The Electoral College System in the US
The Electoral College is a unique and peculiar institution, and more so than appears at first sight. As things have evolved, the system of electing the executive fails to achieve the goal that it was designed for. One of these goals was to prevent direct democracy. Today the President of America is elected almost through a direct popular vote, even though the original structure of the Electoral College remains largely intact. The other goal of the founding fathers in setting up the system was to limit the scope of government, especially the federal government. It was meant that the loose federation of the original 13 states be maintained, and that the sovereignty of the individual states would remain largely intact. But the federal government has become progressively invasive over time, and at the same time has widened its scope, a trend that was hugely accelerated in the 20th century. It now seems plain that the goal of the founding fathers was unrealizable and utopian. But this does in no way diminish their achievement. The American Revolution indeed ushered the world into a new era, and set an example of government and society for the rest of the world to follow. It is therefore instructive to follow the political philosophy of the founding fathers so as to detect the origin of the Electoral College. No political institution can exist in a vacuum, and must necessarily be built on the foundations of earlier ones. The Electoral College is no exception. The founding fathers were very mindful of the examples of republicanism from history. But they were also intent in overcoming tradition, to break with history, and this is a paradox. This paradox lies at the heart of how the Electoral College came to be formed the way it is.
The American Revolution marked not only secession from British rule, but also a clean break from the old world order. In the period running up to the revolution a form of republicanism was fostered in the colonies that was a continuation of what was taking place in Britain. The form of government there was a parliamentary monarchy, but in practice the monarch was reduced to a figurehead by that time. Indeed, John Adams, a leading light of the American Revolution, regarded Britain to be a republic all in but name. The evolution of the British political system represents a gradual emasculation of the monarch, with the concomitant rise of the landed nobility and the merchant classes. A significant event is the signing of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215, in which he signed away a significant portion of monarchial power to the barons. Eventually the interest of nobles came to be represented through the House of Lords, while that of the merchants in the House of Commons, and together they formed the parliament. It was ostensibly a advisory body to the monarch, but in practice it exercised various degrees of power. With the rise of the merchant classes in the 16th and 17th centuries, conflicts arose between the lower and upper houses, with the King siding with the nobles. The defeat of the Royalists in the Civil War marked a further step in the emasculation of monarchial power. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 finally brought the lower house of parliament to the fore with the ousting of the last Stuart king and the bringing to the throne a puppet king from Holland, William of Orange. Republicanism in Britain consisted of opposition to the monarch, and the strengthening of the representation of the people through the House of Commons. These arguments were inherited by the American revolutionaries, and not only to defeat the British. The bicameral form of government served as a ready made model for the founding fathers to work with. Indeed, in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 Alexander Hamilton proposed a plan for government that closely mimicked the British system.
William of Orange had brought with him the mercantile philosophy of the Dutch. Under his reign commerce grew apace, and at the same time the moneyed interest came to be more and more represented in parliament. In this sense Britain was tending towards the oligarchic republic of the Dutch, where the wealthy merchants elected the head of government, the Stadholder, for limited terms. Such republics were found in many parts of Europe since the renaissance where trade prospered. In the 14th and 15th centuries many Italian cities became prosperous through trade and set themselves up as independent republics. The Hanseatic League in Germany was a federation of such city states. Such republics claimed sovereignty in secular affairs, but often submitted to the spiritual authority of a higher institution. The Italian city states continued to submit to the rule of the Catholic Church, while the Hanseatic League submitted to Holy Roman Empire. The renaissance argument for republicanism revolved around the concept of mixed government; i.e. what levels of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy should be allowed, and would best serve the interests of the people while combating tyranny. This is referred to as classical republicanism, and influenced the founding fathers. The actual make up of these oligarchic republics were of little concern, however.
Of a far greater consequence were the republics that existed in the classical world. Ancient Greece and Rome had fired the imagination of the European humanists since the time of the renaissance, and so it did to the founding fathers. The classical world was scoured for inspiration, but the inspiration was found more in the classical ideal than in the actual examples of government. Athens boasted a direct democracy, where the citizens passed laws and rulings through direct voting, and presided over by temporary councils. However, citizenship as severely limited, and no rights were according to the majority consisting of slaves and serfs. Sparta practiced a form of austere communism inculcating a martial spirit, and presided over by two hereditary kings. Republican Rome came to take Athens as its model, but introduced a more elaborate assembly and division of powers. Two annually elected Consuls headed government, where each served as a check on the other appropriating power for itself. These ancient experiments provided ideas for the founding fathers to work on. However, more important were the political theories advanced by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero. For example, Plato expressed the foundation of the republic to lie in the character of its citizens, and especially in such qualities as courage and virtue, and this notion was generally accepted by the ancients. For the founding fathers this was both inspirational and problematic. They believed that it was these very qualities that had won for Americans their freedom. But with independence won they were now in desperate need of an inspirational leader and lawgiver. Adams put the issue thus,
It is the part of a great Politician to make the Character of his People; to extinguish among them, the Follies and Vices that he sees, and to create in them the Virtues and Abilities which he sees wanting… I wish I was sure that America has one such Politician, but I fear she has not.
At the heart of the issue was the completely different character of the modern age to that of classical antiquity. The age of heroism had passed, and was supplanted by one of technology and commerce. This becomes both the stumbling block for the foundation of a new nation as well as the key to a new order. This paradox is plain in almost all of the protagonists of the revolution. Thomas Paine serves as the primary example. By his own admission he is “an advocate for commerce”, and this is so because he is “a friend to its effects”. He claims to have maintained this position throughout his works, and in The Rights Of Man he is seen to glow effusive about the effects of trade and commerce, saying that if “commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable of, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivilized state of governments.” But in unguarded moments we also find him harboring grave doubts about the negative effects issuing from the same. In his seminally influential work Common Sense, after admiring the martial valor and the strength of character of the ancients, he fears that the Americans may not be able to emulate this example if they are “too much absorbed” in mercantile activities:
Commerce diminishes the spirit both of patriotism and military defense. And history sufficiently informs us, that the bravest achievements were always accomplished in the non-age of a nation. With the increase of commerce England hath lost its spirit. The city of London, notwithstanding its numbers, submits to continued insults with the patience of a coward. The more men have to lose, the less willing are they to venture. The rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel.
The solution proposed by Paine was to seize the initiative in the aftermath of the victory over the British, when patriotic glory was still in the ascendant and the sense of purpose was yet strong. The virtue of the American character must be preserved, he felt, through the establishment of the right form of government. It is plain that the exhortation of Paine was taken to heart by founding fathers. The effort is to create a unique form of government in order to conform to the unique form of American virtue. This attitude was indeed an inversion of what was adopted by the philosophers of antiquity. Plato had seen character and virtue as the foundation of the republic. The founding fathers approached their task from the opposite angle, judging that the right form of government would be able to foster the virtuous patriot. Adams is heard to express, “[I]t is the Form of Government, which gives the decisive Colour to the Manners of the People, more than any other Thing,” and is able to lend “Strength, Hardiness, Activity, Courage, Fortitude and Enterprice; the manly, noble and Sublime Qualities in human Nature, in Abundance.”
Paradoxically, it is Hobbes who is the chief inspiration behind the conviction in government. Hobbes was the arch conservative in the English philosophical tradition. During the time of the Civil War, when faction was rife, and radical tendencies overflowing, Hobbes tried to calm the passions of his countrymen by instilling respect in the established order of government. He saw the political passions of his fellow countrymen an indicative of barbaric tendencies, which transported them to the base state of nature where there raged a “war of everyman against everyman”. Hobbes reasoned that the established form of government can never be belittled, because it represented a haven of law and order, and which protected men from their base inclinations. He described it as a “Leviathan” having risen from our oceans of base passions. In this sense all radical thinking was vain and presumptuous, and Hobbes seems to stand at an antithetical position to the founding fathers. But, as Rahe points out, it is the faith instilled in a stable government that is adopted in general by the founding fathers. Hobbes elaborates on how the established order of government promotes exactly those virtues that Adams lists above. The only difference is that Hobbes sees the ideal as existing in the established order, whereas Adams and the others are working on the premise that the ideal can be obtained if government is established from a clean slate.
The founding fathers were intimately aware that they were instigating a new era inhuman affairs. If they looked back to the ancient republics it was only in a Romantic sense. They realized that the ancient republics could not be reinstated in the modern age, and indeed were abhorrent to modern sensibilities if examined in the proper way. Inestimable cruelties were committed behind the façade of Spartan valor, and it was pointed out that each Athenian citizen was a tyrant in his own right, who treated his slaves and serfs as non-human. Roman honor was seen to center in the pride and honor of the patriarch in the household, and many attributed the demise of Rome to the excesses of paternal pride. No-one denied the classical ideal that public virtue can only stem from private virtue, and that the latter entailed a willingness to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of the greater good. Hamilton thought it vain to look towards classical antiquity for examples.
We may preach till we are tired of the theme, the necessity of disinterestedness in republics, without making a single proselyte. We might as soon reconcile ourselves to the Spartan community of goods and wives, to their iron coin, their long beards, or their black broth. There is a total dissimulation in the circumstances, as well as the manners, of society among us; and it is as ridiculous to seek for models in the simple ages of Greece and Rome, as it would be to go in quest of them among the Hottentots and Laplanders.
This “total dissimulation in the circumstances” resulted from the spirit of commerce that had invaded the modern sensibility, and, as Adams put it, “is incompatible with that purity of Heart, and Greatness of soul which is necessary for a happy Republic.” But the circumstance itself could not be denied, or wished away. Washington was equally impatient as Hamilton with the ongoing debate over the importance of classical virtue, and how it clashed with the mercantile impulse. It led him to declare that “the spirit for Trade which pervades these States is not to be restrained.”
The resolution to this dilemma was ultimately achieved through the wholesale adoption of the ethos of the Enlightenment. According to this ethos, modern virtue was not only compatible with the spirit of commerce, but was actually contained within it. To understand what this ethos was we must enquire into what D'Alembert meant when he put Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton and John Locke at the head of “a group of conspirators”. The conspiracy, he describes, was to overturn the old order based on superstition, corruption and mendacity. This was not through open rebellion, or outspoken advocacy. Instead it was carried out through exploring the native potential of the mind, through scientific investigation and the propagation of the knowledge acquired thereof. D'Alembert describes the situation thus, While adversaries, poorly instructed or malign in intention, openly made war on philosophy, it sought refuge, so to speak, in the works of a few great men--who, without having the dangerous ambition of tearing the blindfolds from the eyes of their contemporaries, prepared from afar, in the shadows and silence, the light (la lumière) from which, they supposed, the world would little by little, by insensible degrees secure illumination.
It was as if the inherent and practical capacities of the mind were posing a challenge to the corrupt order of things. This is no doubt the substance of renaissance humanism, but became grounded as a practical and scientific venture through the means of Francis Bacon, who established the method of induction as the central mode of enquiry in the European tradition. Simply put, his advocacy was to trust the senses, allied with the capacity to reason, in order to arrive at practical truth. This was placed in opposition to the transcendental truth that religion promised. Bacon was much inspired by the Venetian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, who based his philosophy not on how men should be, but how they really are. Machiavelli advocated deviousness in the conduct in the Prince in order to cope with the intrinsically base nature of his subjects. In the end the founding fathers came to employ Machiavellian deviousness in establishing the Electoral College system. On the pretext of establishing democracy they did everything possible to subvert it. But they did not take Machiavelli to be their point of reference. This honor went instead to the philosophy of Locke, which was indeed a sublimation of Machiavellian thought, and was channeled through the likes of Bacon and Descartes.
In the estimation of Locke, the Prince does not act because he believes his subjects bad, but because ultimately they are good, and his devious tactics are meant for the betterment of society as a whole. Locke's conclusion that human beings are essentially good derives from the philosophical implications of a free rational agent. One of the implications of freedom is equality, and freedom and equality, taken together, describe the “state of nature”. According to Locke, society aspires towards the state of nature, but is always slipping from it, and descending into the “state of war”. The object of government is to establish freedom and equality for its subjects, and thereby to retrieve the state of nature where peace and happiness reign. The requirement for equality does not entail the abolishment of property for Locke. Freedom entails the free application of labor, and the fruit of this labor is property, justly acquired. Property is the basis for civil society, and only through civil society may one act as a social and rational being. To Locke the effort is everything, and there is no absolute goal to be attained. This is why he is derisive of the philosophy of classical antiquity, which seems to deal in terms of absolutes: “[T]he Philosophers of old did in vain enquire, whether Summum bonum consisted in Riches, or bodily Delights, or Virtue, or Contemplation: And they might have as reasonably disputed, whether the best Relish were to be found in Apples, Plumbs, or Nuts; and have divided themselves into Sects upon it.”
Locke's vision of man continually striving towards social perfection through his daily economic toil struck a central chord in European thought. His philosophy is based purely on self-interest, and yet pertains towards the universal good. Soon after Locke, Bernard Mandeville published his infamous “Fable of the Bees”, in which he compares human society to a hive of bees. Each bee is blindly looking after its own, and yet the composite result is the intricate structure of the hive which brings the greatest benefit to all. Mandeville's motto “private vice, public benefit” becomes the starting point for the more considered philosophies of David Hume and Adam Smith, except that the latter replace the concept of “private vice” with that of “economic self-interest”. Smith produced a fully blown economic theory describing the mechanisms of the “free market”, and where an “invisible hand” orders the self-interested activities of all towards the composite good. This idea of Smith clearly resonates with the thinking of the founding fathers, in whose parlance the composite good that is effected by the free market is to the benefit of “humanity”, and the principles of the free market thus become synonymous with the “principles of humanity”.
By adopting this train of philosophy the founding fathers were not only pledging intellectual allegiance, but they were also recognizing the character of their age, and especially that of the liberated American. Smith himself describes the character of his age most succinctly when he says, “Among civilized nations, the virtues which are founded upon humanity, are more cultivated than those which are founded upon self-denial and the command of the passions.” The virtues founded upon humanity are those that accompany the self-interested economic man, and thus lead to general progress. It is this notion that leads John Adams to link “the advancement of civilization and humanity” with “the inventions in mechanic arts, the discoveries in natural philosophy, navigation, and commerce.” This reflects the general attitude among the founding fathers, that the age of “self-denial and the command of the passions” had passed, and that America stood at the vanguard of the progressive surge of humanity. This is the sense in which Paine declared, “I defend the cause of humanity… Let it then be heard, and let man learn to feel, that the true greatness of a nation is founded on the principles of humanity.”
We are now in a position to understand how the Electoral College system came to be formed. The task was to ensure the Lockean freedoms of the citizen, and therefore to limit the scope of government. This was according to Locke's motto that “the government is best which governs least”. Locke posits that in the state of nature there is no government, and the totally free interactions between individuals proceed according to justice. The founding fathers aimed for a situation as close to the Lockean state of nature as possible. From this point of view, all the extant models of the republic were inadequate, as open to corruption and appropriation. Neither was direct democracy the answer, because the ignorant masses were the least able to know what their best interests were, and how to establish it. The answer was to create a system that would preclude the possibility of a decisively chosen leader, so that a mere figurehead could be placed in the executive office, and whose duty it would be merely to see that the constitution is not being flouted. The Bill of Rights would guarantee the fundamental rights of the individual. A vestige of control will remain in the hands of a political elite, comprising of the representatives from each constituency. Article II, Section 1 states: “Each State shall appoint, in such a Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress”. Such Electors were then free to choose the executive. But the crucial qualifier to this provision appears in Article II, Section 1: “The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves.” The framers of the constitution reasoned that the Electors would invariably vote for candidates from their own state, and therefore no candidate would receive a decisive majority. In this situation the provision was for Congress to select the executive from the leading 5 candidates, using their collective judgment as to who was best fit.
Such a system not only frustrated democracy, but also prevented faction. James Madison is the author of Federalist Paper no. 10, in which he expands on the issue of faction and how it should be combated. Faction is a natural propensity, he argues, because no two individuals are alike in tastes and opinions. Even more than this it is economic stratification that is the primary source of faction in society. Faction is also posited as the greatest danger to stable government, and Madison proposes that a large republic is the greatest safeguard against faction. In a large republic the interests are diverse, and the opinions are likely to be varied. In this situation, he argues, it is difficult to muster a faction large enough to put force on the government as a whole. Even if there were an interest large enough to unite, the cumbersome state apparatus of a large republic would serve to prevent the crystallization of a faction around it. The worse situation would be where the republic tended towards a pure democracy:
A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
It is plain that Madison's argument for a large republic is but a disguised support for the convoluted mechanism of the Electoral College system. It takes for granted the loose nature of the confederation as it existed immediately after independence. The provisions of the constitution encourage Electors to support candidates from their own states, and if they did indeed do so, than it is likely that all political issues will be centered in the states from which they originated. In this situation there would neither be an executive chosen through a nationwide mandate, nor would there arise a single issue able to inflame the nation as a whole, and this prevents a nationwide faction developing. Madison's attitude can be extrapolated to apply to the founding fathers as a group. They were wary of any form of democracy and faction. They believed that the constitution, establishing the rights of the individual, should be the central and guiding institution. The Electoral College was set up to form a façade of a republic, but it would remain ineffective, being unable to transmit the vocal wishes of the people. Instead of their “vocal” rights, it was their non-vocal and fundamental (Lockean) rights that needed to be protected and maintained. This task was incumbent on the political elite, comprising of the founding fathers themselves, and to their heirs. The constitutional rights were the preserve of “the principles of humanity”, those that delivered progress through the advances in science, technology and commerce. Only the enlightened elite were in a position to comprehend the import of this political philosophy, and therefore were the natural supervisors to this political project.
It is instructive to note that the designs of the founding fathers did not persist long. Members of the political elite held the executive office till 1824, but the selection of John Quincy Adams in that year proved controversial. As the son of John Adams he was part of the political elite, but he had received fewer electoral votes than Andrew Jackson, an outsider. The disgruntled supporters of Jackson immediately proceeded to form the Democratic Party, the first political party to canvass for a democratic support base. Prior to this Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had formed the Republican Party, but this was merely to preserve the philosophy of the elite. Part of this philosophy was that there should be no political parties that would canvass for democratic support. The establishment of the Democratic Party had flouted this rule, and when it succeeded in putting Jackson in office in the 1828 election, the Electoral College had ceased to exist in terms of its original function. Since then all the safeguards against democracy and factionalism have been systematically overridden, so that America now engages in factional politics and executives are chosen on a democratic mandate.
We draw the conclusion that, in the founding of the Electoral College system, the founding fathers were trying to institute the rule of a political philosophy, harbored by the political elite. In its outward form the government appeared to be a republic, but the intention was to emasculate the republican government, so that the elite could rule according to its own philosophy. This philosophy was, however, entirely in the interests of the people. It was to establish the natural rights of the individual through the constitution. In this sense it had adopted the ethos of the Enlightenment, which maintained that the best interests of humanity were served when people are allowed to engage freely in commerce, and to have free range in their intellectual pursuits.
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