Orientation and Getting Started
The Creation of the Constitution
The Road to Philadelphia
Slavery and the Constitution
The Presidency
The Federal Judiciary
Some Other Important Details
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Selecting the Executive

Arguments Against Popular Election

Charles Pinckney, who often celebrated American equality in his speeches (while frequently voting like an aristocrat), thought “an election by the people [was] liable to the most obvious and striking objections.” He believed that the choice would never really be derived from the people themselves, because they would always “be led by a few active and designing men.” Members from the small states were simply worried that popular elections would mean that their states would have too little influence, because population differences and simple arithmetic would always favor the large states.

Madison named another difficulty with popular elections: “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election, on the score of the negroes.” If the Constitution prescribed a popular election for the executive, then the Northern States would have far more influence in the choice than the Southern States, relative to their respective populations. Part of this influence would come from the higher property qualifications that tended to minimize suffrage rights in the South, but the prevalence of slavery would put the Southern States at an even greater disadvantage compared to the votes cast in the North. For that reason, Madison preferred the choice of electors, which would allow them to gloss over that difficulty. 

A Return to Selection by Congress

Even though the choice for direct popular elections had several supporters who championed this mode throughout the debates, that option was never able to muster more than one or two states in its favor whenever it came up for a vote. Instead, the Convention kept returning to a Congressional appointment. The delegates repeatedly grumbled about giving that power to Congress; they enumerated manifold problems with the mode; and they suggested every possible alternative. But whenever the question came up for a vote, the delegates almost always settled on that choice, sometimes overwhelmingly. Each time they did, however, they had to reconsider the questions of term length and term limits. Almost everyone had become convinced that if the legislature were to choose the executive, then he could not be eligible for a second term; but if he were ineligible, then he must serve a lengthy term. In Morris’ opinion, they would not be able to find another eligible “alternative for making the executive independent of the legislature”; either they must make his tenure for life or he must be elected by the people.

Yet the Convention chose neither of these options, and the first comprehensive report of the Convention, delivered on August 6, had the president elected by Congress for seven years and ineligible for a second term. However, when the Convention began debating this specific proposal, an entirely new controversy arose: how exactly should Congress vote for the president? Would a presidential candidate need to receive a majority in both houses of Congress (which would give to each house a veto power over the choice of the other), or should the two houses combine when they cast a ballot for president? The large states were fiercely opposed to giving the small states the power to block the choice of the majority of representatives. Others were afraid of the tumults that would arise if the two houses were simply unable to agree on a single candidate. But the small states were reluctant to give up the leverage they would have if the Senate voted independently. 

What about Electors?

And so the delegates continued to search for a mode of election that would not destroy the president’s independence and would, at the same time, allow him to be reeligible. The idea of electors was increasingly winning a cadre of supporters, at least in the abstract, but few specific proposals seemed to catch fire. Nonetheless, minor adjustments were continually being suggested as delegates tinkered with the idea, and these adjustments would ultimately make the option more palatable. On July 20, Hugh Williamson suggested that electors should be distributed among the states in the same proportion as their Representatives. This rule would apply the three-fifths ratio to presidential elections, something that would benefit Southern States more than a direct election. A few days later, during a discussion of popular elections, Williamson made a suggestion that would appeal to the smaller states: each voter should vote for more than one candidate for president. This unique approach would make it more likely that one candidate, at least, would not be from the voter’s own state (which would increase the likelihood that a candidate from a small state might be elected president). Morris modified the suggestion to make it a requirement that one of the choices not be from the voter’s home state. Although these suggestions were not adopted at the time they were made, they continued to percolate in the minds of the delegates as they sifted through their options.

The Committee of Postponed Matters

The resolution to their difficulties came from an unlikely source: the Committee of Postponed Matters. This committee was appointed on August 31, and (as the name suggests) it was meant to find solutions to parts of the Constitution which had been left undecided and postponed by the delegates. The provision for electing the president, however, was not supposed to be on their agenda, because the Convention had already definitively voted on August 24—which was the last time that the question was deliberated—to allow Congress to select the president. Nonetheless, several people on this committee were intensely dissatisfied with that choice, so they drafted an alternative which was laid before the Convention on September 4. 

The proposal was clearly meant to offer something for everyone. For the Southern States, tying the number of electors to the number of representatives would incorporate the three-fifths clause, and hence give them some influence on account of their slaves. For the small states, adding two electors (the number of each state’s Senators) to the total for each state’s electoral votes would give them more influence in the choice; and requiring that one vote be cast for a candidate outside of the elector’s home state made it more likely that someone from a small state might win. For those who were protective of states’ rights, the proposal allowed state legislatures to choose how the president’s electors would be chosen (in the first presidential elections, some electors were popularly elected, others were elected by state legislatures). For that small but stalwart minority who wanted an election directly by the people, this solution offered at least an intermediate choice by the people. For those who were opposed to the president’s ineligibility, this plan could make him safely eligible for additional terms. And the Committee’s plan even created the office of vice president, specially designed to succeed the president.