Friday, July 20, 2018

Slavery Was Irrelevant to the Creation of the Electoral College

I was just reading Max Farrand's (1913)  Framing of the Constitution of the United States (Palladium Press reprint, 2000) in order to get a sense of the basis of the claim that I have seen in various newspapers that the creation of the Electoral College in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was somehow relevant to slavery.  There is no basis for this claim. It is fiction, fake news, bunkum, or whatever you wish to call it.  (For an example of the bunkum, see this, which erroneously claims that the three-fifths rule was important to the Constitutional debate and also erroneously seems to claim that the free populations of states like Virginia and North Carolina were smaller rather than larger than Northern states like New Jersey and Rhode Island.)

Wikipedia lists the states by 1790 population, and the eight states with the fewest free white males were Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Vermont Maine, South Carolina, and New Hampshire--half Northern, half Southern.  However, the debate at the Convention and the use of the terms "small states" and "large states" didn't exactly follow the population numbers.

Farrand's book is eminently readable and held my attention for about 200 pages.  His answer is clear: Slavery was irrelevant to the great compromise and the creation of the Electoral College.  He notes that, with respect to the great compromise--concerning the assignment of two senators per state and proportional representation for the House, to appease the large states--there had been fallacious speculation by historians in the 19th century concerning a role for the slavery issue, but  it was not at issue.

The famous three-fifths rule had already been in effect under the Articles of Confederation, and much of the Constitution was taken from the Articles as well as other preexisting state constitutions, especially that of New York.  When I had first read New York's constitution several years ago for the first time, I had supposed that the state had copied the federal Constitution, but it was the other way around.

In sum, in the 1787 Constitutional Convention there was little discussion about the existing three-fifths rule, and it was irrelevant to the great compromise and the Electoral College.

The small state-versus-large-state dispute had its roots in the small states' fear of absorption by the largest states.  The three largest  states in order of increasing size were Massachusetts, Pennsylvania,  and Virginia.  The large states had claims to Western lands, and those claims distinguished them from the smaller states.  Although Georgia was a small state in population, it too thought it might have claims on Western lands, so it voted with the large states.

The smaller states included New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland.  New Hampshire and Rhode Island were missing from the convention debate, but they would have been in the small-state category. Delaware and Maryland were relatively slave states.

Slavery existed in all states in 1787, and there was no abolition debate to speak of.  The claim that there were slave states and free states is false. All states in 1787 were slave states.  Moreover, slavery became much more important after Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793.

Hence, slavery was not much discussed in the Constitutional debate.  At one point Madison raised the point that the North-South divide was more important than the small-state-large-state divide, but the delegates were concerned with the latter, not the former.   The small-state-large-state debate was important with respect to the compromise concerning proportional representation of the House and fixed representation in the Senate. It was also relevant to the creation of the Electoral College.

The original plan for the Electoral College was that the electors of each state would vote for two people, one of whom could not be an inhabitant of that state.  The person having a majority of votes would win, but if there was no majority, the decision would be made in the Senate. In the final version the House rather than the Senate was to break ties.

Virtually no one in the Constitutional Convention believed in popular, direct election of the president.   Instead, the electors would have independent thought in their vote.  Farrand writes:

It was expected that the electors would naturally vote for men from their own state...each elector was expected to vote independently according to his own was expected that the vote would be so scattered as to not give a majority to any one person. This would throw the election to the Senate.  In other words, and it was so explained again and again, and by such men as Madison, Sherman, King, and Gouverneur Morris, under this system the large states would nominate the candidates and the eventual election would be controlled by the small states

The convention acted on the assumption that this would happen in the great majority of cases. 'Nineteen times in twenty,' Mason asserted in the federal convention, and a little later in the Virginia state convention he claimed forty-nine times out of fifty--the vote of the electors would NOT be decisive.

In other words, they thought the Senate would control the election of president.  Farrand adds, " It is quite possible here, as in so many other questions, the large states accomplished their purpose under a veil of concession."  The use of the House rather than the Senate was accepted without much debate.

The issue of slavery had as little to do with the creation of the Electoral College as did the price of tea in China.

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