“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!” but ‘That’s funny . . .’ ” – Isaac Asimov
“Great big serious novels always get awards. If it’s a battle between a great big, serious novel and a funny novel, the funny novel is doomed.” – Neil Gaiman
“The first chapter of any great novel deserves careful perusal, for it introduces the tone of the author, the main characters, and provides quiet hints for the further development of the story.” – from Cliffsnotes
“I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs.” – Flannery O’Connor
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What follows is an excerpt from The First Presidential Contest: 1796 and the Founding of American Democracy by Jeffrey L. Pasley, professor of History at the University of Missouri. It was published in 2013 by the University Press of Kansas. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the author’s views, but I think his discussion about the origin of the Electoral College is very relevant in this election year.
“We must [now] delve into the workings of America’s murkiest political institution, the indirect system of presidential elections now known as the Electoral College. If ever there were a constitutionally defined role for America’s local ‘notables,’ the Electoral College was it.
“The national ‘college’ never met, acting instead as a filtering mechanism to concentrate the large pool of names that bubbled up from below. The guiding logic was that the country was too big, and even most of its locally prominent men too parochial, to ever coalesce around a single candidate other than General George Washington. Most would vote for someone from their own state or region, argued Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, generating a list too large and miscellaneous to be useful. At the same time, it was considered too dangerous to have a single body like Congress choose the chief magistrate all on its own: that could lead to ‘cabal faction & violence’ as in the elective monarchy of Poland, where nobles and foreign governments battled it out to name a new king. So Article II, Section I of the Constitution provided for each state legislature to designate, by whatever method it chose, a number of electors equal to the size of its congressional delegation (the number of House members plus two for each state’s equal number of senators). Each state’s electors were then to gather simultaneously, in their own state, to prevent said cabals. Each elector would then vote for two men, including at least one man who was not from the elector’s home state. Next the electors were to send their certified lists to Congress, where the votes would be compiled and the two top vote getters named president and vice president if they were selected by a majority of the electors. If not, then Congress would make the decision, according to complex rules that need not detain us here, choosing from the top five candidates the electors had voted for. At no point in any step of the process was anyone bound to vote a certain way (except for Congress choosing from the top five), and no provision was made, as we have seen, for running mates or party tickets. Instead, individual electors were to exercise their independent judgment of individual candidates.
“The format was a compromise hammered out in the last weeks of the Federal Convention in 1787 by the Committee on Postponed Parts, a working group made up of one member from each state delegation. The major issue the Electoral College settled was the summer-long dispute over how and by whom the new office of president would be filled. Given that one of the chief impulses behind the movement for a new Constitution was the creation of a government insulated from the excessive democracy and localism of the state governments, popular election of the president was a nonstarter at the Convention. A few of the large-state delegates made self-interested pitches for it, but most rejected the idea as impractical if not downright dangerous. George Mason of Virginia argued that ‘it would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief Magistrate to the people, as it would, to refer a trial of colours to a blind man. The extent of the Country renders it impossible that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the Candidates.’ The other major option, selection of the president by Congress, had more proponents than nationwide democracy, but it reminded too many of what Americans considered the corrupt British parliamentary system with its unseparated powers (the prime minister controlling Parliament and the executive functions of government). A legislative election would also be a playground for conspirators and party-builders. Said Gouverneur Morris, ‘It will be the work of intrigue, of cabal, and of faction: it will be like the election of a pope by a conclave of cardinals.’
“The idea of a secondary popular election, with the people choosing the choosers, was originally suggested by nationalist James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who was trying to preserve some advantage for the large states but also some element of democracy in the presidential selection process. Wilson did not do this because he was any great lover of the common man — common Philadelphians had tried to kill him in the ‘Fort Wilson’ riots in 1779 because of his alleged softness toward Loyalists. Wilson’s attitude was more of a healthy fear; he had learned the hard way that in a free country, the common people needed to at least feel that their views were respected. Wilson’s suggestion was ignored until John Dickinson of Delaware, arriving late to the deliberations of the Committee on Postponed Parts, challenged his colleagues over the legitimacy problems that a completely unelected president would face. Shocked that the Convention was still leaning toward a president selected by Congress, Dickinson wrote, ‘I observed, that the Powers which we had agreed to vest in the President, were so many and so great, that I did not think, the people would be willing to deposit them with him, unless they themselves would be more immediately concerned in his Election.’ In response, James Madison immediately sketched out a version of Wilson’s idea on a piece of paper, and the Electoral College was born.
“On paper, the Electoral College served well as a way to steer theoretically between the large and small states and between oligarchy and democracy. What the Framers never discussed was how the thing was supposed to work in practice, or why it would be effective in meeting their goal of a chief magistrate who felt like the people’s choice without being beholden to parties, parochial interests, or popular opinion. Excesses of democracy were still a far bigger worry for most of the Framers, who filled the Constitution with firebreaks against the potential depredations of the mob.”