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Shaping the Electoral College, Part II

Washington
by Rodney Dodsworth, Aug 8, 2019

June 1st, 1787.

Not until the waning days of the Philadelphia Convention in September did our Framers complete their plan of the Electoral College. As with the other major institutions of their Constitution, (House, Senate, Judiciary) they were careful to properly match electors to these institutions, meaning those who installed the members of the House, Senate, Presidency and Judiciary had a natural interest in the duties of the institutions. It is why, for instance, the people did not elect Senators and states did not elect Representatives to the House.

Delegates established a quorum eleven days after the scheduled start date of May 14th. I’ve wondered at times if this is evidence of the hand of God. The delay gave the VA delegation’s James Madison time to convince his fellow Virginians to present a revised plan of government, a starting point for the convention other than the Articles of Confederation. Ratification of piecemeal amendments to the Articles failed in 1781 and 1783.1 Why revisit old territory? By offering a plan that addressed the nation’s problems the VA delegation seized the high ground and directed the early debate.2

On June 1st, VA Governor Randolph introduced Resolution 7: “Resolved that a National Executive be instituted; to be chosen by the National Legislature for the term of —– years, to receive punctually at stated times, a fixed compensation for the services rendered, in which no increase or diminution shall be made so as to affect the Magistracy, existing at the time of increase or diminution, and to be ineligible a second time; and that besides a general authority to execute the National laws, it ought to enjoy the Executive rights vested in Congress by the Confederation.”

A Magistracy? America booted its last Majesty only eleven years earlier, and the Virginians propose another? Charles Pinckney (SC) stood at once to urge a “vigorous Executive,” and James Wilson (PA) moved to support a single man for the office. With this, a hush fell over Independence Hall. A single menacing man? It conjured visions from the past – unrestrained royal governors, a crown, a scepter! Ben Franklin, whose unassuming wisdom saved the convention a couple times, asked his fellows to deliver their sentiments. The non-recordation of individual votes and the parliamentary rule of secrecy, both during and after the convention allowed delegates to freely offer their opinions and change them as the Constitution took shape over the summer. No one need fear political repercussions for their day-to-day votes and speeches.

Randolph saw the “fetus of monarchy” in a unitary Executive. Liberty was safer in three sets of hands. When properly designed, the office could be just as vigorous and responsible. Great Britain should not be “our prototype.” But why shouldn’t the best British principles, if consistent with American manners and genius, be adapted? Even the youngest delegate was born an Englishman and had probably boasted that he lived in the best and freest kingdom on earth. George III betrayed British principles and forced America to find liberty in republican government.

What Powers? Roger Sherman (CN) declared the duty of the Executive magistracy nothing more than carrying out the will of the legislature, which expressed the supreme will of society. Like a modern corporate CEO, Sherman’s Executive carried out the will of the republic’s board of directors and nothing more.

To alleviate fears of a single Executive, James Madison (VA) went further than Sherman and proposed to better define the Executive’s duties. Where extensive powers would be safer in the hands of more than one Executive, proscribed powers could be left in a single man. He motioned to amend the clause, so the Executive would execute the laws, appoint officers and execute other powers not legislative or judicial. Mr. Wilson seconded.

Our Framers were well versed in men’s dispositions and shortcomings. They knew that power intoxicates and corrupts. Governments tend naturally toward despotism. I see every day in this convention a concern for properly matching adequate power and no more to the branches and offices of the new government. In similar fashion, as we shall see, the methods devised to elect or appoint members of the three branches were devised to minimize corruption and shady backroom deals so common in the British system.

Charles Pinckney (SC) regarded Madison’s amendments as redundant, and therefore unnecessary. When the great work is completed, we will find that the Executive and Judicial departments were granted general executive and judicial powers under the Constitution. Congress, on the other hand, would be strictly entitled to legislative powers, herein granted.

Executive Electors. James Wilson (PA), the product of Pennsylvania’s semi-radical political system, endorsed direct election of the Executive by the people.

Roger Sherman (CN), who had seen enough ruinous democracy since the revolution, found safety in an Executive elected by the Legislature. To him, an Executive independent of the Legislature led to tyranny.

The delegates considered various lengths of Executive service. Some went with the possibility of reelection, some with single long terms. In their deliberations there was always a tug between two concerns – how to avoid truncating the service of competent men needed by their country, yet prevent the rise of a political class dedicated to the trappings of power and little else.

In closing the day, an ever-democratic James Wilson preferred the people elect both houses of the legislature as well as the Executive. But he couched popular election of the executive with a caveat that made its way into the Electoral College when he said, ”the objects of choice in such cases must be persons whose merits have a general notoriety.” Indeed. From Wilson we can see at this early juncture the Framers sought only the best men for the executive office and will soon realize the key to finding such men was to carefully design a set of electors suited to the task. As opposed to today’s widespread mythology, the Framers’ first purpose was not to prevent urban voters from dominating the presidential election process.

  1. McLaughlin, A. C. (1905). The Confederation and the Constitution. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers. 172.
    2. As for the VA delegation, Patrick Henry declined his appointment due to family issues. Richard Henry Lee also declined. Both were fierce Anti-Federalists. Had either attended, we cannot know the outcome. Perhaps no new Constitution of government at all.

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