In the 75th Federalist Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Anyone who has seriously studied how the President will be elected knows that the office will always be filled by men of such character that, because of their wisdom and integrity, their concurrence in forming treaties will be especially desirable.”
Wisdom and integrity. Our Framers don’t get the credit they deserve. Their presidential electoral system was designed to avoid the road to ruin so typical in republics: popular election of a demagogic strongman who promises to quell that which he foments, meaning societal discord and anarchy, by rewarding his supporters and destroying his opponents.
How in the world did our Framers come up with the method in Article II to elect a president? Contrary to popular belief, there are two central purposes to their outwardly clumsy and confusing process.
First, it was to elevate men of only the highest virtue, wisdom and talents to the executive office.
Second, in order to exercise his powers for the greater good of the nation, these exceptional men were not to be beholden in any way to the electors who put them into office or to anyone else. Like hereditary kings, un-beholden presidents were to stand above factional disputes. They were to execute their sworn duty to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” without the encumbrance of paying off political debts.
The federal convention of 1787 considered and rejected direct executive election by congress, state governors and the people. Corruption and backroom deal making were feared in the first two methods. A president could hardly be independent if he was indebted to congress or governors for his job. As for the third, there was no telling what sorts of characters the people could be duped into supporting. Democracy in the American system would be limited to electors of the first branch, the House of Representatives.
The Framer’s ultimate solution to prevent “pre-bought” presidents controlled by faction or a foreign government was brilliant.
First, society in each state forms a temporary pool or college of presidential electors. Instead of imposing the exact procedure to be used, the Framers assisted the cause of ratification by assigning to the states the responsibility of designing their particular elector selection systems. The people or state legislatures would hopefully vote for upstanding men as presidential electors, who in turn would likewise use their measured judgement in their vote for president.
Second, soon after the electors are determined, have them caucus in their states and vote on the same day nationwide for their choice of president. With so little time between the creation of electors, whose identity is unknown to the public, and their vote for president, the Framers’ design rendered corruption of the electors all but impossible. State elector ballot results were then sealed and sent to the President of the US Senate, who would open the certificates in a joint session of congress. Under the Framers’ design, the outcome of presidential elections wasn’t known until the results were made public in the presence of congress. If one man received a majority of votes, he shall be president.
Should no one tally a majority, the House of Representatives shall immediately vote for one of the five highest candidates on the list, by state delegations, with each state having one vote. As with state electors, there isn’t enough time to corrupt individual congressmen to vote for one candidate or another.
While the Framers could not predict the future, they foresaw that elections would at least occasionally end up in the hands of congressional representatives. Today as then, the process is not debauched, nor is “democracy” threatened if the House of Representatives does its duty and elects the president. Popular nationwide vote count be damned; it is irrelevant.
Notice the absence of participation of the senate beyond that of spectator. Since the senate was to serve as jury in impeachment trials, senators could hardly be expected to convict the man they recently appointed.
What came to be known as the electoral college provided a near corruption-proof method acceptable to suspicious, distrustful small states, yet reflected majoritarian, federal selection of this new guy to history, the President of the United States.1
The noble intent of the Framers has, of course, been overwhelmed by the rise of political parties. Perhaps the Framers were naïve to think that anyone could aspire to the highest office in the land without organized support, and not end up more devoted to party interests than those of the nation. Obama is the poster boy of this corruption. He is a political party president so thoroughly detached from his sworn duty to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, that it is often questionable just whose side he is on.
Yet, what of the ascent of Trump? Did he scratch, climb and claw through the ranks of the GOP and accumulate political debts along the way? Whether one agrees or not with his policy statements, does he not have nationwide appeal? Is he an instrument of the Republican Party? What of his character? In America, honest success in business is still admired more than a rise through a political hierarchy.
Despite the corruption of the Framers’ electoral process by political parties, the non-party man Donald Trump won the nomination of a GOP whose hierarchy fought tooth-and-nail against him. Not only is he not pre-bought, he is the tool of no man and no party.
If Trump is not the embodiment of the Framers’ ideal president, he is certainly the echo of a process that sought men of character and accomplishment for our nation’s highest office.
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1. Maier, Pauline, Ratification – The People Debate the Constitution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010. Page 114. Quoting James Wilson, “The system adopted, with electors in the several states casting ballots, brought the choice of president as nearly home to the people as is practicable, while making corruption unlikely and offering little time or opportunity to tumult or intrigue.”
Eidelberg, Paul. The Philosophy of the American Constitution. New York: The Free Press, 1968. Book
Hamilton, Madison, Jay. The Federalist Papers. (1788). Book.
Madison, James. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Oxford University Press, 1920. Book.