Shaping the Electoral College, Part XII

By Rodney Dodsworth, Sept 12, 2019

September 4th, 1787

David Brearley (NJ) delivered another partial report from the Committee of Eleven, which was established on August 31st. Composed of one delegate from each state, the committee considered postponed clauses.1 After addressing Congressional authority over foreign and interstate commerce, the Convention once again visited Presidential elections. There was only one problem. The Committee of Eleven wasn’t charged with reconsidering the mode of electing the President. Oops. Before the Committee’s revision, Congress was to elect the President to one seven-year term:

The executive power of the U. S. shall be vested in a single person. His stile shall be “The President of the U. S. of America” and his title shall be “His Excellency.” He shall be elected by ballot by the Legislature. He shall hold his office during the term of seven years; but shall not be elected a second time.

So, in the hope of finding forgiveness rather than permission, the Committee recommended four-year Presidential terms, and created the office of Vice President along with his duties in the Senate. Most importantly, it endorsed our familiar electoral college, with State-derived electors allocated on Congressional representation. The major difference with the final draft coming in a few days, was that in the event of no majoritarian winner, the Senate (rather than the House of Representatives) was to immediately appoint the President from the top five contenders.

Governor Randolph (VA) and Charles Pinkney (SC) asked for an explanation as to why the committee overstepped its boundaries. Committee members Roger Sherman (CN) and Gouverneur Morris explained that one purpose was to allow for multiple, but shorter terms. Another was to make the President less dependent on the Legislature. Morris gave clear and compelling reasons to be rid of sole reliance on Congress, and move toward the States for Executive electors. This was old ground which one and all knew very well. Support for entirely Congressional elections was always thin, and had grown thinner once the delegates filled in the particular powers of each branch.

As a practical matter, the delegates envisioned a process in which either the state legislatures or the people of the states vote for upstanding, respected men in their communities to serve as Presidential electors. In a nod to the small States, each elector cast two votes, one of which had to be for someone from another State. Still, considering the population dominance of VA, PA, MA, our Framers expected most nominees would come from large States, with the actual election determined by the small body of US Senators, which favored small States.

There was one sticking point in particular that required attention: The same men who voted individually for the President also sat as jurors in impeachment trials.

James Wilson summarized the electoral issue. The election, composition and powers of the chief magistrate for the nation was a difficult matter that greatly divided the delegates. Whatever the Convention decides will arouse similar emotions and reflection among the public. While, in his opinion, none the electoral modes were entirely satisfactory, the plan on the table today was a valuable improvement on wholly Congressional elections with single-term Presidents. It removed the great evils of Congressional cabal and corruption, and anticipated that as the nation grew, well-informed electors would stand ready to use their judgement to nominate quality men to the Presidential office. Also, it also cleared the way for re-election of qualified men of proven performance, which the previous mode limited to one seven-year term.

Wilson suggested amendments. Since State electors would rarely nominate a clear majoritarian winner, he preferred the responsibility for eventual appointment to fall on the entire Congress rather than the Senate. Our Framers expected a tight, clubby Senate of the nation’s natural aristocracy and a wild House of Representatives of regularly rotating membership. Let the reps of the people participate. Also, limit Congress’ choices to fewer than the top five candidates, and structure the election to occur immediately (if no candidate won a majority) after the ballots are unsealed and read aloud in joint session of Congress. This eliminated the possibility of deal-making and corruption among Congressmen and Senators.

Overall, the Framers’ arrangement helped soothe the public’s fears of an aristocratically elected monarch disconnected from the people. In true republican fashion, have the States decide the mode of selecting electors and include the representatives of the people in the final selection of the President of the United States.

Despite the debate, there were no major Electoral decisions today. By 7-3 vote, further consideration of the Report was postponed to tomorrow, September 5th.

  1. Nicholas Gilman (NH), Rufus King (MA), Roger Sherman (CN), David Brearley (NJ), Gouverneur Morris (PA), John Dickinson (DE), Daniel Carrol (MD), James Madison (VA), Mr. Hugh Williamson (NC), Pierce Butler (SC), Abraham Baldwin (GA).

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