Amongst the memories of civics classes that wander dimly through my brain these days, there is the year we were expecting Puerto Rico to become the 51st state. We all had to draw flags that squeezed one extra star into that field of blue. It’s hard to draw a few stars nicely, let alone 51 of them. And it’s even harder to color in around them with a blunt crayon. My edges were not crisp.
There is the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which I think I only remember because of the reaction I got when I exclaimed in horror to some grownup of my acquaintance, “You don’t remember the Glorious Revolution of 1688??!” It does have rather a catchy name, though, so I might have remembered it anyway. It was Glorious because it was bloodless.
And, of course, who can forget the impassioned essays we all wrote about the Electoral College? How elitist! we grumbled. How dumb! How UNFAIR! Let the people decide by simple majority!
I remember somehow avoiding having to read the Federalist Papers.
Thus, when I found Number 68 of said Papers on the Internet last week, I was reading it for the first time. It’s dry writing and a dry subject, but in this horror of a post-election, distraught over the future of the republic, I heard the words of Alexander Hamilton speaking to me from a not-so-distant past brimming with confidence and excitement. I recognized his passion for a well-designed system and wondered if, today, he might have been a software engineer. I heard his worries for the safety of the nation and realized that human nature has not changed in 227 years. I saw his trust in the protections of time and distance and realized that everything else has changed.
You can read the original words at Yale's Avalon Project. Or you can read my own modernized version below, because I always love a translation job.
Federalist Papers Number 68, expressed in modern language
original believed to be by Alexander Hamilton
To the People of the State of New York:
Of all the elements of the new Constitution, the system for selecting the President is just about the only one that no one has criticized. In fact, the strongest opponent of the new Constitution has even admitted that the election of the President is pretty well guarded. I would go so far as to say that the system is excellent, possibly even perfect. It impressively combines all the most wished-for advantages, as I will now explain.
It was important to us that the people should have a voice in the selection of the person who would be given so much trust. For this reason, we gave the choice of President not to any preexisting body (such as the Congress), but instead to a temporary body chosen by the people for only this one purpose.
We felt it was equally important that the actual selection of the President should be made by people most capable of considering the character traits needed in the office. We wanted those people to make the choice under circumstances that would encourage deliberation and keep them free from improper influence. We decided that a small number of representatives, selected by their fellow citizens, would be most likely to have the knowledge and wisdom to investigate such a complicated matter.
It was also extremely important to avoid tumult and disorder, which was obviously a risk when choosing someone to hold such an important office as President of the United States. Happily, we came up with a system that will almost certainly prevent such troubles. Firstly, choosing a group of electors for the Electoral College will be much less likely to rile people up than directly choosing the actual President would. Secondly, since the electors will be chosen by each state and will meet and vote only with the other electors from their state, they are more likely to stay calm themselves than if they were all to come together in one place to make the decision. Which is good, because we all know if they start fighting, disorder could easily spread to the general public.
Above all, we had to guard against cabal, intrigue, and corruption, which are deadly to our republican form of government. We expect these threats to come from many directions, but we were most especially concerned about foreign powers wanting to gain influence in our government. Could a foreign power do any better than to put their own puppet in the Presidency? So we have carefully designed the Electoral College to avoid this danger. For one thing, the Electoral College is selected by the people immediately before the choice of President is made and the College exists for that purpose only. A temporary body like this will be much harder to unfairly influence than a permanent body like Congress. We’ve also tried to exclude anyone who might be or appear to be too close to the sitting President. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States can be an elector. So, as long as the general public isn’t corrupted, the people making the actual choice of President should begin the process free from sinister bias. And the key features of the Electoral College which I have already explained — that it is only a temporary body and that each state’s electors meet separately — offer the best assurance that the electors will remain uncorrupted throughout the process. It will be nearly impossible for anyone to bribe, mislead, or otherwise unfairly influence so many people spread out across so much distance. To attempt it would require too much money and far too much time.
Finally, the key features of the system are also intended to ensure that the President depends only on the people for his/her continuance in office. Because each election is in the hands of a special body of the people’s deputies, their identities unknowable beforehand, the President will not be tempted to sacrifice his/her duty to the nation during his/her term by favoring a few individuals who would next keep him/her in office or turn her/him out.
All these advantages which I have laid out are happily combined in the plan devised by the Constitutional Convention. Specifically, the people of each state shall choose electors, their number equal to the number of senators and representatives of that state in the national government. Those electors will meet somewhere within their state and vote for some fit person as President. Their votes will be sent to the seat of the national government and the person who happens to have a majority of the votes will become President. Of course, it might happen that no one person will receive a majority of the votes. Since it might be unsafe to allow the President to be selected by less than a majority, in that case the House of Representatives will select (from the five leading candidates) the one that they believe is best qualified for the office.
This electoral process gives a moral certainty that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any one who is not clearly well qualified. It is easy to imagine that talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity might win a single state for an unfit candidate, but it will require other talents and a different kind of merit to gain the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or a majority of it. I am confident there will always be a strong probability of seeing the Presidency filled by characters outstanding in ability and virtue. This system will be seen as one of the strongest arguments for the Constitution by all who understand the importance of the executive role in any government’s success or failure. Rather than agree with the simplistic poet who says: “For forms of government let fools contest That which is best administered is best,” we say instead that the true test of a good government is its ability and tendency to produce a good administration.
The Vice-President is chosen in the same way as the President except that if the Electoral College does not reach a majority, the Senate will choose the Vice President rather than the House.
Some have complained that appointing an extraordinary person as Vice-President is unnecessary, or even likely to cause trouble. They say that it would be better for the Senate to choose one of their own members to serve that role. In response, I offer two reasons to justify the ideas of the convention in this respect: First, it is necessary for the President of the Senate to have only a tie-breaking vote, so that a clear decision can always be achieved. Choosing a senator to serve this role would exchange the constant vote of that senator’s state into a contingent one. Second, since the Vice-President may have to act as the President of the United States, it is obvious that all the arguments for the special selection of the President laid out above should also apply to appointing the Vice-President. I would also point out that objecting to this method of choosing the Vice-President goes against the way even our state is governed. After all, we have a Lieutenant-Governor, chosen by the people at large, who presides in the Senate, and is also the next in line to the Governor, just as the Vice-President is for the President.