Monday, November 14, 2016

Understanding History to Reduce Stress

Before every presidential election and sometimes afterwards, there is a lot of talk about the Electoral College.  Lately people have been suggesting that it be abolished.  They can’t understand why the American system works that way.

When I took American History in high school, it was pretty clear, and I think it’s still a required subject.  Students today, however, tend to apply the situations and values of today when judging historical decisions.  But it was a different time with different concerns.

Members of the Constitutional Convention did not think of themselves as citizens of the same “country” or as Americans, even in the abstract.  They were citizens of, and loyal to, their individual states with individual governments and interests.  If they were to form a republic by joining these states together, they must ensure that their state did not get a bad deal.  The group as a whole needed to compromise on a number of issues to bring everyone in.  (Few people at the time envisioned a powerful central government dictating sweeping policies and restrictions to all the states.)

Anyone who cared enough could easily look up on the history of the Electoral College on Wikipedia.  “In Federalist No. 39, [James] Madison argued the Constitution was designed to be a mixture of state-based and population-based government. Congress would have two houses: the state-based Senate and the population-based House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the president would be elected by a mixture of the two modes.”  That equal representation by state in the Senate protected the voice of the smaller states.

“Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 68 laid out the key advantages to the Electoral College. The electors come directly from the people and them alone for that purpose only, and for that time only. This avoided a party-run legislature, or a permanent body that could be influenced by foreign interests before each election.”  This overcame a disadvantage of one original proposal, which was favored by most, that the president be elected by a vote in Congress.

Of course, disputes also arose over the number of electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives, for each state.  This required another compromise, which is often misrepresented.  The southern states wanted each of their slaves counted as a full person when calculating population and their respective number of representatives.  It was the anti-slavery northerners, fearing again that their states would lose power and be under-represented, that pushed for the Three-Fifth Compromise.

“Delegates opposed to slavery proposed that only free inhabitants of each state be counted for apportionment purposes, while delegates supportive of slavery, on the other hand, opposed the proposal, wanting slaves to count in their actual numbers. The compromise that was finally agreed upon—of counting ‘all other persons’ as only three-fifths of their actual numbers—reduced the representation of the slave states relative to the original proposals, but improved it over the Northern position.”

Despite the compromise to three-fifths, the slave states still enjoyed an inordinate influence in Washington for the next 70 years.  Often interpreted as a racial attack by those who would devalue people, using three-fifths instead of zero actually reduced the relative influence of the anti-slave faction!

Neither of these compromises was about race or diluting the voice of the people.  They were about distribution of power.  The Constitution was not about building a democracy.  It was about building a republic, about getting 13 states to agree to a master plan that seemed fair to each, one that they could take back to their individual states satisfied that they would be better off banding together than trying to make it on their own, and that they would not be steamrolled by larger states or those with opposing interests.

A little research and a little critical thinking clear up these issues.  It’s a shame so many people allow themselves to be upset and outraged instead of investigating the facts.  But where’s the fun of that?

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