Welcome to my series of myths/facts about our unique presidential system! There are many common misconceptions about our Electoral College. One such myth has to do with trust: Did the Founders really distrust the people, as so many people claim?
Please don’t miss last week’s myth: Only swing states matter, other states are ignored.
Myth: The Founders created the Electoral College because they did not trust the people to pick the President.
Fact: The Founders knew that the voice of the people must be reflected in any government if it is to be legitimate. At the Constitutional Convention, George Mason, delegate from Virginia, expressed this sentiment when he declared that “the genius of the people must be consulted.”
There are two angles to consider when discussing this issue.
First, the Founders did distrust human nature, but this distrust has been misinterpreted.
The Founders were students of history—and realists about human nature. They knew that humans are fallible and that power corrupts. They also knew that ambition, selfishness, and greed are constant dangers. “All power in human hands is liable to be abused,” James Madison would later observe.
Unfortunately, the Founders' pragmatism about human nature has been twisted into a claim that they were simply elitists who didn’t trust the people. The allegation misunderstands the point: The Founders didn’t trust anyone. They might not have completely trusted the people, but they didn’t trust elected officials, either. Likewise, they didn't completely trust the states or the national government. When push came to shove, they didn't even trust themselves.
Think about that for a minute. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention sat and discussed checks and balances on elected offices they expected to inhabit. “These powerful men gathered in Independence Hall, the most likely candidates for the Senate and the presidency, continued to fear themselves,” historian Carol Berkin concludes.
Second, consider that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were faced with a very difficult task.
Remember: They'd just fought a Revolution because they had no representation in the British Parliament. They’d laid their lives on the line for important principles of democracy and self-governance. They weren't likely to give up on that so soon. But they also remembered something that we tend to forget: Even if the American colonies had been given representation in Parliament, as they'd wanted, it would not have been enough. Americans still would have been a minority, outvoted time and time again by the majority of citizens at home in England.
Americans still would have been tyrannized.
Thus. the question that faced the delegates to the Constitutional Convention was a difficult one: How could they preserve important principles of self-governance, even as they protect minority groups from the tyranny of the majority?
It's been said that simple democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner. The Founders had to figure out how to create a self-governing society that would never let the sheep end up on the dinner plate.
The Founders' solution was to blend the best elements of many forms of government into their new Constitution. Thus, American government contains some democratic elements (self-governance), but it also contains elements of republicanism (deliberation and compromise) and federalism (states are able to act on their own behalves). Other checks and balances give minorities tools with which to protect themselves from tyrannical majorities. For instance, we have presidential vetoes. We have supermajority requirements to amend the Constitution. We have a Senate (one state, one vote representation), as opposed to the House (one person, one vote representation). The Electoral College is simply another of these protective devices.
The delegates to the Convention felt that they had created a presidential election system that would allow reasonable majorities to rule, even as it protected political minorities from tyranny. It is for this reason that Madison declared, “He [the President] is now to be elected by the people.” Another delegate, Alexander Hamilton, agreed that the new election system would allow the “sense of the people” to “operate in the choice of the [President].”
“The Founders did not trust the people” makes a snazzy sound bite. But the history of the Constitution and its Electoral College shows a much more nuanced picture.
Please don’t miss my books about the Electoral College!