The Electoral College: Does It Choose The Best Man?

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The conviction sustaining them all was that in any event the Electors would be the cream of the social, economic, and intellectual elite of each state, hence best qualified to exercise superior judgment, whether as Electors—if they could agree on one man, as they were sure to do in the case of George Washington—or as nominators, in which case they would be able to give the House a number of good men to choose from.

Alexander Hamilton was so captivated by this ingenious contrivance that he wrote (in the sixty-eighth Federalist , devoted to it) that “I hesitate not to affirm that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. … Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption.”

In the first election (1789), in which Washington was by common consent unanimously chosen to be Chief Magistrate, the Federalist leaders agreed that John Adams should be the choice of the Electors for Vice President. Adams had many virtues to qualify him for the post, but his chief asset was that he came from Massachusetts, which state was second only to Virginia in the number of electoral votes it commanded—and George Washington was from Virginia. (How many smoke-filled rooms have since then heard the balancing-off of candidates’ states of origin, to the disregard of their “other talents,” and the “different kind of merit” Hamilton had said a candidate would have to have to qualify for the high office of President?)

But Adams and Washington had suffered from some differences during the war, and so the latter had first to be sounded out on whether he found the former acceptable. And though Washington continued right through his Farewell Address to reprobate the “spirit of party,” he did not rebuke his friends over this show of it. Instead, he cautiously replied that “having taken it for granted that the person elected for that important post would be a true Federalist,” he was “altogether disposed to acquiesce in the prevailing sentiments of the Electors without any unbecoming preference, or incurring any unnecessary ill-will.” Washington had presided at the Constitutional Convention; he knew as well as anyone what the intent had been with respect to the freedom of Electors to make uninstructed choices.

As for Hamilton, he enjoyed a mutual antipathy with Adams, and he honored his warm regard for the obstacles placed in the way of cabal and intrigue by sending special messengers to New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania to get Electors to withhold votes from Adams, on the pretext that Adams might obtain more votes than Washington, and thus become President.

Sic transeunt high ideals.

Not to be outdone by the Federalists, the Antifederalist leaders—notably Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and George Clinton—applied themselves diligently to unifying a collection of local factions and personal cliques into a national party. They determined early that whatever else a party may have in the way of program and personalities, it needs machinery. They constructed it. They also in due time abandoned the negative name, to become the “Democratic-Republican” (later shortened to Republican and in Jackson’s time changed to Democratic) party. By 1800 the machine—a tight ensemble of state organizations—was ready for road-testing. (Tammany Hall swung the balance that year, and remains a still-standing monument to Burr’s industry.) This apparatus delivered to the Jefferson-Burr ticket a solid package of seventy-three faithful, instructed Electors—a clear, safe majority.

One small—oversight? Whether on Burr’s part it was intentional or inadvertent will never be known; Jefferson thought the danger had been carefully forestalled. However it was, all seventy-three faithful Electors, directed by the Constitution to vote for two men, voted for both Jefferson and Burr.

So there was a tie. Whatever the later politicians desired, the framers of the Constitution had been clear in their intentions—that any man an Elector voted for should have an equal chance with any other candidate to be President. They did not even specify separate qualifications for vice presidential candidates. The Vice President (though many opposed having such an office at all) was to be simply the near-miss President. And if the Electors on their first try could not give the edge to one man, then they must leave it to the House.

And there the Jefferson-Burr tie went, to be received with diabolical glee. The majority was Democratic-Republican by six members, but the composition of the sixteen state delegations was such that the Jeffersonians dominated only an exact half of them; the Federalists controlled six, and two were evenly divided. Most of the Federalist congressmen had been defeated in the last elections and were limping out the remaining weeks of their expiring terms. Here was a Heaven-sent opportunity for them to heap disaster on their Antifederalist foes. They would try to make Burr President! This, they were sure, would destroy the Democratic-Republican party.

Hamilton was equally sure that it would destroy the nation as well. As soon as he realized their intentions, he went energetically to work among his fellow Federalists to avert the catastrophe. He hated but respected Jefferson; he hated and despised Burr.