Ye Olde History Teacher

The Electoral College is Awful, But It Had Nothing to do With Slave State Power.

Google “Electoral College Slavery,” and your search will turn up dozens of articles written in the past two years claiming that our Electoral College system for choosing the President was proposed and placed in the Constitution to give more political power to slave states. Go to the comments section of any online article concerning the Electoral College and you will find it replete with comments written in the “everybody knows” vein repeating this idea as indisputable fact. The idea does, after all, have a nice symmetry to it: a racist electoral system ended up giving us a racist President despite the fact that he lost the popular vote.

Here’s the problem: the Electoral College, as deeply flawed a system for selecting a chief executive as could be imagined, had absolutely nothing to do with slavery. At all.

The “Electoral College=Slave State Power” theory is based entirely upon one minor comment by James Madison made during one day’s debate at the Convention (more on that later). Despite the fact that a few days later Madison specifically and directly completely contradicted that comment, and despite the fact that the entire remaining record of the Convention clearly shows that the proposal and final adoption of the Electoral College had nothing to do with slavery or slave state power, the theory has nevertheless been blindly accepted and repeated as an undeniable historical truth. It’s time to dispel that myth, however, so we can focus instead on the real reasons why we need to dump the Electoral College.

First things first: the Electoral College is an abomination. It violates the “one person one vote” principle, was anti-democratic in its adoption, and makes our modern presidential elections only relevant in about 12 states. It has allowed for the popular vote loser to become President four times in our history, twice in the last twenty years. It is the reason that Donald Trump, a racist demagogue who lost the election by over 3 million votes, is President. It is an anachronism that desperately needs to be abandoned.

Our nation’s bigoted past, moreover, is undeniable: a majority of our “founding fathers” were racists; nearly half were slave owners; and the Constitution that they created included several provisions which promoted the political power of slave states (such as the “three-fifths” clause) and the economic interests of slave owners (such as the Fugitive Slave Clause). It’s also true that, on one occasion, the Electoral College helped elect a Southern slave-owner President (Jefferson, in 1800) because of extra electors he received as a result of the three-fifths clause.

However – and this is the key point – the Electoral College system was neither proposed, supported or finally approved by those delegates to protect the interests of slave states. A simple reading of the entire record of the debates at the Constitutional Convention – not just one snippet of a comment made on one day of debates – make this fact abundantly clear.

On the first day of the Constitutional Convention, May 29, 1787, Edmund Randolph of Virginia introduced a proposed plan of government (known to posterity as the “Virginia Plan”) as a series of Resolutions for the Convention to consider. Included in Randolph’s resolution were two relevant points. First, in his proposal for a bicameral (two house) national legislature, members of the first house (which eventually became the House of Representatives) were to be apportioned to the state based solely on the number of “free inhabitants.” Second, the national executive (the President) would be chosen by that same national legislature.

Why is this significant? Randolph, himself a slave-owner and representing the slave state of Virginia (which, in 1787, had the largest number of slaves in the country), proposed a federal government in which slave states would have no political advantage in either the legislative or the executive branch.

On June 1, delegates began debating the method of selecting the President, using Randolph’s proposal (that the national legislature have that power) as a starting point. James Wilson of Pennsylvania – not a slave owner, supporter of slavery, or representing a slave state – was one of those opposed to the national legislature having this power. Instead, he argued in favor of some form of direct election by the people of the states. His proposal was supported by George Mason of Virginia – a slave owner – who suggested to Wilson that he take some time to come up with a proposal for how to give “the people” the power to select the President.

On June 2, Wilson had a response to Mason’s suggestion. In Committee, Wilson presented his plan for giving “the people” the power to directly select the President. Wilson proposed that voters eligible to vote in states select electors to select the President (with the number of electors per state based upon the number of Congressional Districts in each state).

Wilson’s suggestion was briefly debated that day. No delegate spoke out clearly in favor of it. Massachusetts’ Gerry did make clear that he opposed Randolph’s proposal that the legislature choose the President, but he was unsure that Wilson’s idea was the answer. On the other hand, slave owning Hugh Williamson from North Carolina opposed Wilson’s elector concept. When Wilson’s proposal was put to a vote, it was shot down 8-2, with only Pennsylvania (a free state) and Maryland (a slave state) voting “aye.”

This initial debate and resulting negative vote is important in understanding the origin of the Electoral College system. First, it was introduced by a free-state, anti-slave Northerner (I have seen it claimed that Madison came up with the idea of the Electoral College – that is simply not true). Second, Wilson developed the concept solely as a way to give “the people” the power to select the President, rather than the national legislature, which a number of delegates, like Gerry, strongly opposed.

Third, most delegates present when the idea was first proposed – including four of the five of the slave states represented in the Committee – rejected the idea. Fourth, there was no mention whatsoever made in this brief debate that the proposal had anything to do with slavery or increasing southern slave state power. Simply put, nothing whatsoever about the initial proposal had anything to do with slave state power.

Following this preliminary rejection of Wilson’s idea, the Convention spent the next three months considering, off and on, a number of proposals for selecting the President (and even whether or not the President should be one or more persons: Randolph argued in favor of three Presidents, each from a different region of the country, to serve co-jointly as the Executive).

In these debates over how to choose the President, two distinct positions emerged: those who trusted “the people” to choose the President, and those who did not. This split, moreover, was not North versus South, free-state versus slave-state, or big state versus small state: it was entirely a philosophical question over the capacity of “the people” to be able to make an informed choice for President. The delegates most vehemently opposed to selection of the President by the people, in fact, and more likely to support selection by electors, were Northerners.

On one side were delegates like Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, who preferred direct election by the “citizens of the US.” James Wilson, who came up with the original elector idea, agreed with Morris and preferred direct election by the people. These delegates were in the minority however.

On the other side were delegates like Massachusetts’ Elbridge Gerry, who proposed (unsuccessfully) that the individual state governors be given the power to select the President. Gerry’s opposition to letting the people directly choose the President came from a fear that the people could be fooled, by a demagogue, into choosing the wrong man for the job. Gerry distrusted the people so much, in fact, that he opposed even letting them vote for their own representatives, arguing that “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.”

In agreement with Gerry was Roger Sherman of Connecticut, who echoed Gerry’s belief that the people at large would not be able to make an informed choice for President. Like Gerry Sherman also had no faith in the ability of the people to choose their own leaders, stating that the people “should have as little to do as may be about the Government. They want [lack] information and are constantly liable to be misled.”

Gerry also expressed another common theme among delegates: that he wanted a method of selection that would result in choosing “the fittest men” for the Presidency, something that he believed the people would be unable to do.

Alexander Hamilton – an opponent of slavery and representing the free state of New York – also abhorred the idea of giving “the people” the power to select the President. Hamilton, who openly admitted admiration for the British form of government, wanted a powerful national government run by the elite. He supported Wilson’s proposal that the President be selected by electors chosen by the people of each state, voting in “Election Districts,” not because he wanted to give slave states more power, but because he didn’t trust the common voter to have the requisite intelligence to select the President.

A number of Southern delegates concurred with Gerry, Sherman, and Hamilton. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina felt that a popular vote would be too open to control by a demagogue or by the most populous states. George Mason of Virginia opined that it was “impossible that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the Candidates [for President].” Hugh Williamson of North Carolina echoed Pinckney’s argument that people would simply vote for a candidate from their own state, so that the largest state would always get the Presidency.

Besides the split over trusting “the people” to select the President, an additional problem weighed on delegates. Regardless of how they felt about the people being smart enough to select the President, most were uncomfortable with Randolph’s original proposal of the selection of the President by the legislature. The commonly voiced concern was that, if the legislature selected the executive, the President would be beholden to and in cahoots with the legislature that selected him, rather than being an independent branch of government.

For the delegates with this as their main concern, the idea of using independent electors to choose the President presented a palatable alternative. Pennsylvania’s Morris, for example, believed that Wilson’s elector proposal “deserved consideration,” because “of all possible modes of appointment that by the Legislature is the worst.” Rufus King of Massachusetts, who preferred “any other reasonable plan” than the legislature choosing the President, also supported the idea of choosing the President by electors chosen by the voters of the states. William Patterson of New Jersey agreed, suggesting one elector for the small states and three for the large ones.

It was at this point in the debates, on July 19th, that James Madison of Virginia rose and argued as well against selection of the President by the legislature. Madison, like many delegates, wanted an executive branch independent of the legislature. He was unsure, however, of a direct election of the President by the people as the solution, stating that “There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no more influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.

What Madison was saying was that, since only freemen could vote, the greater number of freemen in the North meant that the Southern states would be at a disadvantage in a direct election for President, since slaves could not vote. It is this statement – and this statement alone – that provides the entire foundation upon which the Electoral College=Slave State Power argument rests.

The problem, however, is that everything else in the Convention record – both from Madison himself and every other delegate – contradicts that argument.

First, not a single other delegate, North or South, echoed, mentioned or argued against Madison’s sentiments. Although slavery was an issue frequently debated during the Convention (as with the three-fifths clause, for example), and delegates clearly had no problem stating their positions regarding slavery (as with the clause concerning the importation of slaves), no other delegate, North or South, mentioned slavery when discussing electors, either before, during, or after Madison’s speech. Instead, every other argument centered on the ability of “the people” to make a proper selection for President.

Second, Madison himself reversed his own position only six days later. On July 25th, as debate over how to choose the President continued, Madison noted that, in his mind, the only two reasonable options for choosing the President was by electors or directly by the people. He posited that using electors was better than letting the legislature choose the President, but then stated that his preference would be for direct election by the people, and not by electors. He repeated his point that a direct vote would disadvantage the South vis-a-vis the North, given the “disproportion of qualified voters in the Northern and Southern States.” However, he then stated that “local considerations must give way to the general interest. As an individual from the Southern States [he] was willing to make the sacrifice.

Madison’s statement here is absolutely critical. Madison – a slave owner, representing the largest slave state, the brains behind the Virginia Plan and the father of the Constitution – explicitly stated that he preferred a system for selecting the President that politically disadvantaged the Southern states because it was the best alternative to letting the legislature choose the President. Rather than supporting a process that gave advantage to the South, Madison specifically approved one that he freely admitted would disadvantage the South. Madison, by his own words, completely negated the one and only piece of evidence used to support the Electoral College=Slave State Power theory.

There is more, however. Other than Madison, no other Southern delegate argued at any point during the Convention that direct election would harm slave states or that using electors would help slave states. In fact, they argued the opposite. North Carolina’s Hugh Williamson, for example, agreed with Madison and supported direct election, even though he was aware of Madison’s comment that it would be detrimental to the political power of slave states.

Similarly, Pierce Butler of South Carolina was opposed to both the legislature selecting the President and a direct election by “the people,” which he argued would be “So complex and unwieldy as to disgust the States.” Instead, Butler proposed an electoral system whereby each state would have an equal number of electors. Since Northern states outnumbered Southern states by an 8-5 margin – a fact that Butler was well aware of – Butler’s electoral proposal would have actually diminished Southern power in choosing the President, since they would have had fewer electors. In other words, a key Southerner proposed an elector system to select the President that would have given the slave states a structural disadvantage.

Besides the abundant evidence from the debates concerning selecting the President, the record of the debates and compromises over representation in the legislature further demonstrate that slave state power was not a consideration in the Electoral College.

After vigorous debate over how to apportion representation in the two legislative houses, Southern delegates agreed to the compromise that every state have an equal number of Senators (two). The effect of this compromise on the Electoral College is often overlooked. Recall that Randolph’s original plan for the legislature, sought representation in both legislative houses (House of Representatives and Senate) based on each state’s population. An opposing plan was proffered by William Patterson of New Jersey, which proposed equal representation in the Senate, if not the House.

During the debate over this issue, Madison pointed out that equal representation would mean a loss of power for the South, since there were 8 Northern states and only 5 Southern states. Madison, along with other Southern delegates, nevertheless eventually agreed to two Senators per state, regardless of population. As a practical matter, this gave the Northern States six additional electoral votes (since the number of electors each state received in the Electoral College was their number of Representatives plus their two Senators).

Logically, it makes no sense that Southern delegates would work so hard to implement an Electoral College system to give them an advantage in selecting the President, while simultaneously giving up that advantage by then agreeing to fewer electors.

Finally, there is the record concerning the delegates’ acceptance of the Electoral College compromise itself. As the debate over how to select the President continued over the summer – without any mention of slavery, one way or another – the delegates remained stuck with the proposal that none of them seemed to like: selection of the President by the national legislature. Proposals for alternate methods kept getting voted down, and the delegates remained in neutral.

The stalemate broke on September 4th. A Committee of 11 delegates who had met to try and resolve the deadlock issued a report proposing that the President be chosen by electors selected by state legislatures, with the number of electors equal to the number of each state’s members of Congress. Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, who presented the report, stated that the purpose was to make the executive branch independent of the legislative branch. This recommendation, however, took many delegates by surprise, and they demanded further explanation.

Committee Member Robert Morris of Pennsylvania provided a list of reasons why they proposed this electoral system. First, it was intended to ensure that the President would not be beholden to the legislature or make deals with it to gain appointment; instead, it would create an executive branch independent of the legislative branch.

Second, the system itself, which required each state’s electors to meet in their own state on the same date, meant that no candidate could be in all 13 places at once to overly influence the electors. Third, impeachment of a President would be less difficult, since the legislature would not be tasked with impeaching a President they themselves had chosen. Fourth, Morris wryly noted, since everyone was unhappy with the proposal that the President be chosen by the national legislature, and since most delegates were also opposed to direct election by the people, this was the only choice left.

Not surprisingly, the explanation given had everything to do with all of the previous concerns given by delegates as to every other method of selection, and absolutely no mention was made of slavery or preserving slave state power. Moreover, the proposal’s supporters and opponents were from both North and South, slave owners and those who opposed slavery. For instance, Southerners Pierce Butler and George Mason approved of the plan; Southerners Charles Pinckney and John Rutledge opposed it. Finally, on September 6, the plan was approved.

Since the record clearly demonstrates that the Electoral College was not explicitly created to preserve slave state power, what about an argument that it was implicitly intended to do so? This argument, however, is also negated by the record of the Convention when the entirety of the debates – particularly those involving slavery – are considered.

Southern delegates at the Convention were not shy in openly, on the record, pushing for slave state power in other aspects of the Convention and the Constitution. For every issue concerning slavery that came up in the Convention, Southern delegates were quite vocal in pushing to preserve slave state power, and the reasons why they wanted to.

For example, during debate over the “three-fifths clause” (James Wilson’s proposal that slaves would count as “three-fifths of a person” when counting a state’s population in order to determine how many representatives that state would get in the House of Representatives as well as their proportion of taxes), some Southerners, such as Pierce Butler and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, wanted slaves to count fully for purposes of representation. As Butler put it, Southern states demanded security that their “negroes” not be taken from them.

Likewise, Southern delegates had no hesitation in opposing a proposed ban on importation of slaves (the Constitution banned the slave trade after 1808). In debating the proposed ban, Pinckney rose and gave an impassioned speech supporting the institution of slavery and the slave trade itself. “South Carolina and Georgia,” he said, “cannot do without slaves.” John Rutledge of South Carolina bluntly told his fellow delegates that North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia would never agree to such a ban, opining that “The people of those States will never be such fools as to give up so important an interest.”

Recall that this was the same Pinckney who opposed the Electoral College. If Charles Pinckney, a leading voice for slave state power, opposed the Electoral College plan for choosing the President, then it is obvious that slave state power had nothing to do with the Electoral College. Simply put, if Southern delegates were vocal about pushing for slave state interests where they felt it was under attack, their silence around slavery concerning the Electoral College speaks volumes.

A concluding point concerns the defense of the Electoral College system during the ratification debates after the Convention. Federalist 68, the only Federalist Paper on the subject, was written by Hamilton. In Federalist 68 Hamilton, no supporter of slavery, gave a detailed and unwavering defense of the Electoral College. Hamilton’s points echoed those made at the convention: that the separation of electors in their individual states eliminated the possibility of mischief or undue influence; it prevented any influence of the legislature on the executive; and it assured that the President would be an eminent and qualified individual. Supporting slave state power is never mentioned.

Did the Electoral College have the effect of helping a slave state presidential candidate win office? Yes – exactly one time. In the election of 1800, the additional delegates given to Southern states (because of the three-fifths clause) helped Jefferson narrowly beat Adams. In no other election would those extra electors make any difference. On the other hand, the equality of representation in the Senate – something that Madison opposed – would end up giving slave states an inordinate amount of political power in the legislature as the populations of the North and South quickly diverged following the Industrial Revolution.

There are plenty of reasons that the Electoral College should be dumped. Let’s stick with the ones that are real to make the case.