how we got the electoral college

Today’s encore selection — from The First Presidential Contest by Jeffrey Pasley. The Electoral College was perhaps the least successful element of the U.S. Constitution. (And not unexpectedly, modifications to the Electoral College process came quickly). The Founders did not want the public to directly elect the President, since previous experiments in direct elections at the state level had reinforced the conclusion that pure democracy was too dangerous. But the founders didn’t want Congress to elect the President either, because that would lead to “cabal faction & violence.” So the idea was adopted of having influential or “notable” community leaders that were not in Congress as Electors, with the people voting for these Electors because they believed they had good judgment. And these Electors were expected to use that good judgment to cast their votes rather than simply reflect the choice of the people:

“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.
James Wilson

“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.’
John Dickinson
“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.”
The First Presidential Contest: 1796 and the Founding of American Democracy

Author: Jeffrey L. Pasley
Publisher: University Press of Kansas
2013 by the University Press of Kansas
Pages: 309-312

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gawking at the inmates of a mental hospital

Today’s selection — from This Way Madness Lies by Mike Jay. Bethlem Royal Hospital was an institution referred to over the centuries of its existence as a madhouse, insane asylum, and mental hospital. Our word “bedlam” comes directly from the colloquial pronunciation of this British institution, which became so famous for the type of patients it served that it became synonymous with madness. To raise money, Bethlem placed donation boxes at its entrance, causing Londoners to throng to it as if to a new attraction, often taunting and gawking at its inmates:
“[Bethlem Royal Hospital was] entrusted with a steadily growing population of troubled and troublesome inmates, most of whom had ended up in Bethlem because everyone else had found them to be unmanageable. These inmates suffered from a variety of untreatable disorders and had nothing to occupy them. The priority of the staff was to maintain order, and the medical regime was deployed to serve this purpose. Bleeding weakened the inmates and made them more tractable; like purging and cold baths, it could be withheld from well-behaved patients and threatened to keep disruptive ones in check. They were ‘treatment’ in the sense of punishment as much as cure.
Tom in Bedlam — A Rake’s Progress
“Pressure on resources led Bethlem to institute the policy that defines it in the public imagination to this day. With the charity of London’s great and good spread
among ever more worthy causes, and income from paying guests limited by [Bethlem’s] grim reputation … the governors decided to install donation boxes at the entrance of the new building and to open it for public visits. Londoners thronged to the new attraction: it joined a tourist trail that included the Tower, the royal palaces, the zoo, the theatres of Covent Garden and the promenade of the Strand. Visiting crowds attracted the same camp followers as elsewhere: street sellers, pickpockets and sex workers. The spectacular facade and grounds were an attraction in their own right, as well as the perfect proscenium for the continuous drama that played inside.
“Many people left written descriptions of their visits and they often appear to have witnessed quite different scenes. There were certainly some visitors of the calibre that the governors had hoped for: ‘persons of quality’ attending in the spirit of charity and donating to the poor boxes, which accrued several hundred pounds a year. Samuel Pepys sent his out-of-town family to visit on their tour of the capital, and James   Boswell noted his visit in his journal. Some visitors recorded pity and compassion for the inmates, whereas others took the experience as a moral lesson, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. For the serious-minded, a visit to Bethlem was an educative experience. Young people in particular should be shown what madness looked like, and the fate of those who suffered from it, as a warning against the dangers of pride, self· love and indulging the passions at the expense of reason.
“Many visitors were relatives of the inmates, bringing them food and keeping them company. But plenty more came out of frank curiosity or for raucous entertainment. Particularly on Sundays and holidays, the scene in the galleries could be boisterous and rowdy.  Like a ghost train or a freak show — or indeed the surgery and autopsy demonstrations that were also on offer to London public at the time — it offered an extreme but safely contained experience, and a stage on which high-spirited visitors could perform acts of daring or display their wit. Some members of the public mocked and imitated the inmates, or pestered them with questions about why they were locked up. Many inmates gave as good as they got, performing their madness in return, singing ditties or drawing sketches, and earning pennies or drink in reward. … The behaviour of young and drunken men and women, laughing and the hooting, reduced them to the same level as those on the other side of the bars: each was performing for the other, indulging their pride and passions at the expense of their shared humanity. [Thomas] Tryon found the hospital’s regime of bleeding and purging equally cruel and misguided, because in his view madness was not an imbalance of bodily humours but an affliction of the soul. ‘The world,’ he concluded, ‘has become a great Bedlam, where those who are more mad lock up those who are less.’ “

This Way Madness Lies

Author: Mike Jay 
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Copyright 2016 Mike Jay
Pages 46-52
 

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Delanceyplace.com is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.