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The Federalist Papers: No. 68

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 68 is published. Alexander Hamilton (a.k.a. “Publius”) defends the Constitution’s unique presidential election process. The Electoral College was fairly uncontroversial during the ratification debates. What has changed since then?

I would argue that our *needs* have not changed. We still need a President that can represent and serve a great, diverse nation, and the Electoral College still serves us well in that regard. However, something else has changed: Schools no longer teach their students why the system was established. If we don’t know how and why it was created, then how can we understand the ways in which it is still serving us today?


“THE mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States,” Publius began, “is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents.” Even critics admit that the “election of the President is pretty well guarded.”


The presidential election system needed to serve a few goals: First, the “sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided.”


Yes! The Founders wanted to have a democratic aspect to the presidential election process. Please do not let anyone tell you otherwise.


The next part of Publius’s analysis is admittedly driven partly by the then-existing assumption that people could never know all the presidential candidates. Thus, he notes, as a benefit, that “electors will be selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass” and “will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.” Obviously, that is not true today. We can investigate the candidates ourselves.


Publius next worries about “tumult and disorder.” He thinks that the selection of an “intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes.”


When Publius wrote this, he may have been expecting electors to deliberate in a more independent fashion than they do today. His expectations may have been off, but his goal was still accomplished: Casting our ballots state-by-state, rather than in one national election pool, has disrupted the ability of certain extremist groups to influence our elections. It also makes it harder to steal elections, and it prevents one part of the country from ruling the other parts. (See www. ElectoralCollegeBook.com)


“Nothing was more to be desired,” Publius concludes, “than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption.” The Constitution’s election process does this, in part, by creating a temporary body responsible for selecting the President. It didn’t have to be this way, you know. Some countries let their Parliaments choose leaders. We did not give such a power to our Congress. Instead, as Publius explains, the Constitution has not “made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes.”


The Executive is independent—important if we are to have separation of powers and checks and balances in our government. He is dependent only on “the people themselves” for his “continuance in office.”


Publius praises the system that was established: “[T]he 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, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President . . . . ”


Some people will argue that Publius’s expectations don’t always work out in modern presidential elections. But keep in mind that Publius is always expecting the people to be educated and to be the first and fiercest defenders of their own freedom. His statement was true in that context.  However, when voters are uneducated or too easily swayed by candidates’ superficial sound bites . . . . well, keep in mind that ANY form of presidential election system could produce an unqualified candidate under such circumstances.

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