Presidential Elections. Little over a week before the close of the federal convention, the senate was still responsible for appointing a president should no one obtain a majority, or if two with a majority had an equal number, of electoral votes.
While their electoral college system minimized the possibility of “pre-bought” presidents, our Framers nonetheless cast a suspicious eye at the senate. The convention intended a ‘high-toned’ second branch to check the house, but had they gone too far? Their senate had the power to appoint the president, name his officers, appoint judges, make treaties and try impeachments. This constituted something uncomfortably close to legislative, executive and judicial powers in a small group of men, which is the very definition of tyranny. If the senate elected the president, could the president in time become a mere creature of this small group? If so, history would judge the Constitution as the incubator of an aristocracy rather than a grand experiment in republicanism.
So, in the event of a tie, or no majority of votes from the state-appointed electors, the convention revisited which house of congress, or perhaps the congress in joint-session, or in one-state-one vote fashion, was to elect the president. Throughout the day delegates remained focused on the first purpose of the electoral college, which was to elevate a fellow-citizen not burdened with political debts, not beholden to any party or faction, to a temporary post of enormous responsibility and political power. The Framers’ President would take his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” with a clear conscience.
Elbridge Gerry motioned that if a sitting president was not reelected with an outright majority of state electors for a second term, congress, in joint session, should elect the president. This guaranteed a president independent of the senate alone for his continuance in office.
Roger Sherman, the man responsible for repeatedly pressing what became the Connecticut Compromise, insisted the entire congress decide presidential elections via one-state-one-vote.
Gerry and Sherman were not alone. Even the aristocratic Gouverneur Morris thought the existing framework compelled the president to look over his shoulder toward the senate before he nominated men to high offices. It squinted too much toward blending the two branches.
Alexander Hamilton, the man who, in mid-June supported a thoroughly national government without state participation at all, agreed that the senate would connive to keep their president in office. His solution was to let the highest number of votes from the state legislatures determine the president.
Despite the variety of solutions to the problem, that of seating a president unburdened with political debts, the Framers closed the day with lopsided votes which established the familiar electoral college system and, if needed, congressional election of the president by the House of Representatives. Had the two major political parties not thoroughly corrupted the Framers’ presidential election system, the House of Representatives, rather than state-level presidential electors, would decide the outcome of most elections.1 They considered and rejected both long, single terms (seven years), as well as term limits. To prevent corruption of presidential electors, they were kept away from the seat of government; all voted on the same day in their home states. And finally, when no man obtained an outright majority of electoral votes, each state delegation in the House of Representatives voted with one voice for president from the five highest men on the election list.
I will close the federal convention portion of this series with a quote from the historian Forrest McDonald:
From a study of their own, as well as past republics, our Framers doggedly sought and found the cure for democratic tyranny in a senate of the states. It is a lesson we must re-learn today, for if we do not, our end will be that of every failed democratic (they all failed) republic, anarchy followed by authoritarian tyranny.
We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Government is the playground of politicians, but the Constitution is ours. Be proactive. Restore the American Tradition. Join convention of States.
General Reference: Madison, J. (1966). Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Chicago: Ohio University Press.
1. Related squib: The Framers’ President II
2. McDonald, F. (1985). Novus Ordo Seclorum – The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. 202.