The Weiner Component #28 – Interpreting the Constitution: The Election of the President

Map of number of electoral votes by state afte...

In June of 1776, a year after the American Revolution started, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted the following month on July 4th.  The Declaration defined the rights of man and demonstrated how the King of England had ignored these rights and forced the colonists to revolt.  The document was a democratic statement, designating that all people were equal and all people were given the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

 The war ended in November 1782 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.  The new nation consisted of thirteen independent states loosely bound together under the Articles of Confederation in 1781.

 In 1786 the legislature of the government of Massachusetts in Boston, which was located along the highly populated coastal region of the state, passed a law taxing the inland farmers in order to raise money for the state’s expenses.  These farmers, who were largely under represented in the government, revolted and refused to pay the tax, arguing that if the Southern planters, who had been dependent upon English merchants before the Revolution could during and after the war refuse to pay their debts to these English merchants then why couldn’t they do the same thing and refuse to pay the taxes.  This was called Shay’s Rebellion, named after a Revolutionary War veteran, Daniel Shay. 

 George Washington called out a force of the National Guard and the revolt dissipated by the time the troops reached the area.  The fear of this possibility in the future brought about among property owners, who were the voters, a desire for a stronger central government.  In May of 1787 the Philadelphia Convention met.   Fifty-five delegates came representing twelve states.  They were conservative and moderately wealthy.  They wanted to create a strong government that would be able to protect their interests.

 In essence they believed in “life, liberty, and the protection of property.”  In order to do this they needed a government that was seemingly democratic without really being democratic.  They wrote, over the summer, a constitution that emphasized “life, liberty, and protection of property.

 This document was democratic in form, drawing its authority from the People in the country and establishing a government based upon direct representation in the House of Representatives where those elected would serve for a two-year period, a Senate that was elected by the legislatures of the individual states for a period of six years, and a President who was indirectly elected by the people for a period of four years.  The powers of the President were vague, while the powers of Congress were specifically enumerated.  The only individuals directly elected by the People were the members of The House of Representatives; everyone else was indirectly elected. 

 Some of the states had a Bill of Rights in their own Constitutions and they wanted one added to the National Constitution.  This was promised and shortly after ratification James Madison wrote twelve measures of which ten were passed by three quarters of the states.  These became the Bill of Rights.

 There was no mention of political parties in the document.  Nor had most of the founders envisioned them; but Alexander Hamilton initially created the Federalist Party and was its first head; and through it the electors from the twelve states choose George Washington as the first President of the United States.

.Before the first election could be held a census of the population had to be taken.  The number of Representatives in each state for the House of Representatives had to be determined by population.  Each state was then divided into representative districts.  From these there were elections for each member of the House and also elections for electors who would choose the President.  It was a known that George Washington would be the first President.  Each state, regardless of population, would have their legislature choose two Senators, who would represent the interests of the particular state.  The President, with advice and consent from the Senate, would choose the members of the Supreme Court.

 The voting franchise or who could vote was/is determined by both federal and state law.  The initial voters were male property owners, which limited the number of people who had the franchise.  From 1812 on the property qualification was done away with; all white males qualified for the franchise.  It should be stated that from this time on virtually anyone could get property since the government sold its land for almost nothing.  By 1828, with the election of Andrew Jackson, most white males in the United States had the vote.   The Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 gave the vote to all males.  The Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 specifically gave the vote to non-white males.  In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the vote.

 We have come a long way from the original intent of the founding fathers with our Constitution.  First, there are two basic interpretations of the reason for our government: (1) Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and (2) Life, Liberty and the Protection of Property.  The first position represents the Democratic Party and the second one denotes the Republican Party.  The struggle between the two has existed throughout the history of the nation.  Do we need one or some of both positions?

 The other purpose has to do with elections, particularly the election of the President of the United States.  Should he continue to be chosen by the Electoral College or should it be directly by the majority of votes by the people of the United States? 

 In 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment changed the Constitution by bringing about the direct election of Senators by the people of the country.  There had been numerous abuses in the State Legislations dealing with the election of Senators.  This Amendment corrected that by having the people vote directly for the Senators.

 The President of the United States is still elected by the Electoral College.  The people vote for electors and the electors vote for the President.  There have been two instances where the men elected received the majority of electoral votes but did not get the majority of the popular vote.

 One was in 1876 where Samuel J. Tilden received the majority of the popular vote but was defeated by Rutherford B. Hayes who got the majority of votes from the Electoral College; Tilden got 184 electoral votes while Hayes received 185.  The other instance was in 2000 where Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush gained the majority of the electoral votes; Gore had 50,999,857 popular votes and 271 electoral votes, Bush received 50,456,002 votes and 274 electoral votes.  In both cases the majority of the voters wills were thwarted.

 Would a reversal of these electoral decisions have made a significant difference?   Both of the winners were Republicans.  Hayes agreed to end Reconstruction if he was elected.  It’s from this time that “Jim Crow” began in the South.  It reached its peak in 1896 with the case of Plessey vs. Ferguson that established that “separate but equal was constitutional.”  This decision was not changed until 1954 in the case of Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education where the Supreme Court reversed itself and declared that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal.

 If Tilden had become President would it have made a difference?  The answer is yes.  The integration of the former slave population would have been different.  How much more positive that difference would have been is not known; but the probability is that it would have been better for the entire country.

 In 2000 if Al Gore had been able to assume the presidency it is highly unlikely that the U.S. would have gotten involved in two wars after the 9/11/2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City.  The Iraq Wa,r after “weapons of mass destruction” that did not exist, would never have happened; and thousands of Americans who died in that war would still be alive today.  Al Gore would never have had George W. Bush’s bellicose attitude and both economic and military conditions would be far less severe.  The National Debt would be considerably lower. 

 In the 2012 Presidential Election the Republican Party in a number of states, particularly those where they had a majority in state legislatures and governors, tried, with a measure of success, to limit democratic votes.  Isn’t it time for another Constitutional Amendment allowing the people to vote directly for the President of the United States?  Or do we have to wait for another massive mishap before we consider this proposition?  


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