Three historians debate whether the Electoral College was written into the United States Constitution to provide a defense of slavery. Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton and the author, most recently, of No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding. Akhil Reed Amar is a professor at Yale Law School. Alan Singer is a historian and teacher educator at Hofstra University. Their essays are briefly edited for length (each entire essay is available online). Read the three positions and write a Letter-to-the-Editor of approximately 250-words explaining your view using supporting evidence from the essays, the Constitution, and other sources.
The Electoral College Was Not a Pro-Slavery Ploy
Like many historians, I thought the evidence clearly showed the Electoral College arose from a calculated power play by the slaveholders. By the time the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 debated how the president ought to be chosen, they had already approved the three-fifths clause — the notorious provision that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person to inflate the slave states’ apportionment in the new House of Representatives. The Electoral College, as approved by the convention in its final form, in effect enshrined the three-fifths clause in the selection of the president. Instead of election by direct popular vote, each state would name electors (chosen however each state legislature approved), who would actually do the electing.
The framers’ own damning words seem to cinch the case that the Electoral College was a proslavery ploy. Above all, the Virginia slaveholder James Madison — the most influential delegate at the convention — insisted that while direct popular election of the president was the “fittest” system, it would hurt the South, whose population included nonvoting slaves.
On further and closer inspection, however, the case against the framers begins to unravel. First, the slaveholders did not need to invent the Electoral College to fend off direct popular election of the president. The convention, deeply suspicious of what one Virginian in another context called “the fury of democracy,” crushed the proposal on two separate occasions.
The winning, plan, which became known as the Electoral College only some years later, certainly gave the slaveholding states the advantage of the three-fifths clause. But the connection was incidental, and no more of an advantage than if Congress had been named the electors. Most important, once the possibility of direct popular election of the president was defeated, how much did the slaveholding states rush to support the concept of presidential electors? Not at all. In the initial vote over having electors select the president, the only states voting “nay” were North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia — the three most ardently proslavery states in the convention.
When it first took shape at the convention, the Electoral College would not have significantly helped the slaveowning states. Under the initial apportionment of the House approved by the framers, the slaveholding states would have held 39 out of 92 electoral votes, or about 42 percent. Based on the 1790 census, about 41 percent of the nation’s total white population lived in those same states, a minuscule difference.
There are ample grounds for criticizing the Constitution’s provisions for electing the president. That the system enabled the election in 2016 of precisely the kind of demagogic figure the framers designed the system to block suggests the framework may need serious repair. But the myth that the Electoral College began as a slaveholders’ instrument needs debunking — which I hope to help with in my book’s revised paperback.
Actually, the Electoral College Was a ProSlavery Ploy
By Akhil Reed Amar
As James Madison made clear at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in Philadelphia, the big political divide in America was not between big and small states; it was between North and South and was all about slavery. Behind closed doors at the Constitutional Convention, when the idea of direct presidential election was proposed by the Northerner James Wilson, the Southerner James Madison explained why this was a political nonstarter: Slaves couldn’t vote, so the slaveholding South would basically lose every time in a national direct vote. But if slaves could somehow be counted in an indirect system, maybe at a discount (say, three-fifths), well, that might sell in the South. Thus were planted the early seeds of an Electoral College system.
Some have argued that direct election was doomed because the Philadelphia delegates disdained democracy. Behind closed doors these elites did indeed bad-mouth the masses (as do elites today). But look at what the framers of the Constitution did, rather than what they said. They put the Constitution itself to a far more democratic vote than had been seen before. They provided for a directly elected House of Representatives (which the earlier Articles of Confederation did not do). They omitted all property qualifications for leading federal positions, unlike almost every state constitution then on the books.
So why didn’t they go even further, providing direct presidential election? Because of Madison’s political calculation: Direct election would have been a dealbreaker for the South.
When George Washington left the political stage in the mid-1790s, America witnessed its first two contested presidential elections. Twice, most Southerners backed a Southerner (Thomas Jefferson) and most Northerners backed a Northerner (John Adams). Without the extra electoral votes generated by its enormous slave population, the South would have lost the election of 1800, which Jefferson won.
When the Constitution was amended to modify the Electoral College after 1800, all America had seen the pro-slavery tilt of the system, but Jefferson’s Southern allies steamrollered over Northern congressmen who explicitly proposed eliminating the system’s pro-slavery bias. As a result, every president until Abraham Lincoln was either a Southerner or a Northerner who was willing (while president) to accommodate the slaveholding South. The dominant political figure in antebellum America was the pro-slavery Andrew Jackson, who in 1829 proposed eliminating electors while retaining pro-slavery apportionment rules rooted in the three-fifths clause — in effect creating a system of pro-slavery electoral-vote counts without the need for electors themselves.
Today, of course, slavery no longer skews and stains our system — and maybe the Electoral College system should remain intact. The best argument in its favor is simply inertia: Any reforms might backfire, with unforeseen and adverse consequences. The Electoral College is the devil we know.
But we should not kid ourselves: This devil does indeed have devilish origins.
James Madison Responds to Sean Wilentz
By Alan Singer
If I understand Sean Wilentz’s new position on the origin of the Electoral College, it, like slavery, was an undemocratic element of the new Constitution endorsed by writers from the North and South who feared slave insurrection, democratic insurgencies like Shay’s Rebellion, and popular government, who represented slave states (there was still slavery in most of the North) or commercial interests tied into the slave trade, and probably got a slaveholder elected President in 1800, but historians shouldn’t conclude that they considered that the Electoral College, like the 3/5 clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the ban on banning the slave trade for 20 years, might protect slavery.
On July 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention debated a series of proposals for selecting a national “Executive.” According to James Madison in his Notes of the Constitutional Convention, “The Option before us then lay between an appointment by Electors chosen by the people — and an immediate appointment by the people.” The idea of an Electoral College was reintroduced by Pierce Butler, a South Carolina rice planter, one of the largest slaveholders in the United States, and one of slavery’s strongest defenders. Butler also introduced the Fugitive Slave Clause into the Constitution, supported the Constitution provision prohibiting regulation of the trade for twenty year, and demanded that the entire slave population of a state be counted for Congressional apportionment. According to Butler, “the Govt. should not be made so complex & unwieldy as to disgust the States. This would be the case, if the election should be referred to the people. He liked best an election by Electors chosen by the Legislatures of the States.”
The issue of selecting an Executive was then referred to a special Committee of Eleven, also known as the Brearly Committee. On September 4, the Brearly Committee reported its recommendation that “Each State shall appoint in such manner as its Legislature may direct, a number of electors equal to the whole number of Senators and members of the House of Representatives, to which the State may be entitled in the Legislature.” Pierce Butler defended the recommendation, although “the mode not free from objections, but much more so than an election by the Legislature, where as in elective monarchies, cabal faction & violence would be sure to prevail.” The motion was then put on hold while the committee considered objection, not to the selection of the Executive, but to the process for removal. The Brearly Committee’s recommendations for the organization of the Executive branch and acceptance of the Electoral College was finally accepted by the Constitutional Convention and submitted to the states for approval.
What I find most suggestive in the debate is the role played by Pierce Butler, one of the Convention’s greatest slavery champions. The Electoral College may not have been expressly designed only to protect African slavery, but based on Madison’s notes, it was the mode most preferred by pro-slavery forces