Story of Our Constitution - E. M. Tappan

Electing the President

There is an old story which says that two knights once rode up to a trophy shield from opposite directions. One spoke of it as made of gold; the other declared that it was of silver. They quarreled, then they fought. A third knight stopped the warfare by showing them that the shield was gold on one side and silver on the other.

So with the interpretation of the Constitution. From the very beginning of discussing plans for a union, there had existed two ways of looking at the subject, and gradually two political parties had been formed, one inclined to interpret all cases in such a way as to strengthen the general Government, the other on guard lest the rights of the individual States should not be respected. It began to be a matter of interest to every man not only to have the chief officers of Government men well prepared for their positions, but to have men who were of his own way of thinking on this subject.

At the time of the constitutional convention there were no political parties, and the makers of the Constitution, clear-sighted as they were, had not foreseen what an effect the formation of such parties would have upon the Federal elections. They had planned that when a President was to be elected, each State was to appoint, by whatever method its people might think best, its 'proper number of electors. These were expected to be as a matter of course some of the most eminent men of their State. They were to meet together, and after free discussion, were to select candidates for the presidency.

Each delegate was then to vote for two persons. The person winning the greatest number of votes, provided this was a majority, should become President; the one winning the next largest number should become Vice-President. In the minds of the worthy members of the convention, there seems not to have been the slightest doubt that this would result in electing the men best qualified for the two offices.

As long as Washington was a candidate, the elections moved smoothly, for no one would vote against him. But in 1796, after he had refused a third term, the two political parties had come into being. In this election, John Adams was chosen President, and Thomas Jefferson, Vice-President. These two men belonged to different parties. Therefore if Adams should die in office, then for the rest of his term the head of the Government would be a man of the opposite party, that is, the head of the Government would represent not a majority, but a minority of the citizens. Evidently, there was need of reform, and the Twelfth Amendment was passed and ratified.

This remains in force, but, because the country has become so large, the way of carrying out the Amendment has changed; for instance, since, if a political party hopes to succeed, its members must vote for the same candidate, the present custom of nominating him at a great party convention has arisen.

This nomination begins with the "primaries," that is, meetings of the voters in a city ward or a country town or a precinct. Delegates chosen at the primaries are sent to the county or district convention to work for the nomination of some particular candidate for the presidency. From these conventions or districts, delegates are now sent to the State convention. At the State convention delegates are chosen to attend the national convention, and presidential electors are nominated. The business of the latter is not to choose a President by any means, but merely to cast a formal vote, when the time comes, for whatever man their party shall name in the national convention. This convention usually meets in June or July, and then the candidates are nominated. The nominee who is supported by the largest number of delegates is declared to be the nominee of his party, and the electors are to give him their votes.

All this time the electors have only been nominated, not elected; but in November, at what is spoken of as the presidential election, the electors are formally appointed. Their ballots are opened by the president of the Senate in the presence of Senate and House. This ceremony does not take place until February; but as every one knows how the electors have been instructed to vote, the result of the election is known in November. If an elector chooses, he has the power to vote for an opposing candidate, but this would be a grave breach of trust.

By this method of election, all votes are of equal value. The vote of a foreigner who has just been naturalized has as much weight as that of an ex-president. Indeed, once upon a time a war was brought on by a single vote. A man in Indiana hesitated whether to go to mill or to the polls, but at length decided to do his duty and vote. His district by a majority of one sent its candidate to the legislature, and the legislature elected a United States Senator, also by a majority of one. This Senator became president of the Senate. On the question, Shall Texas be annexed? there was a tie, and the Senator gave the casting vote, a "Yes." The annexation took place and was the cause of the Mexican War.