We the People Constitutional ConventionHistory

The Constitutional Convention and 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 Papersdefended 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 the 1796 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.

Further Reading:

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2 replies »

  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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