The Electoral College: Does It Choose The Best Man?

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At first his efforts seemed futile. The Federalist-controlled states went to Burr, preventing Jefferson’s election by one state. This deadlock prevailed for nearly a week, through thirty-five ballots. Finally it broke. No Federalist gave his vote to Jefferson, but enough of them refrained from voting at all to enable their Democratic-Republican colleagues to add two states to Jefferson’s total, and give him the Presidency. Burr became Vice President, and never thereafter anything else. For him, the incident spelled political doom. For Hamilton, the vehemence of his intervention against Burr led inexorably to his death at Burr’s hands three years later. For the Federalists, the blow from the new political party (fumble notwithstanding) was mortal.

An immediate consequence was the Twelfth Amendment, remedying two of the Constitution’s flaws that had been exposed. Electors were now required to give separate votes for President and Vice President. And of necessity, it now added the injunction that candidates for the latter office must have the same qualifications as those for the former.

These oversights were rectified sixteen years after the adoption of the Constitution; 129 more years were to elapse before the Twentieth Amendment would deprive congressional lame ducks of the capacity to do mischief whose consequences they would not have to bear. That later amendment would also shorten, but insufficiently, the perilous lapse of time between election and inauguration of a new administration.

Other defects remain, and efforts to correct them continue. The most determined reforms concern themselves with the electoral process itself. Some, however, attack the nominating system as well—now a hodgepodge of state-prescribed contrivances for choosing delegates to national party conventions.

The forerunner of this less-than-ideal system was even more objectionable; it was called King Caucus. This monster was born in that same election campaign of 1800, and its father was Alexander Hamilton. With his foes in the ascendancy, he was desperate for a means of curing the dissension—aggravated by the recent death of Washington—that was destroying his own party from within. He therefore urged the Federalist congressional leaders to move in and take control of the presidential election.

Congressional party caucus on legislative matters had already become habitual. By usage, majority decision had become binding on all. Now, at Hamilton’s insistence, this irregular but institutionalized device was to embrace the election of the Executive as well. The Federalist congressmen met in secret and nominated John Adams and Charles C. Pinckney. Their power not only to choose the candidates but to control the Electors is evidenced by the canvass: the Federalist Electors gave all their 65 votes to Adams. They did not blunder; Pinckney received only 64, although Hamilton, because of his old dislike for Adams, had urged their equal support.

Word of the secret meeting leaked out. The Democratic-Republican press noisily protested the “arrogance of a number of Congress to assemble as an electioneering caucus to control the citizens in their constitutional rights.” This pious condemnation did not, however, inhibit the Antifederalists in Congress. They also met in secret, to nominate Jefferson and Burr. By the following election, 1804, they were emboldened to dispense with stealth, and conducted their meeting with all the punctilio of a parliament.

Alas for high hopes! In the sixty-eighth Federalist , Hamilton had stressed that “the Executive should be independent for his continuance in the office on all but the people themselves. He might otherwise be tempted to sacrifice his duty to his complaisance for those whose favor was necessary to the duration of his official consequence.” (Gouverneur Morris had expressed the same concern in other words.) The bitter prophecy came true for—of all people—James Madison, Hamilton’s chief coauthor of the Federalist papers, and archadvocate of separation of powers.

The pressures that had been building toward the War of 1812 came to bear on President Madison as his first term drew to a close. He had no stomach for armed conflict, and he felt a peaceful solution could be negotiated. Had he persisted, the war might have been averted, since the British lifted the blockade for American ships on June 16, 1812. But the news did not reach Congress before the eighteenth, when, in response to Madison’s reluctant message, it voted a declaration of war.

It was a message extorted from Madison by the caucus. James Fisk, a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont, reportedly called on the President to say that the country felt provoked to war. If he resisted the “popular will,” the Federalists threatened to win the forthcoming election; with such a danger in mind, the caucus, Fisk said, would feel constrained to withdraw its support of Madison and choose a more warlike candidate. Madison did not resist the “popular will.”