Opinion | The Electoral College Was Not a Pro-Slavery Ploy - The New York Times

There is a lot wrong with how we choose the president. But the framers did not put it into the Constitution to protect the South.

By Sean Wilentz

Mr. Wilentz is the author, most recently, of “No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding.”

Image By the time the delegates at the Federal Convention in 1787 got around to debating how the president ought to be chosen, they had already approved the three-fifths clause, that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. Credit Credit Howard Chandler Christy, via GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

I used to favor amending the Electoral College, in part because I believed the framers put it into the Constitution to protect slavery. I said as much in a book I published in September. But I’ve decided I was wrong. That’s why a merciful God invented second editions.

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 number of each state’s electoral votes would be the same as its combined representation in the House and the Senate.

By including the number of senators, two from each state, the formula leaned to making the apportionment fairer to the smaller states. Including the number of House members leaned in favor of the larger states. But the framers gave the slaveholding states the greatest reward: The more slaves they owned, the more representatives they got, and the more votes each would enjoy in choosing the president.

The framers’ own damning words seem to cinch the case that the Electoral College was a pro-slavery 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. The slaveholding states, he said, “could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes.” Instead, the framers, led by Madison, concocted the Electoral College to give extra power to the slaveholders.

If you stop at this point in the record, as I once did, there would be no two ways about it. 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. Direct election did have some influential supporters, including Gouverneur Morris of New York, author of the Constitution’s preamble. But the convention, deeply suspicious of what one Virginian in another context called “the fury of democracy,” crushed the proposal on two separate occasions.

How, then, would the president be elected, if not directly by the people at large? Some delegates had proposed that Congress have the privilege, a serious proposal that died out of concern the executive branch would be too subservient to the legislative. Other delegates floated making the state governors the electors. Still others favored the state legislatures.

The alternative, and 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.

Slaveholders didn’t embrace the idea of electors because it might enlarge slavery’s power; they feared it because of the danger, as the North Carolina slaveholder Hugh Williamson remarked, that the men chosen as electors would be corruptible “persons not occupied in the high offices of government.” Pro-elite concerns, not proslavery ones, were on their minds — just as, ironically, elite supporters of the Electoral College hoped the body would insulate presidential politics from popular passions.

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. Moreover, the convention did not arrive at the formula of combining each state’s House and Senate numbers until very late in its proceedings, and there is no evidence to suggest that slavery had anything to do with it.

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But didn’t the college, whatever the framers’ intentions, eventually become a bulwark for what Northerners would later call the illegitimate slave power? Not really. Some historians have revived an old partisan canard that the slaveholding states’ extra electoral votes unfairly handed Thomas Jefferson the presidency in 1800-01. They ignore anti-Jefferson manipulation of the electoral vote in heavily pro-Jefferson Pennsylvania that offset the Southerners’ electoral advantage. Take away that manipulation, and Jefferson would have won with or without the extra Southern votes.

The early president most helped by the Constitution’s rejection of direct popular election was John Quincy Adams, later an antislavery hero, who won the White House in 1824-25 despite losing both the popular and electoral votes to Andrew Jackson. (The House decided that election.) As president, the slaveholder Jackson became one of American history’s most prominent critics of the Electoral College, which he blasted for disallowing the people “to express their own will.” The Electoral College system made no difference in deciding the presidency during the 36 years before the Civil War.

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.

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.”

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