July 25-26: Who Should Elect the President?

The Convention spent a considerable amount of time going around in circles regarding how to elect the President. For the most part, there was agreement that they ought not be chosen by the Legislature. So the question then became who was to choose presidents if not the legislature. Since this would be a national office, could the people as a nation choose them directly? It is often said that the Convention settled on the Electoral College partially because they wanted a filtering mechanism such that presidents would be chosen by those with more judgment and experience than the mass of the people. Steve Knott’s recent book, The Lost Soul of the American Presidency, makes this argument. It is striking, however, that this argument is barely even mentioned on these two days in which they’re debating the election of the President. Elbridge Gerry advances it rather strongly near the conclusion of the debate:

“A popular election in this case is radically vicious. The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men dispersed through the Union & acting in Concert to delude them into any appointment.”

But no one else echoes Gerry’s argument. Instead, Madison, Morris, and Dickinson all argue for what would seem to be a direct election by the people. John Dickinson said: “He had long leaned towards an election by the people which he regarded as the best & purest source.” Morris “considered an election by the people as the best, by the Legislature as the worst, mode.” Their concern about popular election centers much more on the danger of the big states dominating the small or, as Madison notes, of the northern states dominating the south.

Instead of arising from a concern about filtration, the Electoral College instead ought be understood much more in terms of the way it better represents the states than direct popular election would have. Jeremy Bailey shows this well in his recent book, The Idea of Presidential Representation: An Intellectual and Political History. I moderated an interesting exchange between Bailey and Knott on this and other questions of presidential representation.

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