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'The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789': An Excerpt by Edward Larson

By    |   Monday, 24 November 2014 09:56 AM

An excerpt from the book The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789 by Edward Larson

A complex, jury–rigged compromise, the electoral vote system worked seamlessly for installing Washington as the first President. As originally contrived, however, it only worked well when he was a candidate. Two ensuing near-catastrophic elections led to its overhaul by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804. In 1789, however, it operated much as its framers at the Constitutional Convention hoped and produced a result that reflected the popular will.

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Those framers devised the electoral vote system to meet objections raised to three more obvious means of picking the President. Mimicking the method then used by most states to select their governors, the original Virginia Plan called for Congress to appoint the President. Even Madison, the plan’s chief architect, soon realized that this method could undermine executive independence in a system that relied on checks and balances to curb abuse. With Washington’s concurrence, Virginia turned against it at the Convention. From the start, James Wilson and the Pennsylvania delegation wanted “the people” To elect the President directly, but merely counting individual votes from across the country would slash the influence of southern states, where disenfranchised black slaves made up about one-third of the population. Again with Washington’s apparent support, Virginia consistently voted against direct elections. Finally, some delegates urged that the states pick the President — one vote per state as under the Articles of Confederation — but Virginia and the other big states objected. For three months, the delegates failed to find a solution. “There are objections agst. every mode that has been, or perhaps can be proposed,” Madison noted midway through the Convention.

During the Convention’s first week, Wilson offered the idea of indirect elections using electors as an alternative to direct elections. Wilson’s proposal would have divided the states into electoral districts. Voters in each district would choose one elector. These electors would then meet at a central site to elect the President much as the College of Cardinals selects the pope. Variations offered by other delegates over the summer would have given states one, two, or three electors depending on population and had electors chosen by state legislatures rather than voters. None of these options gained sufficient support to win final approval but they remained in the mix until the Convention’s final days, when desperate delegates referred all such unresolved issues to a select committee that included such Washington intimates as Madison and Gouverneur Morris.

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Combining elements from earlier proposals into a viable compromise, this so-called Committee on Postponed Parts devised the electoral vote system. Balancing state and individual interests, the system gave each state the same number of electors as senators and representative, which meant more for big states, at least three for small ones, and a three-fifths factor for slaves. Each state would decide how to choose its own electors, which allowed the Convention to dodge the thorny issues of popular versus legislative selection and district versus statewide election.

….By forcing electors to vote for at least one out-of- state candidate and barring them from meeting as a single multi-state body, the framers hoped to encourage the emergence of national candidates and to discourage cabals. The candidate receiving the most votes from at least a majority of the electors would become President. The second-place finisher would become Vice President. If no one received votes from a majority of the electors or in case of a tie, Congress would select from among the top candidates.

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Although not explicitly designed to lift Washington to the presidency, the electoral vote system served that purpose. Under it, Washington need not seek a party’s nomination or campaign for votes. He was not even required to put himself forward for the office or comment in advance on whether he would take it. He could simply await his country’s call at Mount Vernon, which by this point was the only way he would accept the presidency. From start to finish, the process became a long but predictable pageant suitable for America’s Cincinnatus: more of a prelude to a coronation than a campaign before an election.

Excerpt from the book The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789 by Edward Larson. Copyright Edward J. Larson 2014. Courtesy of William Morrow.

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A complex, jury–rigged compromise, the electoral vote system worked seamlessly for installing Washington as the first President.
electoral college, george washington, edward larson
Monday, 24 November 2014 09:56 AM
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