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Most American historians oversimplify the origins of the College when they write that the constitutional draftsmen of 1787 did not trust the people to choose a President directly. In part, the Electoral College plan did emerge as a compromise between the patrician view of government and the belief, shared by James Madison and Gouverneur Morris, that Americans should elect their President directly. Also important, however, was a seamier accommodation with slavery. The Southern states had already forced a provision into the Constitution that permitted three-fifths of their slaves to be tallied in determining their seats in the House of Representativeseven though the slaves could not vote. Direct presidential election would have undercut that advantage. The Electoral College allowed the South to swing the numerical weight of its slaves without granting them suffrage. "In politics," writes Constitutional Historian John Roche, "there are no immaculate conceptions. The Electoral College was merely a jerry-rigged improvisation which has subsequently been endowed with a high theoretical content. It had little in its favor as an institutionas the delegates well appreciated."
Even while George Washington held office the new American nation was moving toward a two-party system. Though the Founding Fathers had intended the electors to choose the two best men in the land to be President and Vice President, the nominating function was quickly grabbed by the parties. In 1796, when one Federalist elector in Pennsylvania voted for the opposition, an exasperated colleague uttered the now classic definition of the elector's job: "What, do I chuse Samuel Miles to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson shall be President? No! I chuse him to act, not think." With electors emasculated, party leaders in a few states pushed through the winner-take-all method of awarding a state's total electoral vote to the popular-vote champion.
Almost from the outset, the collegiate arrangement proved troublesome. In the election of 1800, Democrat-Republican Thomas Jefferson drew the same number of electoral votes (73) as his vice-presidential running mate, Aaron Burr. The divided House took 36 ballots to resolve the deadlock and place Jefferson in office. The 12th Amendment, requiring separate electoral votes for the offices of President and Vice President, was adopted four years later. The system has not changed since.
More trouble developed in 1824. With the Federalist Party all but dead, the presidential vote split among four Democrats. Kentucky's Henry Clay and Georgia's William H. Crawford each won 13% of the popular vote, and their electoral votes were enough to deny a majority to Andrew Jackson, the popular winner with 152,933 votes (42.2%). In the House, Clay threw his support to the runner-up, John Quincy Adams, who had collected 31.9% of the popular vote. Clay's action made Adams President, and by no small coincidence, Clay became Secretary of State. Though Jackson later won two terms in the White House, his demands for direct election by the people were ignored.