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.