The Constitution, Electors and Presidential Elections

Today is Inauguration Day and regardless of your political leanings, the election of 2016 had many people talking about the Constitution, how we elect a President and the history of our elections. A search through our collection reveals a few interesting tidbits about presidential elections—namely, the Electoral College was included due to the work of a local attendee to the Constitutional Convention and the 2016 election probably does not even come close to the drama of the election of 1800.

David Brearley and The Making of the United States Constitution by Donald Scarinci
The main Constitutional debate in 2016 was about the Electoral College and why we even have it. Historically, the point behind using Electors and not the popular vote is rooted in the population numbers of certain states in the early years of the country. Certain states had populations that far outpaced most of the others in the young nation. In order to make the system fairer to the less populous states, electors were assigned to skew the results toward a more balanced representation. Not surprisingly, the debate over the existence of the Electoral College dates to the Constitutional Convention, which is where one of the local signers comes into play. America can pin the Electoral College on the shoulders of David Brearley, a Lawrence resident who chaired the convention’s Committee on Unfinished Parts. Also known as the Brearley Committee, the group was tasked with reviewing and making suggestions on the final wording of the “loose ends” or areas of the Constitution that were debated but the delegates ended the discussion in a stalemate. The committee’s recommendation on executive branch election was ultimately voted on and accepted, which gave us the Electoral College. To date, there has been one biography written about Brearley, David Brearley and The Making of the United States Constitution by Donald Scarinci, which can be found in the library’s collection.

The first true Presidential campaign was waged in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were the frontrunners in a four candidate race. In what may seem an odd fact in light of modern politics, both were the incumbents in the race, as Adams was the sitting president and Jefferson was his vice president. At the time, candidates ran in an open election, not along party lines, so it was not unexpected to have a vice president challenge a sitting president. Nor was it odd to have the two top office holders in the land be from different parties, as each party nominated two candidates for president with the second place vote-getter elected as vice president. In 1800, the two largest parties were the Federalist (Adams) and Republican (not today’s Republicans of Lincoln, but the Jefferson variety). This particular election was the first to be divisive along party lines, as these two parties rallied behind their favored candidates and fought what was generally considered a bitter campaign that centered on one main issue, the French Revolution. Essentially, the Federalists supported British intervention in that war, while the Republicans wanted to stay out of it and sided with allowing the French to solve their own problems. A complex array of issues connected to the clash in Europe, ranging from immigration to control over the Army, factored into the campaign. Jefferson ended up the winner, with Aaron Burr elected as vice president, on the 36th vote in the House of Representatives. That is not a typo, it took 36 ballots between December 1800 and February 1801 to select a winner.
The Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign by Edward Larson

If you are interested in reading more about this fascinating election, MCLS has a few books in our collection that cover the topic. The most comprehensive is perhaps The Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign by Edward Larson. Larson tells a story that reads like a novel, yet covers enough of the details that you get a very good understanding of the political climate and issues of the day. If you prefer something a bit shorter, Smithsonian Magazine published an article in 2004 on the 1800 election.

—Laura N.


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