Liberty Letters, 25 July 1787, James Madison
Editor’s Summary: More background on the Electoral College. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut moved that the President be elected the first time around by the U.S. Congress, and if he decides to run for a second term, this time the election will take place via electors chosen by the state legislature, and this to secure independence for the executive branch and the possibility of a “deserving” magistrate to continue in office. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts objected to the Congress as “radically and incurably wrong;” and moved that the President be elected by the chief executive officer of each state, with advice of their councils, and where no councils by electors chosen by the state legislatures.
Madison argued that election by the Congress was “out of the question.” Said he: “the election of the Chief Magistrate would agitate and divide the legislature so much that the public interest would materially suffer by it. Public bodies are always apt to be thrown into contentions, but into more violent ones by such occasions than by any others. The candidate would intrigue with the Legislature, would derive his appointment from the predominant faction, and be apt to render his administration subservient to its views.” He predicted that foreign powers “would intrigue” with Congress to put a man in power favorable to their interests. Madison thought election by the State Legislature would lead to the President being subservient to state interests, and if so, that the problems (like anarchy) among the states — the whole purpose of this convention being to correct — would continue. Similar objections were raised to election by the state executive or judiciary. The only solution he saw was election by electors chosen by the people, or direct election by the people. He favored the former as to offering the least chance for cabal and corruption, but since there was such overwhelming rejection (thus far) for this method, and so little chance of it winning out, he suggested direct election by the people as the best solution.
Pierce Butler of South Carolina was for election by electors appointed by the State Legislatures, against re-eligibility period, and said each state ought to have an equal number of electors. Gerry speaking against the direct election of the President by the people said: “A popular election in this case is radically vicious. The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men dispersed through the Union and acting in Concert to delude them into any appointment. He observed that such a Society of men existed in the Order of the Cincinnati. They are respectable, United, and influential. They will in fact elect the chief Magistrate in every instance, if the election be referred to the people. His respect for the characters composing this Society could not blind him to the danger and impropriety of throwing such a power into their hands.” Steve Farrell
1 Clause relating to the Executive 2 again under consideration.
Mr. ELLSWORTH moved “that the Executive be appointed by the Legislature,” except when the magistrate last chosen shall have continued in office the whole term for which he was chosen, and be reeligible, in which case the choice shall be by Electors appointed by the Legislatures of the States for that purpose.” By this means a deserving magistrate may be reelected without making him dependent on the Legislature. 3
Mr. GERRY repeated his remark that an election at all by the Natl. Legislature was radically and incurably wrong; and moved that the Executive be appointed by the Governours & Presidents of the States, with advice of their Councils, and where there are no Councils by Electors chosen by the Legislatures. The executives to vote in the following proportions: viz —
Mr. MADISON. There are objections against every mode that has been, or perhaps can be proposed. The election must be made either by some existing authority under the National or State Constitutions — or by some special authority derived from the people — or by the people themselves. — The two Existing authorities under the National Constitution would be the Legislative & Judiciary. The latter he presumed was out of the question. The former was in his Judgment liable to insuperable objections. Besides the general influence of that mode on the independence of the Executive, 1. 4 the election of the Chief Magistrate would agitate & divide the legislature so much that the public interest would materially suffer by it. Public bodies are always apt to be thrown into contentions, but into more violent ones by such occasions than by any others. 2. 5 the candidate would intrigue with the Legislature, would derive his appointment from the predominant faction, and be apt to render his administration subservient to its views. 3. 6 The Ministers of foreign powers would have and 7 make use of, the opportunity to mix their intrigues and influence with the Election. Limited as the powers of the Executive are, it will be an object of great moment with the great rival powers of Europe who have American possessions, to have at the head of our Government a man attached to their respective politics and interests. No pains, nor perhaps expense, will be spared, to gain from the Legislature an appointment favorable to their wishes. Germany and Poland are witnesses of this danger. In the former, the election of the Head of the Empire, till it became in a manner hereditary, interested all Europe, and was much influenced by foreign interference. In the latter, although the elective Magistrate has very little real power, his election has at all times produced the most eager interference of foreign princes, and has in fact at length slid entirely into foreign hands. The existing authorities in the States are the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary. The appointment of the National Executive by the first, was objectionable in many points of view, some of which had been already mentioned. He would mention one which of itself would decide his opinion. The Legislatures of the States had betrayed a strong propensity to a variety of pernicious measures. One object of the National Legislature was to control this propensity. One object of the National Executive, so far as it would have a negative on the laws, was to control the National Legislature, so far as it might be infected with a similar propensity. Refer the appointment of the National Executive to the State Legislatures, and this controlling purpose may be defeated. The Legislatures can and will act with some kind of regular plan, and will promote the appointment of a man who will not oppose himself to a favorite object. Should a majority of the Legislatures at the time of election have the same object, or different objects of the same kind, The National Executive would be rendered subservient to them. — An appointment by the State Executives, was liable among other objections to this insuperable one, that being standing bodies, they could and would be courted, and intrigued with by the Candidates, by their partisans, and by the Ministers of foreign powers. The State Judiciaries had not 8 and he presumed would not be proposed as a proper source of appointment. The option before us then lay between an appointment by Electors chosen by the people — and an immediate appointment by the people. He thought the former mode free from many of the objections which had been urged against it, and greatly preferable to an appointment by the National Legislature. As the electors would be chosen for the occasion, would meet at once, and proceed immediately to an appointment, there would be very little opportunity for cabal, or corruption. As a farther precaution, it might be required that they should meet at some place, distinct from the seat of Government and even that no person within a certain distance of the place at the time should be eligible. This Mode however had been rejected so recently and by so great a majority that it probably would not be proposed anew. The remaining mode was an election by the people or rather by the qualified part of them, at large: With all its imperfections he liked this best. He would not repeat either the general arguments for or the objections against this mode. He would only take notice of two difficulties which he admitted to have weight. The first arose from the disposition in the people to prefer a Citizen of their own State, and the disadvantage this would throw on the smaller States. Great as this objection might be he did not think it equal to such as lay against every other mode which had been proposed. He thought too that some expedient might be hit upon that would obviate it. The second difficulty arose from the disproportion of qualified voters in the Northern and Southern States, and the disadvantages which this mode would throw on the latter. The answer to this objection was 1. 9 that this disproportion would be continually decreasing under the influence of the Republican laws introduced in the Southern States, and the more rapid increase of their population. 2. 10 That local considerations must give way to the general interest. As an individual from the Southern States he was willing to make the sacrifice. Dickinson said let the people of each state choose their leading citizen, and then from those 13 let the Congress choose the President.
Mr. ELLSWORTH. The objection drawn from the different sizes of the States, is unanswerable. The Citizens of the largest States would invariably prefer the Candidate within the State; and the largest States would invariably have the man.
11 Question on Mr. Ellsworth’s motion as above.
N. H. ay. Mas. no. Ct ay. N. J. no. Pa. ay. Del. no. Md. ay. Va. no. N. C. no. S. C. no. Geo. no. 12
Mr. PINKNEY moved that the election by the Legislature be qualified with a proviso that no person be eligible for more than 6 years in any twelve years. He thought this would have all the advantage and at the same time avoid in some degree the inconveniency, 13 of an absolute ineligibility a 2d. time.
Col. MASON approved the idea. It had the sanction of experience in the instance of Congress and some of the Executives of the States. It rendered the Executive as effectually independent, as an ineligibility after his first election, and opened the way at the same time for the advantage of his future services. He preferred on the whole the election by the National Legislature: Tho’ Candor obliged him to admit, that there was great danger of foreign influence, as had been suggested. This was the most serious objection with him that had been urged.
Mr. BUTLER. The two great evils to be avoided are cabal at home, and influence from abroad. It will be difficult to avoid either if the Election be made by the National Legislature. On the other hand: The Government should not be made so complex and unwieldy as to disgust the States. This would be the case, if the election should be referred to the people. He liked best an election by Electors chosen by the Legislatures of the States. He was against a re-eligibility at all events. He was also against a ratio of votes in the States. An equality should prevail in this case. The reasons for departing from it do not hold in the case of the Executive as in that of the Legislature.
Mr. GERRY approved of Mr. Pinkney’s motion as lessening the evil.
Mr. GOVr. MORRIS was against a rotation in every case. It formed a political School, in which we were always governed by the scholars, and not by the Masters. The evils to be guarded against in this case are 1. 14 the undue influence of the Legislature. 2. 14 instability of Councils. 3. 14 misconduct in office. To guard against the first, we run into the second evil. We adopt a rotation which produces instability of Councils. To avoid Sylla we fall into Charibdis. A change of men is ever followed by a change of measures. We see this fully exemplified in the vicissitudes among ourselves, particularly in the State of Pennsylvania. The self-sufficiency of a victorious party scorns to tread in the paths of their predecessors. Rehoboam will not imitate Soloman. 2. 15 the Rotation in office will not prevent intrigue and dependence on the Legislature. The man in office will look forward to the period at which he will become re-eligible. The distance of the period, the improbability of such a protraction of his life will be no obstacle. Such is the nature of man, formed by his benevolent author no doubt for wise ends, that although he knows his existence to be limited to a span, he takes his measures as if he were to live for ever. But taking another supposition, the inefficacy of the expedient will be manifest. If the magistrate does not look forward to his re-election to the Executive, he will be pretty sure to keep in view the opportunity of his going into the Legislature itself. He will have little objection then to an extension of power on a theatre where he expects to act a distinguished part; and will be very unwilling to take any step that may endanger his popularity with the Legislature, on his influence over which the figure he is to make will depend. 3. 16 To avoid the third evil, impeachments will be essential, and hence an additional reason against an election by the Legislature. He considered an election by the people as the best, by the Legislature as the worst, mode. Putting both these aside, he could not but favor the idea of Mr. Wilson, of introducing a mixture of lot. It will diminish, if not destroy both cabal and dependence.
Mr. WILLIAMSON was sensible that strong objections lay against an election of the Executive by the Legislature, and that it opened a door for foreign influence. The principal objection against an election by the people seemed to be, the disadvantage under which it would place the smaller States. He suggested as a cure for this difficulty, that each man should vote for 3 candidates, One of these 17 he observed would be probably of his own State, the other 2. of some other States; and as probably of a small as a large one.
Mr. GOVr. MORRIS liked the idea, suggesting as an amendment that each man should vote for two persons one of whom at least should not be of his own State.
Mr. MADISON also thought something valuable might be made of the suggestion with the proposed amendment of it. The second best man in this case would probably be the first, in fact. The only objection which occurred was that each Citizen after having given his vote for his favorite fellow Citizen, would throw away his second on some obscure Citizen of another State, in order to ensure the object of his first choice. But it could hardly be supposed that the Citizens of many States would be so sanguine of having their favorite elected, as not to give their second vote with sincerity to the next object of their choice. It might moreover be provided in favor of the smaller States that the Executive should not be eligible more than times in years from the same State.
Mr. GERRY. A popular election in this case is radically vicious. The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men dispersed through the Union & acting in Concert to delude them into any appointment. He observed that such a Society of men existed in the Order of the Cincinnati. They are respectable, United, and influential. They will in fact elect the chief Magistrate in every instance, if the election be referred to the people. His respect for the characters composing this Society could not blind him to the danger and impropriety of throwing such a power into their hands.
Mr. DICKINSON. As far as he could judge from the discussions which had taken place during his attendance, insuperable objections lay against an election of the Executive by the National Legislature; as also by the Legislatures or Executives of the States. He had long leaned towards an election by the people which he regarded as the best and purest source. Objections he was aware lay against this mode, but not so great he thought as against the other modes. The greatest difficulty in the opinion of the House seemed to arise from the partiality of the States to their respective Citizens. But, might not this very partiality be turned to a useful purpose. Let the people of each State choose its best Citizen. The people will know the most eminent characters of their own States, and the people of different States will feel an emulation in selecting those of which 18 they will have the greatest reason to be proud. Out of the thirteen names thus selected, an Executive Magistrate may be chosen either by the Natl. Legislature, or by Electors appointed by it.
On a Question which was moved for postponing Mr. Pinkney’s motion; in order to make way for some such proposition as had been hinted by Mr. Williamson & others: it passed in the negative.
N. H. no. Mas. no. Ct. ay. N. J. ay. Pa. ay. Del. no. Md. ay. Va. ay. N. C. no. S. C. no. Geo. no. 19
On Mr. Pinkney’s motion that no person shall serve in the Executive more than 6 years in 12. years, it passed in the negative.
N. H. ay. Mas. ay. Ct. no. N. J. no. Pa. no. Del. no. Md. no. Va. no. N. C. ay. S. C. ay. Geo. ay. 20
On a motion that the members of the Committee be furnished with copies of the proceedings it was so determined; S. Carolina alone being in the negative.
It was then moved that the members of the House might take copies of the Resolutions which had been agreed to; which passed in the negative. N. H. no. Mas. no. Con: ay. N. J. ay. Pa. no. Del. ay. Maryd. no. Va. ay. N. C. ay. S. C. no. Geo. no. 21
Mr. GERRY & Mr. BUTLER moved to refer the resolution relating to the Executive (except the clause making it consist of a single person) to the Committee of detail.
Mr. WILSON hoped that so important a branch of the System would not be committed until a general principle should be fixed by a vote of the House.
Mr. LANGDON, was for the Commitment — Adjourned.
1. The word “The” is here inserted in the transcript.
2. The word “being” is here inserted in the transcript.
3. The transcript italicizes the phrase “making him dependent on the Legislature.”
4. The figure “1” is changed to “In the first place” in the transcript.
5. The figure “2” is changed to “In the second place” in the transcript.
6. The figure “3” is changed to “In the third place” in the transcript.
7. The word “would” is here inserted in the transcript.
8. The word “been” is here inserted in the transcript.
9. The figure “1” is changed to “in the first place” in the transcript.
10. The figure “2” is changed to “in the second place” in the transcript.
11. The words “On the” are here inserted in the transcript.
12. In the transcript the vote reads: “New Hampshire, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, aye — 4: Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 7.”
13. The word “inconveniency” is changed to “inconvenience” in the transcript.
14. The figures “1,” “2” and “3” are changed to “first,” “secondly” and “thirdly” in the transcript.
15. The figure “2” is changed to “Secondly” in the transcript.
16. The figure “3” is changed to “Finally” in the transcript.
17. The word “them” is substituted in the transcript for “these.”
18. The word “whom” is substituted in the transcript for “which.”
19 In the transcript the vote reads: “Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, aye — 5; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 6.”
20. In the transcript the vote reads: “New Hampshire, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 5; Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, no — 6.”
21. In the transcript the vote reads: “Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, aye — 5; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 6.”
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