by Bill McRae, Billings
Bill is a retired college professor who came back home to Montana. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and see more at his Facebook page, “An American Progressive.”
President of the United States. President. of. the. United. States. Not the “President of Southern States and Rust Belt States and Gerrymandered States and Swing States Swinging our Way.” The presidency should not be captive to regions, political classes, or ideologies, but the Electoral College makes it so. To appreciate how this came about, two documents bear close reading: The Federalist Papers 68, written by Alexander Hamilton; and Article II of the Constitution. You will recognize the relevance of the Constitution, but perhaps not the Federalist Papers. Composed in 1787 and 1788, their principle authors Hamilton and James Madison, the 85 articles in The Federalist Papers urged ratification of the US Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, which had loosely bound the states together following the War of Independence.
Hamilton’s lofty vision of what a President must be concerns itself more with what he must not be: “The office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.”
Mr Hamilton, meet president trump.
To assure that low intrigue and the little arts of popularity can be held in check the “sense of the people” must be taken into account, but carefully through the intermediary offices of men “most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite” to choosing the President.. These men of sound judgment, these Electors, will best be able to avoid political intrigue, narrow partisan interest, and uppermost in Hamilton’s mind, the desire of “foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”
Mr. Hamilton, meet mr. putin.
Through all of Hamilton’s stirring validation of the importance of the presidency and of sober men to elevate the best man to the office, he pays scant attention to the language of the document he urges upon the young nation. Here is how Hamilton says the electors shall be chosen: “the people of each State shall choose a number of persons as electors.” Here is Article II: “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors.” Hamilton’s patrician myopia narrows his vision. He knows that intrigue and the arts of popularity may “elevate a man to first honors in a single state,” yet somehow sober reflection is to prevail in state legislatures? In those years between the War of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution, there were no better places than in state legislatures to find the very political intrigue and narrow partisanship that Hamilton wanted to protect against. The people are not the legislatures.
And that difference is the root of our current electoral mess.
Hamilton envisions a body of electors none of whom would be bound to anything other than their own sober judgment. Perhaps Hamilton envisioned the electors would become our fledgling nation’s Council of Areopagus, the elders of Athens whose judgments in matters of law was beyond dispute. In Hamilton’s union you voted for an elector. Period. You did not vote for an elector for. No state now puts forth a body of electors as Hamilton envisioned them; you vote for electors for this or that candidate. These days electors are chosen by the political parties. They are precinct captains, state chairs, influential donors. Few are men, and now women, free of narrow interest and intrigue; they most embody all that Hamilton wanted to check against. Electors so rarely vote except as their parties dictate that their function now is largely ceremonial, not the deliberative exercise of sober judgment Hamilton so confidently assures us it will be. Anachronistic to its core, the Electoral College serves political expediency, not the wishes of the people.