington at Valley Forge and was Chief Justice of New Jersey’s Supreme Court).

Sidebar: Creating a new constitution to save the country from chaos and ruin was a very serious business. But there was one instance of levity at the convention.

“Luther Martin of Maryland championed the idea of a longer term [for president]. He suggested eleven years. Inspired, Gerry [from Massachusetts] proposed fifteen years. Mocking the auction-house atmosphere, Rufus King [from Maine] called out ‘Twenty years!’ adding, ‘This is the medium life of princes.’ Even Madison cracked a smile, recording that the remark, ‘might possibly be meant as a caricature of the previous motion'”. (Source #7, page 157)

We’re finally getting to the part where the Constitutional Convention decides to use the Electoral College to choose the president.

The committee decided to recommend having Congress choose the president. But when John Dickinson, from Delaware, (Lawyer and governor of both Delaware and Pennsylvania), suggested they reconsider having Congress choose the president, even though the committee had already decided that issue, Gouverneur Morris, from Pennsylvania, jumped at the chance to choose the president by any way other than Congress. (No, that’s not a typo, Gouverneur really was his first name. He was most famous for his wooden leg that he got when he was run over by a carriage while fleeing from the irate husband of one of his lovers.) Gouverneur Morris had seen way too much politics in state legislatures and in the Continental Congress to think the new Congress would be a good way to choose the president.

So Gouverneur Morris and James Madison (Although his soft voice made him a poor speaker, he addressed the convention 150 times and served in both the Continental Congress and the Virginia legislature) revived the Electoral College to choose the president, that James Wilson had originally suggested way back in June, but had been voted down by the convention. Since no one was really happy with Congress choosing the president, the other delegates listened to their arguments why an Electoral College would be a better way to choose the president.

The Electors in the Electoral College would be chosen by a method decided by each of the states. That would get the support of the states who feared a too powerful national government.

Each state would get one Elector for each of their representatives in the House of Representatives and one for each senator in the Senate. That would give the large states an advantage when the Electoral College voted. (Although not as big an advantage if the voting were strictly by population. For example, in 1787 Virginia [the largest state] would outnumber Delaware [the smallest state] by 10 to 1 in the House of Representatives but only by 12 to 3(= 4 to 1) in the Electoral College.)

Today California [the largest state] outnumbers Wyoming [the smallest state] by 53 to 1 in the House of Representatives but only by 55 to 3(= 18.3 to 1) in the Electoral College.

Because of poor transportation and communication, the delegates at the convention expected 95% of the time (according to George Mason of Virginia) that the Electors would vote for “favorite sons” from their home states and no one candidate would receive a majority of the Electoral College votes. In that case the Senate(later changed to the House of Representatives), with each of the 13 states getting one equal vote, would choose the president from the top five vote getters in the Electoral College (later changed to the top three by the 12th Amendment In 1804). That would get the support of the small states since there were more small states than large states in the country.

And the slave states liked the Electoral College because they got extra votes in the Electoral College because their slaves, which they treated as property, were counted as 3/5 of a person in representation in the House of Representatives and also counted as an Elector in the Electoral College.

And everyone could see that if the Electoral College system chose the president they wouldn’t have to worry about giving too much power to Congress if Congress chose the president. Then the president could maintain his independence from Congress and be a check on Congress from becoming too powerful and tyrannical.

With all of the factions at the convention getting some of what they wanted, on September 6 the convention approved the Electoral College system to choose the president by a vote of 10-1.

By September 17 the final version of the Constitution was signed by 39 delegates (of the total of 55 delegates that attended the Constitutional Convention at one time or another), with three of the delegates remaining at the end of the convention not approving of the new Constitution and refusing to sign, especially because it lacked a Bill of Rights: George Mason of Virginia, (Wealthy plantation owner. He later was a major player in getting the Bill of Rights added to the Constitution), Edmund Randolph, Governor of Virginia, (Although Edmund Randolph later changed his mind and helped ratify the Constitution at Virginia’s state convention in 1788) and Elbridge Gerry, politician from Massachusetts, (He is most famous for inventing Gerrymandering).

The Electoral College was a brilliant solution and would have worked well except the Founding Fathers never designed the Electoral College to work in a political system controlled by national political parties, which didn’t exist in 1787.

After almost 250 years with elections dominated by national political parties, that the Founding Fathers never planned on, how well does the Electoral College work in choosing our president compared to how the Founding Fathers thought it would work?

With all the talk today of abolishing the Electoral College and replacing it with Direct Popular Vote is that a good idea or not?

To find these answers you will have to wait until my blog posts at the end of June.

Steve Scott, U.S. Citizen and Voter, Sarasota, Florida

p.s. After the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, to become the law of the land it still had to be ratified by 2/3 of the states(9). The first state was Delaware on December 7, 1787, which is why on their license plate they have the motto “The First State”. The ninth state was New Hampshire, on June 21, 1788. To find out how the struggle for ratification was won, read “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788” by Pauline Meier, 2010. Amazon $17.74

(Revised 5/23/19)

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