Wayne O'Leary

Hamilton’s Curse

During the latter stages of the presidential campaign, Donald Trump rarely tired of saying the election system was “rigged,” especially when he appeared likely to lose and was in need of a ready-made excuse. Trump was right, of course, but not in the way he claimed to believe; the system was indeed rigged, but it was rigged in his favor.

Despite losing to Hillary Clinton by nearly 2.9 million popular votes (or roughly 48 to 46 percent), a shortfall he credits exclusively to massive voter fraud, the Donald managed to slip into the White House on the strength of a very modest win (306 to 232) in the Electoral College. Combined victories in a collection of predominantly rural and sparsely populated states in the South and West provided the margin. This, the shameless president-elect insists, constitutes a landslide of Rooseveltian proportions, although a shift of fewer than 100,000 votes from a handful of normally Democratic states in the Rust Belt would have reversed the decision.

But no matter. The system worked for Donald Trump as it was designed to work and as it’s worked on several past occasions. That reality illuminates the fundamental structural flaw that continues to plague American democracy in the 21st century. A conservative bias, reflecting the attitudes of many, perhaps a majority, of the Founding Fathers — Jefferson and Franklin were the great exceptions — is built into our process for electing presidents.

Most Americans operate under the delusion that they live in a pure democracy and directly choose their national leader; they don’t. The US is a republic, a system in which the populace rules, but only indirectly and often at several removes.

A number of anti-democratic procedures, aimed at keeping “the people,” at arm’s length, were deliberately written into the Constitution by the Founders, who (as historian Charles A. Beard established many years ago) tended to be men of wealth and property concerned with protecting their economic interests. Of these impediments, the institution of the Electoral College, under which states rather than individual voters elect the president, has proven the worst, especially in terms of longevity. (The equally undemocratic feature of state legislatures, not voters, electing US senators was removed in 1913 by the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.)

America’s original sin, slavery, was part of the reason for creating this 18th century relic, which magnified the elective power of the slave states by allowing them to count three-fifths of their non-voting slave populations in the apportionment of presidential electors; it therefore served as an inducement for them to approve the Constitution. But a more critical factor was undoubtedly the Founding Father primarily responsible for the concept of the Electoral College. That would be Alexander Hamilton, the arch-conservative immigrant hero presently enjoying a posthumous revival on Broadway and being retrospectively lionized by present-day Americans unfamiliar with their history.

Essentially, Hamilton, the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury, was an unreconstructed monarchist antagonistic toward democratic government. Here he was at the Philadelphia convention called in 1787 to write a new federal constitution: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the others the mass of the people … The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second ... Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy.”

On that basis, Hamilton favored a lifetime executive and senate, each chosen not by voters, but by “electors” picked from among the leaders of society by the voters — a kind of indirectly elected King and House of Lords. Only a lower legislative house was to be selected by direct popular vote (triennially), as a sop to public opinion.

Thankfully, Hamilton’s reactionary design for the federal government failed to be approved, but his backup plan for choosing a president (once regular elections had been decided upon by the convention) did prevail and was inserted into Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution. What became known as the Electoral College was, as Hamilton described it in The Federalist, No. 68, a way of including “the sense of the people” in electing the president without having them actually make the decision directly.

To accomplish this end, he devised a complicated scheme whereby the chief executive would be chosen by a special class of electors (today’s appointees to the Electoral College) picked by other electors (state governors or members of legislatures), who had themselves been previously elected by the voters — those few then having the franchise. The mass of the people would be thereby twice removed from the decision.

Hamilton’s preeminent academic biographer, John C. Miller, explained the rationale this way: “Distrusting as he did the voice of the people, Hamilton had no desire to hear its strident tones in election for the President. The further the final vote could be removed from the people, the more probable, he thought, that a man of wisdom and integrity would be elected to office.”

Eventually, in the 19th century, the middleman in Hamilton’s three-step presidential-selection system was eliminated. Legislative designation of electors was gradually replaced by winner-take-all, at-large popular voting for committed Electoral College slates. But the people still did not directly vote for president, and the undemocratic nature of the system, combined with its favoring of lightly populated rural states (a function of allocating electors according to combined senatorial and congressional seats) remained and institutionalized the built-in conservative bias.

Today, states with little population, which usually vote Republican, still get three electoral votes (based on their one representative and two senators) and are grossly overrepresented in the process. The fact that our choice of president is based on geography and not on one-person, one-vote has resulted five times in someone who lost the popular tally being nevertheless installed by the Electoral College.

More than that, the winner in each instance was the less liberal candidate: Adams over Jackson in 1824, Hayes over Tilden in 1876, Harrison over Cleveland in 1888, Bush over Gore in 2000, and, most recently, Trump over Clinton in 2016. Somewhere, Alexander Hamilton, founder of America’s first conservative party (the Federalists) and father of the Electoral College, is smiling.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2017


Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2017 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652