The Corner

Politics & Policy

Correcting the Record on the Electoral College

In a recent book, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz repeated the argument that the electoral college was intended by the framers to empower the slave states of the south, and therefore to protect slavery itself. It’s an argument with a long history, and one that has been revived of late by the growing progressive critique of the electoral college.

But this claim just isn’t supported by the evidence of the framers’ intent or of the consequences of their design. And in an extraordinary show of intellectual honesty, Wilentz himself says as much today in the New York Times. He writes:

I used to favor amending the Electoral College, in part because I believed the framers put it into the Constitution to protect slavery. I said as much in a book I published in September. But I’ve decided I was wrong. That’s why a merciful God invented second editions.

He then proceeds to lay out the evidence and to conclude it was neither the goal nor the effect of the electoral college to protect slavery or empower the slave-owning states. The case about intent is ultimately pretty clear, as he shows. And on the question of effect, Wilentz notes:

The early president most helped by the Constitution’s rejection of direct popular election was John Quincy Adams, later an antislavery hero, who won the White House in 1824-25 despite losing both the popular and electoral votes to Andrew Jackson. (The House decided that election.) As president, the slaveholder Jackson became one of American history’s most prominent critics of the Electoral College, which he blasted for disallowing the people “to express their own will.” The Electoral College system made no difference in deciding the presidency during the 36 years before the Civil War.

In fact, though Wilentz doesn’t get into this, in the years immediately preceding the war, the electoral college had the opposite effect. As the historian Allen Guelzo noted in a great National Affairs essay last year:

Ultimately, the Electoral College contributed to ending slavery, since Abraham Lincoln, having earned only 39.9% of the popular vote in 1860, nevertheless won a crushing victory in the Electoral College — leading many Southern slaveholders to stampede to secession in 1860 and 1861. They could run the numbers as well as anyone, and realized that the Electoral College would only produce more anti-slavery Northern presidents.

This doesn’t in itself add up to an argument in favor of the electoral college, and Wilentz doesn’t make such an argument (though Guelzo does, and a very strong one). But it’s important to correct the record, and it’s great to see an academic historian live up to the stated standards of his profession and own up to a mistaken analysis. I’m sure we all could stand to learn from his example of humility and rectitude.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

Most Popular

Media

Martha McSally’s Blasphemy

As I note in my New York Post piece today, I don’t believe that Martha McSally, who is serving her first term in the Senate after being appointed to take John McCain’s seat, is going to be helped much by accusing CNN’s Manu Raju of being a “hack.” Attacking the press might be an effective way to excite ... Read More
Media

Martha McSally’s Blasphemy

As I note in my New York Post piece today, I don’t believe that Martha McSally, who is serving her first term in the Senate after being appointed to take John McCain’s seat, is going to be helped much by accusing CNN’s Manu Raju of being a “hack.” Attacking the press might be an effective way to excite ... Read More

People Make New Orleans

I had my first taste of southern hospitality the day I moved to New York. A young woman from New Orleans, whom I had met only briefly over Skype (she had advertised a room in the Bronx, though I preferred a room in Manhattan), had asked if anyone would be picking me up from the airport. No, I told her. I didn’t ... Read More

People Make New Orleans

I had my first taste of southern hospitality the day I moved to New York. A young woman from New Orleans, whom I had met only briefly over Skype (she had advertised a room in the Bronx, though I preferred a room in Manhattan), had asked if anyone would be picking me up from the airport. No, I told her. I didn’t ... Read More
Elections

Lying Liz

Ever since she began explaining how her Medicare for all plan would be funded, and how she would pass it, Elizabeth Warren has been sinking. Ahead of last week’s debate, her camp leaked a story that her friend Bernie Sanders met with her in 2018 to discuss plans for 2020, and that at this meeting, Sanders had ... Read More
Elections

Lying Liz

Ever since she began explaining how her Medicare for all plan would be funded, and how she would pass it, Elizabeth Warren has been sinking. Ahead of last week’s debate, her camp leaked a story that her friend Bernie Sanders met with her in 2018 to discuss plans for 2020, and that at this meeting, Sanders had ... Read More
Health Care

‘Reconsidering Fetal Pain’

Two researchers with “divergent views regarding the morality of abortion” have published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics concluding that unborn human beings likely are able to feel pain at an earlier point than previous research has suggested. The authors state that they “came together to write ... Read More
Health Care

‘Reconsidering Fetal Pain’

Two researchers with “divergent views regarding the morality of abortion” have published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics concluding that unborn human beings likely are able to feel pain at an earlier point than previous research has suggested. The authors state that they “came together to write ... Read More