Establishment of the Electoral College

Many of our founding fathers had little trust in the instincts of the common man. John Adams observed that “Pure democracy has also been viewed as a threat to individual rights,” and warned against the “tyranny of the majority.”

Alexander Hamilton, one of the three authors of the “Federalist Papers” defended the system of electors by which we choose a President today:

“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.”

In establishing the Electoral College, the framers of the Constitution adopted a compromise which creating a political advantage for slave-holding states. Slavery ended with the Civil War, but the Electoral College survives today as a historical remnant of slavery.

The Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787. If some of the most famous Patriots of the Revolution had attended, a dark blemish on the history of the United States may well have been quite different. Thomas Jefferson was in Paris serving as minister to France and John Adams was in London, serving as minister to Great Britain. Boston patriots Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Virginia’s Patrick Henry, who are referred to today as “Anti-Federalists,” declined to participate. Rhode Island boycotted the Convention altogether and didn’t sign the Constitution until 1790, when they received a promise that a Bill of Rights would be added.

Constitutional convention

Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution states:

Each State shall appoint, in such 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: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”

At the Constitutional Convention, a “Three-Fifths Compromise” was reached between delegates from southern and northern states, resolving a heated disagreement about how slaves would be counted when determining a state’s population for legislative representation. Pennsylvanian James Wilson proposed a direct national election of the president by free men, but Virginian James Madison responded that the North would outnumber the South, whose half million slaves could not vote. Under the Electoral College system which Madison proposed, each Southern state could count its slaves as two-fifths of a person in computing its share of the overall count. The more slaves Virginia had, the more electoral votes it would receive. The Compromise resulted in Southern states receiving more seats in Congress and a third more electoral votes.


Until the 12th amendment was passed,  members of the Electoral College voted for two names for President. The person with the second highest number of votes would be the vice-president. The outcome of the1796 election was a Federalist president (John Adams) and a Republican vice president (Thomas Jefferson). In the 1800 election, Vice President Thomas Jefferson defeated President Adams, in part because the ruling Federalists were split between President Adams and Alexander Hamilton. The election resulted in no candidate receiving a majority of the votes, thus putting the decision into the hands of the House of Representatives, which, after tied 35 votes, elected Jefferson on the 36th ballot, with his running mate Aaron Burr as vice-president. Support for Thomas Jefferson throughout the entire Western frontier assured his victory over John Adams in the election of 1800. This defect in the Constitution was resolved by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, which provided separate balloting for president and vice president.

In 1804, the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution modified the original Electoral College procedure, stipulating that each elector must cast distinct votes for President and Vice President instead of the original procedure in which two votes were cast for President, and therein created the partisan framework of two competing tickets that prevails today. Massachusetts Congressman Samuel Thatcher urged a return to a direct vote, complaining that “The representation of slaves adds thirteen members to this House in the present Congress, and eighteen Electors of President and Vice President at the next election,” but he did not prevail.

Ipswich and slavery

Jenny Slew gains her freedom
In the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, in March, 1765, Jenny Slew, a slave in Ipswich, brought suit against her master John Whipple Jr. on a plea of trespass. She lost her first attempt, but appealed to the Superior Court of Judicature, and at the November term in 1766, the jury found for the appellant and awarded her £4, “money damage.” Image from the Ipswich Mural by Alan Pearsall

Thomas Franklin Waters wrote about slavery in volume II of his books, “Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

“Two citizens of Ipswich took so resolute a stand against human slavery, that the Colony of Massachusetts Bay would never have borne the reproach of permitting it, if their counsels had been heeded.Nathaniel Ward, the author of the Body of Liberties adopted in 1641, thus dealt with it: “There shall never be any bond-slavery or captivity among us, unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or is sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel concerning such persons doth morally require.” Richard Saltonstall denounced in General Court the act of Capt. James, master of the ship “Rainbow,” who kidnapped two negroes on the Guinea Coast and brought them into Boston in 1645, and demanded that they be returned at the public expense.

In the mid-19th Century, the anti-slavery question became acute, and the line of division between the ardent abolitionists and the moderate anti-slavery people and those who deprecated any discussion, was sharply marked. Families and churches were divided by the anti-slavery issue. In the old First Church there was a group of influential citizens whose antipathy to the unfortunate black man was so extreme that they refused him the privilege of worshiping in the Lord’s house.”


William Lloyd Garrison of Newburyport was one of the most articulate opponents of slavery. In the first edition of his anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, 1831, he wrote:

“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.”

On July 4, 1854, Garrison publicly burned a copy of the Constitution, condemning it as “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell,” referring three-fifths compromise that had written slavery into the Constitution.

Uriah Spofford, who published his Reminiscences of growing up in Ipswich in the years before the Civil War, wrote, ““No one at this day, unless he be old enough to remember can have any idea of the bitterness of the contentions which took place with regard to the abolition of slavery.”

The Thomas Manning house on North Main Street. To it’s right is the Ipswich Female Seminary. The cellar of the house is very large and includes a number of brick storerooms. According to oral histories, one of the rooms had a door to a tunnel leading downhill to the Ipswich River. Slaves would be taken after dark to the river behind the house, where they would take small boats to the wharf and board freight ships to Nova Scotia.
“The Underground Railroad in Massachusetts” by Wilbur H. Siebert identified three underground routes starting from Salem and diverging northward: one through Danvers, Andover and South Lawrence; another through Danvers, Georgetown and Haverhill; and a third through Beverly, Ipswich, Newburyport and Amesbury.
The Methodist Church, constructed in the early 1860’s. The Methodists purchased the present lot on the North Green from the County of Essex and proceeded to build their new meeting house without a dollar being pledged. The cost of the structure and the site was $12,000. The building is 62 feet by 84 feet with capacity for 700 people in the pews.

Waters continued:

“There was an Anti-Slavery Society which always held its meetings in the Methodist vestry.. No doubt there was much disagreement on this burning topic in the other churches of the Town, but in the Methodist, sympathy with the slave found its fullest expression, and the most uncompromising attitude toward slavery was resolutely maintained. Mutterings of the coming storm were heard in July, 1839, when James Caldwell presented a series of Resolutions with a Preamble, regarding slavery which were amended, unanimously adopted, and then ordered printed in Zion’s Herald and Zion’s Watchman. Events moved so rapidly during that period, and the dissatisfaction of a large minority became so pronounced that twenty-five members, led by Rev. Orrin Scott, seceded, declaring that they could no longer hold fellowship with slave holders or their defenders. They joined what was then called “The Methodist Wesleyan Church in the United States,” called Rev. Mr. Minor to be their minister and met for worship in the small hall owned by Mr. Hammatt, which then stood on the northeast comer of his lot. They maintained their independence for several years, despite the opposition of the old Church, but returned when, as they believed, the righteousness of their contention was recognized.”

Recruits leaving for the war at the Ipswich train station
Recruits leaving for the war at the Ipswich train station

Timeline of the Civil War

from the Genealogy of the Willcomb family of New England (1655-1902)

1861: War of the Rebellion begun. Ipswich sends soldiers.

1863: Coins gone out of circulation, postage stamps used for change. Augustine Heard and nephews give $10,000 for the relief of soldiers. Ipswich has paid $13,200 bounty to volunteers for the Union. One hundred and fourteen families of volunteers receive town aid. The town paid $9768.00 for aid to volunteers’ families.

1864: Ipswich pays twenty men $2,500 to enlist. The town has paid $12,092 for aid to volunteers’ families.

1865. The population of Ipswich is 3,311. The number of men of Ipswich who died during the war was 52. The town has expended over $52,000 to aid in suppressing Rebellion. The town has paid $15,950 in bounties to soldiers. End of the Rebellion, and return home of the soldiers. News of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln causes great sorrow.

Ipswich Civil War memorial
Civil War memorial across from Meeting House Greet. Photo by George Dexter

Deaths of Ipswich soldiers in the Civil War,

as listed in Genealogy of the Willcomb family of New England (1655-1902)

  • Leonard Howe, soldier, died at Seneca Mills, Nov. 28, age 21.
  • Daniiil J. Potter, soldier, died at Fort Albany, Nov. 27. 1862.
  • George W. Otis, a soldier, died November 19, aged 28.
  • John D. Bridges, a soldier, died at Newbern, N. C, .April 14.
  • Henry A. Brown, a soldier, died at Newbern, N. C, April 21.
  • William Cash, soldier, died in Andersonville prison, Mar. 23.
  • James A. Clark, soldier, died at Hatteras Inlet, May 7.
  • Edward Harris, soldier, died in Bolivar hospital, Oct. 27.
  • William H. Jewett, soldier, died in service, Oct. 20.
  • George Morris, drowned by sinking of “Cumberland” by “Merrimac.”
  • John G. Schanks, soldier, died of wounds at Antietam, Sept. 20.
  • John J. Jewett, soldier, killed at Gettysburg, July 2.
  • Marcus Linburg, soldier, died in service,, Nov. 15.
  • George W. Morley, soldier, died of wounds, July 19.
  • Joseph .S. Peatfield, soldier, died at Newbern, July 31.
  • .Mfred Richardson, soldier, died at Baton Rouge, .August 8.
  • Daniel B. Schanks, soldier, died of wounds at Baton Rouge, .April 20.
  • John M. Tozer, soldier, died at Newport News, October 20.
  • Alvin T. Conant, soldier, died in service, Octoter 26.
  • James W. Goss, taken prisoner June 22, was confined in Libby prison.
  • William Gray, a soldier, was killed at Petersburg, June 21, aged 41.
  • Joseph Wait died May 28 aged 23.
  • John H. Jewett died at Gettys’ Station, April 5, aged 22.
  • Capt. Nathaniel Johnson died May 17, aged 46
  • Luther B. Andrews, soldier, died in service, June 2.
  • John A. Barlver, soldier, died in service, August 30.
  • Chas. P. Bachelder, soldier, died of wounds, Aug. 23, at Washington.
  • G. F. Bridges, soldier, died in Richmond Prison, May 16.
  • Henry A. Cowles, soldier, died at Fort Saratoga, July 14.
  • Peter Crowley, soldier, died of wounds at Petersburg, Va.
  • Charles H. Dow, soldier, was killed at Cold Harbor, June 3.
  • William Patterson, soldier, died of wounds at Petersburg, June 16.
  • W. P. Peatfield, killed at Whitehall, N. C, Dec. 16.
  • Cornelius Schofield, soldier, died of wounds, August 13.
  • W. W. Shattuck, soldier, was killed at Petersburg, Va.
  • Asa Smith, soldier, was killed in service, Oct. 28.
  • Charles D. Smith, soldier, was killed at Spottsylvania. May 8.
  • J. Albert Smith, soldier, died October 24.
  • T. J. Thurston, soldier, died at Alexandria, October 16.
  • Joshua Turner, soldier, died in service at Washington.
  • Samuel S. Wells, soldier, died in Andersonville prison, Nov. 4.
  • Daniel M. Whipple, soldier, died at Washington, Dec. 26.
  • William A. Estes, soldier, died in Andersonville prison, aged 19.
  • James Gordon, soldier, killed at .Spottsylvania, May 18.
  • William Gray, soldier, killed June 21 at Petersburg, age 41.
  • Nathaniel Hayes, soldier, died at Petersburg, Va., July 2.
  • L. T. Jewett, soldier, died at Washington, of wounds. May 26.
  • Philip C. Lavalette, soldier, died at Washington. June 6, aged 21.
  • Pike N. Lavalette, soldier, died in Andersonville prison, .Sept. 24.
  • Caleb H. Lord, soldier, killed by sharpshooters, June 29.
  • Alex. B. McGregor, killed at New Haven, Oct. 26.
  • Parker McGregor, soldier, was killed at Spottsylvania, June 16.
  • James W. Noyes, soldier, killed at Spottsylvania, May 18.
  • Pierce Butler, a soldier, died January 2, aged 21.
  • J. W. Brown, soldier, died in service, Oct. 14, aged 19.
  • Nathaniel Chamters, soldier, died at Patrick Station, Feb. 16.
  • Samuel P. Pickard died at Fort Williams, February 25.
  • John H. Smith, a soldier, died August 3, aged 24.
Reunion of Civil War veterans, at the Choate Bridge
Reunion of Civil War veterans, at the Choate Bridge
James Appleton Post, reunion of Civil War Veterans, circa 1900.
James Appleton Post, reunion of Civil War Veterans, circa 1900.

Slavery ended, but the Electoral College survived

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution enacted in 1865 repealed slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment n 1868 repealed the 3/5 compromise, stipulating that “representatives shall be apportioned … counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed” but it did not otherwise alter the electoral college system.

There has since been only one serious attempt to replace the electoral college system. After the election of 1968, New York State Representative Emanuel Celler introduced House Joint Resolution 681, a proposed Amendment to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with a system that required a president-vice president pair of candidates to win 40% or more of the national vote. In the event of a tie, or if no pair reached 40%, a runoff election would be held between the two tickets with the highest number of votes.In September of 1969, Celler’s Amendment passed with strong bipartisan support in the House of Representatives.President Nixon endorsed the proposal, which was sponsored in the Senate by Birch Bayh (D) of Indiana.The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the proposal with a vote of 11-6 in August 1970,

When the bill to end the Electoral College moved to the Senate floor in September, 1970, it was met with a filibuster by Senators from the former slave states.

Further reading:

2 thoughts on “The Constitutional Convention, the Electoral College, slavery and the Civil War

  1. Gordon, excellent piece. Wow, so many Ipswich men died in the Civil War.

    “Slavery ended with the Civil War, but the Electoral College survives today as a historical remnant of slavery.” Very interesting point …

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