How can you tell which parts of the Constitution are the result of racism? That’s easy. Whatever provisions the left dislikes are stained by slavery. That they remain is due to white supremacy. This is the game Harvard University professor Alexander Keyssar recently played in the pages of the New York Times with the Electoral College.
On the design and adoption of the Electoral College, Keyssar writes that “slavery played a role” because of the Three-Fifths Compromise. As with others who attack this part of the Constitution on these grounds, he leaves out all the important facts.
The first proposal at the Constitutional Convention was a parliamentary system: Congress would elect the executive (or executives, as it was not yet settled to have just one). This was before any talk of how to count enslaved people, let alone the eventual compromise between southerners, who desired to count slaves the same as everyone else for more congressional apportionment and thus more political power, and northerners, who opposed counting slaves at all. In other words, the idea of putting this power in Congress had nothing to do with slavery.
This matters because the Electoral College grew from that proposal. When delegates raised concerns about congressional politics corrupting the executive, they began considering other options, including direct election. Delegates from small states, both northern and southern, however, opposed a popular vote since it could make their states irrelevant in presidential politics. This led to repeated talk about a multi-step representative process, which became the Electoral College.
It’s a Good Thing the Electoral College Survived
Keyssar’s main attack, however, is that the failure of “recurrent reform attempts since the early 19th century” is connected to white supremacy. His evidence begins with a single quote from an 1816 Senate debate on whether to draft a constitutional amendment to eliminate the Electoral College. The professor quotes a senator from Georgia to the effect that slave states benefit from counting three-fifths of their slaves in the census. Although unpleasant, this was a statement of fact.
In the very next sentence — which Keyssar leaves out — the senator says he nevertheless will vote for the measure “for the purposes of inquiry.” Altogether, 12 senators voted to pursue direct election: six from slave states and six from free states. On the other side, 21 senators voted in favor of preserving the Electoral College: 10 from slave states and 11 from free states (the senator’s comment and the vote are here in the congressional record).
Many of those free-state politicians surely lived to be thankful the Electoral College survived. “The early president most helped by the Constitution’s rejection of direct popular election,” according to Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz, “was John Quincy Adams, later an antislavery hero, who won the White House in 1824-25.” On the other hand, “slaveholder [Andrew] Jackson became one of American history’s most prominent critics of the Electoral College, which he blasted for disallowing the people ‘to express their own will.’”
Jackson is a particularly awkward figure for those who attack the Electoral College in favor of a more directly democratic system. Like Stephen A. Douglas a generation later, Jackson spoke in glowing terms of democracy. Both gave voice to the idea that if voters wanted slavery, such a democratic determination ought to settle the debate. In other words, they made plain what modern “democracy reformers” would prefer to ignore: the natural conflict between democracy and individual rights.
The American founders, and later Abraham Lincoln, recognized that democracy is a way to hold government accountable and to provide representation within legislatures. Democracy in this sense, however, is a process, not a purpose. The purpose of government, according to the Declaration of Independence, is “to secure [individual] rights.” The Constitution’s preamble sets forth six goals, including to “establish Justice” and to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Because Keyssar simply assumes the Electoral College is bad, he avoids any of these ticklish questions. Instead, he produces a few quotes from racist southern Democrats who opposed changing the election process. Missing is any reference to the 1876 and 1888 presidential elections when the Electoral College limited the effects of racist vote suppression.
Coalitions Helped Black Americans
The Harvard professor also ignores the interesting fact that the Democratic Party overwhelmingly nominated northerners for president and vice president for a century after the Civil War, odd for a party with such strength in the South. But the Electoral College is a constant prod to reach out and build a broader coalition.
This had the effect of moderating, although not eliminating, Democrats’ racist positions. Ultimately, winning voters in the North, including immigrants and Catholics, was more important than huge margins in southern states.
Perhaps this explains why John F. Kennedy was a staunch defender of the Electoral College, another fact you don’t learn from Keyssar. The future president, in a 1956 debate over a proposed “democratization” of the Electoral College, pointed out what was behind an argument that the Electoral College gave too much power to “pressure groups.”
In politics, “minority pressure groups” almost always refer to those on the other side of the issue. Some of the proponents of [the constitutional amendment] have been frank enough to admit they are talking about Negroes, Jews, Catholics, and labor unions. Congressman Gossett [a former House member from Texas], one of the original proponents of this measure, was convinced it would make unnecessary any political recognition of the ‘Negro, Jewish, and organized labor vote in New York City.’
Give the young senator from Massachusetts credit for calling out members of his own party. He was echoed two decades later by civil rights leader Vernon Jordan. In a 1979 Senate hearing, Jordan explained how the coalition-building required by the Electoral College benefitted black voters.
In the final analysis, blacks’ success in presidential politics is dependent upon their ability to leverage their minority votes and views into the will of the majority. Thus, the real issue is not only one of how many black voters are located in which states, but where blacks can reasonably expect to build coalitions with other minorities and whites to achieve true justice and equality.
Jordan went on to predict a proliferation of splinter parties under a direct election system, which “would not only weaken the political system but would be a polarizing factor destructive of racial harmony.” He acknowledged a “paradox … that democracy and democratic practice is better served under the indirect electoral college system than under the misleadingly democratic direct election system.”
The truth about debates over the Electoral College is that they have split through parties and across geographic regions. This leaves partisans such as Keyssar with ample opportunity to pick and choose evidence to suit themselves, just as it offers real historians many complex and interesting stories to tell.
One final irony is worth mentioning. While Keyssar’s claim that support for the Electoral College has been “connected to” white supremacy aligns with the New York Times’ current editorial position, that has not always been the case. In 1977, the Times editorialized that “the political habits, traditions, and expectations that have grown up around the Electoral College have served the nation well,” and counseled Congress to preserve it.