A book by George C. Edwards III, 2004.
Criticism of the status quo is easy. What is harder is to create a better alternative.1
I confess to having little patience with those who fault the 1787 Framers for the condition of our government in 2019. They didn’t write a Bible. They didn’t hand down immutable Commandments. Their Constitution, one that’s consistent with republican principles unique to the American experience, is infinitely amendable. Don’t like it? Amend it. But one must be aware of what one is doing.
Nearly all of the twenty-seven amendments are wise and contribute to the lofty goals set forth in the Preamble. For those that are not so wise, we can only observe that it is the way of vigorous republics to eventually correct their mistakes. Lasting republics take a regular measure of their institutions. If institutions are wounded through neglect and corruption, the cure is to carefully excise the corruption and heal the wound.
Unfortunately, when confronted with corruption of the Framers’ Constitution, progressives rarely advocate prosecution of felonious officials or encourage basic reforms to restore institutions to their first principles. In the early 1890s, in response to charges of selling Senate seats, progressives clamored for popular Senate elections. Others, like Senators William E. Chandler (NH) and George Hoar (MA) predicted direct election of Senators would inevitably usher in popular election of the President. They asked their colleagues to remember the purpose of their institution and to wait out the hurricane winds of populism.
Much of their opposition to the 17th Amendment applies to direct election of Presidents. Why, they asked, introduce the “false counts, fraudulent naturalization, personations of voters, fraudulent residences, forged returns, intimidation and mob violence” which often attends elections to the House of Representatives, to Senate elections?2 Why grant electoral advantages to dense cities at the expense of equally distributed votes across the states? Were senators then and Presidents today isolated from the people, or did intermediate electors serve a higher purpose: to cool the people’s occasional and hot passions?
Direct election of Senators demonstrably works contrary to the ends of the Constitution. Proponents of direct Presidential elections must prove their case. Show how democratized Presidential elections further secures the Blessings of Liberty.
Republics place enormous responsibility on their members, and unfortunately, political parties within state governments early on corrupted the Electoral College. Soon, the states not only began to assign electoral votes to party candidates, they began to cast ALL of their votes in favor of one candidate. This winner-take-all corruption prevented (minus 1800 and 1824) many Presidential elections from ending up, as intended, in the House of Representatives. By effectively blocking lesser parties from the Electoral College, the two major parties ensure their dominance.
James Madison. I take issue with Edwards’ regular portrayal of James Madison as a populist. To Madison, the democratic element in government doesn’t exist for its own sake, for the sake of Edwards’ political equality. Consent of the governed exists to establish legitimate government and no more. The House of Representatives serves this essential role.3
At times during the 1787 federal convention, Madison supported direct Presidential elections. What Edwards leaves out is that most if not all delegates changed their opinions over the course of a long summer. At times, Madison also supported Congressional election of Presidents, as well as Congressional veto power over state laws, and Senate membership in proportion to state population. The Father of the Constitution did not initially recognize the states as equals and was willing to dissolve the convention in defense of proportional representation.
Afterwards, delegates finally had the time to digest the new Constitution. So, while it is true for instance that Madison supported direct Presidential elections in July of 1787, he defended separation of electors and the Constitution’s refined democracy in Federalist No. 10, published in November:
Edwards makes widespread use of Madison’s term, “political equality,” and he uses it in the same context as Madison.
I agree with Edwards when he found “that the Framers wanted and expected the popular principle to operate in the election of the President.” At the Virginia Ratifying Convention, on June 18th 1788 Madison said, “The President will be the choice of the people at-large. The choice of the people ought to be attended to. I have found no better way of selecting the man in whom they place the highest confidence, than that delineated in the plan of the Convention.” Notice his reference to the quality of the elected men. He wasn’t talking about party leaders.
Edwards promotes a pure and alluring form of Presidential election. Instead of heady purity, the Electoral College synchs with the rest of the Framers’ famously mixed and compound system that prevented the accumulation of powers in the one, the few or the many. It is Edwards who risks opening the door to the dangerous accumulation of power in the many, and eventually, the one.
I am not naïve enough to believe we’ll ever be rid of two-party corruption of the Electoral College. This doesn’t relieve direct election supporters from explaining why more democracy better serves the goal of appointing men of high public virtue to the Presidency. Until they convince me otherwise, I say America suffers from too much democracy now, and more of it cannot possibly cure its ills. First, do no harm. Keep the Electoral College.
General Reference: Edwards, G. C. (2004). Why the Electoral College is Bad for America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
1. Wilfred M. McClay (2019). Imprimus, Hillsdale College July/August.
2. Rossum, R. A. (2001). Federalism, the Supreme Court, and the 17th Amendment – The Irony of Constitutional Democracy. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 200.
3. The Constitution governs the states as well as the people. The 17th Amendment is an outrage.