Thursday, February 19, 2009

History of the Electoral College, Part 1: 1788-1800

Ever wonder exactly how it came to be that a President assumed office? The oft-implied method is that the man who receives the most votes becomes leader of the free world. However, this is partially inaccurate. In a very real way, your vote does not actually matter in a Presidential election.

The reason being that in this country we have a system known as the Electoral College. Every state receives a number of electors based on population. Every few years this number is redistributed to ensure the states with the highest population retain the most representation. Now, these electors are real people. They are, once given their position, completely entitled to vote for the person of their choice. While it is true that if they vote against the wishes of the voters in their state, they can be fined or even removed from their position and replaced. It is not unheard of, however, for an elector to do so anyway.

So, in this series, we shall take a look, one installment at a time, at exactly what was happening at the time of each Presidential election, and how the electors voted our leaders into office. I will offer no commentary or personal thought, only list the candidates, by what margin they won, and who their opponents were. And in those historical quirks where the electors don't quite all line up, perhaps provide some insight as to why they voted the way they did.

In this first installment, we will examine the first stage of the Electoral College, from its inception through 1800. During this phase, electors each cast two votes, and the person with the most votes at the end became President.


Winner: George Washington
Electoral Votes: 69 out of 138

Runners Up:
John Adams - 34
John Jay - 9
Robert Harrison - 6
John Rutledge - 6
John Hancock - 4
George Clinton - 3
Samuel Huntington - 2
James Armstrong - 1
Edward Telfair - 1
Benjamin Lincoln - 1

Our first Presidential election was won unanimously by General George Washington, the Father of our nation. Washington, for his part, neither sought nor coveted the office, and did no campaigning of his own. As the 12 amendment regarding elections had yet to be ratified, John Adams, as the runner-up, became Vice President. As Washington carried the majority of electors in every state, he is considered to have won unanimously.

There's little to no mystery surrounding this one. George Washington was the most recognizable figure of the time. Not only did the American people want him to be leader, but practically everyone in Congress did as well. Who were the others on the ticket, and why did people vote for them?

John Adams, of course, was the controversial statesman from Massachusetts and one of the most influential of the Founding Fathers. This would be far from his last appearance on the national stage.

Samuel Huntington, many are unaware, had already served one year as President of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, and also President of the Continental Congress.

John Jay served as President of the Continental Congress and co-authored the Federalist Papers. During the Revolution, he was the ambassador to Spain and France. Following the election, he became the country's first Chief Justice.

John Hancock, besides having excellent penmanship, was the first governor of Massachusetts and one of the wealthiest men in the country. He also served as President of the Second Continental Congress.

Robert Harrison was Washington's military secretary during the war, as well as a prominent Maryland judge.

John Rutledge was another judge. Under a constitution drafted in 1776, he was also the former President of South Carolina, and later governor.

George Clinton was a prominent soldier in George Washington's army, and vocal opponent of the U.S. Constitution until the Bill of Rights was added. He was also the first governor of New York.

Benjamin Lincoln was a Continental Army officer, holding the rank of Major General. It was Lincoln who formally oversaw the British surrender at Yorktown. From 1781 to 1783 he served as the first Secretary of War, a post later renamed Secretary of Defense. He also helped end Shay's Rebellion.

Edward Telfair was a member of the Continental Congress from 1778-1782 and worked to treat with the Cherokee nation. He was also governor of Georgia, and was the recipient of one electoral vote from that state.

James Armstrong was a major in Washington's army and member of the Georgia state assembly.

During this election, New York's electoral votes were not cast. Also, two votes from Maryland and two votes from Virginia were left out as well.


Winner: George Washington
Electoral Votes: 132 out of 264

Runners Up:
John Adams - 77
George Clinton - 50
Thomas Jefferson - 4
Aaron Burr - 1

Like the first election, George Washington was hands down the winner. In a contest with 5 contestants he won 100% of the electoral college. Washington's incredible popularity as a leader granted him another unanimous win - keep in mind electors were all allowed to vote twice. As the runner-up, John Adams remained Vice President, despite the fact that he had run against Washington twice now.

This was the first election to feature Political parties. Washington had become President in part out of the hope of preventing the rise of political parties, but was unable to do so. Alexander Hamilton now presided over the Federalists, who would be the foundation for the modern-day Democratic party. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson headed up the Democratic-Republicans, who favored smaller government and states rights.

John Adams was now a one-term Vice President of the United States, and received a good number of electoral votes. As the Federalists grew in influence, his support also increased, leading to his victory in the election of 1796.

Aaron Burr had just won a seat on the New York Senate from Philip Schulyer, and had previously served as both a New York state assemblyman and the New York Attorney General.

George Clinton was the Republican choice for Vice President - no one on the ticket was actually supposed to beat George Washington - as the party considered John Adams approach to the office "monarchial." Following the election he continued on as governor of New York until 1795.

Thomas Jefferson was, of course, another founding father. He drafted the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and at this time was head of the Democratic Republicans. He had previously served as governor of Virginia.

Notable in this election is that electors in Virginia were not allowed to vote for both Washington and Jefferson, as both were from Virginia. After his second term, George Washington refused a third, opening the way for the two-party system that has been in place ever since.


Winner: John Adams
Electoral Votes: 71 out of 276

Runners Up:
Thomas Jefferson - 68
Thomas Pinckney - 59
Aaron Burr - 30
Samuel Adams - 15
Oliver Ellsworth - 11
George Clinton - 7
John Jay - 5
James Iredell - 3
George Washington - 2
John Henry - 2
Samuel Johnston - 2
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney - 1

John Adams was never a very popular politician. His strength was the respect he commanded as an orator, legislator, and as one of the Founding Fathers. He was a man who thrived very much on the opinion of his work rather than his character. In the election of 1796, the first honestly contested election, Adams Federalist party campaigned heavily for their man, and he managed a narrow victory over opponent Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson was greatly respected and well-liked in political circles and as a candidate. The Federalists had presented a ticket fronting Adams as President and the next-most popular Federalist, Thomas Pinckney, as Vice President. However, the Federalists own plans to ensure Adams received more electoral votes than Pinckney backfired, resulting in Jefferson becoming second-in-command.

Thomas Pinckney was the governor of South Carolina when the Constitution was ratified there, and the year before the election had drawn up a treaty with Spain. He was a popular figure at home due to his foreign affairs experience, and his military service during the Revolutionary War.

Aaron Burr was at this time the Senator of New York. He did not do well in this election, but would return to become a part of history in 1800.

Samuel Adams was the cousin of John Adams and one of the primary moving forces behind the Revolutionary War. He organized colonists against British forces and helped unite like-minded patriots in repulsing the Intolerable Acts. He was also a key figure behind the Boston Tea Party. He had served as a Senator of Massachusetts, and also lieutenant-governor and governor of that state. His family brewery is still in business today. I'm serious, that's really his brewery.

George Clinton's political career was strained at this point, and he held no public office as he had not run for re-election in 1795.

Oliver Ellsworth was a prominent revolutionary and lawyer. He had also been one of the primary drafters of the original Constitution, and was the man who suggested the name "United States" be used in perpetuity. During the election he was Senator of Connecticut, and eventually Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was noteworthy for favoring private bargaining over public debate, and never established himself as a powerful orator.

James Iredell was a Supreme Court Justice, and leader of the Federalists in North Carolina.

John Jay was at this time the governor of New York, and a leading voice in the fight against slavery.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was the cousin of Thomas Pinckney, and a prominent legislator in South Carolina. He had served as both a state legislator and as a member of the Senate. Pinckney had also been a brigadier general during the Revolutionary War.

Samuel Johnston had been elected President of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation in 1781, but declined the position. Prior to this election he served as both governor of North Carolina from 1787-1789, and also Senator of that state until 1793.

John Henry was one of the first two Senators of Maryland. Following the election he would resign from the Senate to become governor of that state.

This election was the first to feature heavy campaigning on both sides of the poltical fence. The Federalists accused the Democratic Republicans of being involved with the violent Revolutions occuring in France. In turn, the Republicans equated the Federalists to aristocrats and monarchists. This venomous back-and-forth would set the tone for future elections to this day. Also, there is no mistake on the list - George Washington received two electoral votes despite the fact that he was not running, and his name did not appear on any ticket. Remember, electors are allowed to vote for whomever they choose.


Winner: Thomas Jefferson
Electoral Votes: 73 out of 276

Runners up:
Aaron Burr - 73
John Adams - 65
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney - 64
John Jay - 1

A hotly contested election, 1800 saw the first tie in the history of the Presidential election. Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson received the same number of electoral votes, despite it being generally understood that Burr was the Vice Presidential candidate. As a result, the decision of who would be President went to the largely Federalist House of Representatives. Jefferson failed to win a majority vote as only a lone Federalist voice - that of Alexander Hamilton - spoke out in his favor. Finally, on the 36th ballot, it was decided Jefferson would become President and Burr would serve as Vice President. John Adams became the first President not to gain re-election.
We have gone over all of the candidates in this election already, so we are free to concentrate on the election itself. Jefferson was by far the more popular statesman and politician than John Adams, and had just concluded a term as Vice President. The House of Representatives was controlled largely by Federalists who were at the time lame ducks, concluding terms in office and members of a party that would soon be defunct. As such, they had no qualms about hotly contesting the election of Thomas Jefferson, their prime political nemesis.

The election itself took an even worse turn than that of 1796. The slander and personal attacks grew even more vitriolic, with Federalists spreading rumors that Democratic Republicans murdered their enemies, burned down churches, and, based on their preference for France over Britain, would destroy the country if elected (France was, keep in mind, in the midst of a bloody Revolution of its own). Democratic Republicans attacked the passing of the Alien and Sedition Act under Adams as un-American, and viewed their support of Great Britain as evidence that they supported monarchy and anti-republican values.

The key factor in this election was the influence of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton had hoped the presidency of John Adams would be even greater than that of Washington. However, upon his realization that Adams was far more independant a leader than he had thought, Hamilton now threw the weight of the party behind Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. The split in focus between Hamiltonian Federalists supporting Pinckney and those who remained loyal to Adams opened the way for Democratic Republicans to get Jefferson elected. It was Hamilton himself who stood up in the House and declared he would rather seat Jefferson, a man of opposite principle, than Burr, a man with none.

The words of the Secretary of the Treasury came back to haunt him in 1804 ,when Aaron Burr fatally wounded him during a duel. His death led to the eventual collapse of the entire Federalist party.


Scotty said...

I am saddened to learn that George Clinton was a vocal opponent of the Constitution.

Jason Heat said...

Just imagine how much cooler politics would be if we still had duels.

Stephen said...

This was a great article, though I was hoping to hear more about who was in the Electoral College and what it was like for them.