Madison and Me: Hamilton Got It Wrong…Sort Of

In Federalist Number 68, Alexander Hamilton makes the case for the mode of election of the president — the Electoral College, as we know it. Without going into great detail (you can read it for yourself here: http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa68.htm — it’s a pretty short read), it makes the case for the College as a non-partisan means of election.

Electors were to be chosen in each state, and no provision was made or encouraged that any elector should be in favor of one candidate over another ahead of time. The assumption was that a body of wise men (of course, all men at the time) would debate and make a wise, informed choice for the chief executive. Electors were to be independent, not subject to or part of any elected legislative body, thus preserving the independence of the president, once elected. It was a very high-minded and idealistic idea for the election of the president, and one that had many merits. One merit was that the electors would also be independent of the national mood, since communication between the states was fairly slow. The idea was that each state would make its own judgment without competing (or corrupting) influences from other states.

Of course, two centuries hence, communication is nearly instantaneous, electors are by all means partisan and the national mood is felt across all state lines. These are things Hamilton, Madison and Jay couldn’t have imagined when the Constitution was being written and “marketed” by the Federalist Papers, but happily, many, if not most, modern inventions and conditions can still be covered by the Constitution. Freedom of the press certainly covers more than just printing presses, for example. And whether the Electoral College is still the best method for electing the president, versus a direct, popular election, well, that’s a fair debate.

So, why did I title this entry “Hamilton Got It Wrong”? It was not about the Electoral College or the method for selecting the president. It was later in Federalist 68, when he wrote:

“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that 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, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.”

Read that again. Hamilton was convinced that this electoral system would prevent people who are simply popular and masters of intrigue to ever elevate themselves to the presidency. The wise, independent electors would never allow that to happen. Our presidents would be nearly guaranteed to be “…characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” I admire the writers of our amazing Constitution for their wisdom and foresight. But sadly, they seemed to have misjudged certain parts of human nature, especially the popularity of, well, popularity.

Discussion questions:

1. Was the Electoral College a good idea in the first place, given Hamilton’s arguments? (Read the whole Federalist 68 prior to answering.)

2. Was Hamilton right that there is a “moral certainty” that “… that 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.”?

3. If the office of the president is not held by “…characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue”, whose fault is it — the the Electoral College or the electorate in general?

Discuss amongst yourselves…