No, the Electoral College Wasn’t About Slavery
Princeton historian Sean Wilentz lays to rest a pernicious idea propagated by . . . Princeton historian Sean Wilentz.
Sean Wilentz, NYT (“The Electoral College Was Not a Pro-Slavery Ploy“):
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.
Ahem. It’s normally referred to as the “Three-Fifths Compromise” because it worked two ways. Yes, it greatly advantaged slave-holding states in terms of apportionment. But it also meant that those states had to pay a head tax to the Federal government, the primary form of revenue aside from tariffs prior to the Sixteenth Amendment.
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.
Oh, for goodness sake. It had nothing to do with fairness. Indeed, it’s fundamentally unfair to give states with fewer people the same voting power in the Senate. Doing so was, again, a compromise. The status quo was the Articles of Confederation, under which each of the several states was a sovereign equal. The smaller states simply would not have acquiesced to representation based solely on population with that as the fallback.
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.
This wasn’t an independent “reward.” It was simply a reflection of the Three-fifths Compromise having already been agreed to.
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.
That paragraph is sufficiently confusing that I have no response.
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.
Speaking of the 1790 census, look at the state-by-state data (which I’ve taken the liberty of sorting by overall population):
It’s certainly true that, for example, Virginia and North Carolina become significantly more powerful by virtue of slaves counting 3/5 of a person for the purposes of apportionment. But, by the same token, they’re disadvantaged by the fact that the Senate—and, by extension, the Electoral College—gives outsized power to Rhode Island and other small states. (The numbers are somewhat skewed because Maine which was then part of Massachusetts, and Kentucky, which was then part of Virginia, were tallied separately. Vermont, which was an independent country until 1791, was also counted.)
The other thing the census figures brings home is that “slave state” meant something different at the time the Constitution was drafted than it does in the popular mind today. Most of us—myself certainly included—naturally think of the states that would make up the Confederacy during the Civil War. But all states but two had some slaves and both New York and New Jersey had substantial slave populations.
Of course, the fact that one malign motivation attributed to the Framers was false doesn’t magically transform the Electoral College into a good idea for the modern era. Indeed, the Three-fifths Compromise was rendered moot with the Thirteenth Amendment, anyway, so that particular advantage that former slave states had went away in 1865.
The Electoral College—and, by extension, the Senate—were likely necessary accessions to the small population states in exchange to their consent to move from an unworkable confederation to a more perfect union in 1787/89. But the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, and other developments have long since rendered us a single nation rather than a collection of sovereign states who joined together for limited purposes. Furthermore, the disparity between the smallest and largest states in terms of population is massively larger than it was at our second founding.
It simply makes no sense to continue to govern ourselves by a set of compromises made for the limited purposes of a completely different country well over two centuries ago. Alas, the process set forth for amendment at that same convention makes it nearly impossible to do otherwise.