The Electoral College and Slavery: A Reality Check - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Electoral College and Slavery: A Reality Check

In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump, we have been subjected to increasingly shrill calls from the left to abolish the Electoral College. Several Democratic presidential candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, have added their voices to this dissonant chorus. But their arguments suggest that the framers were wise to be wary of the mischief caused by unscrupulous politicians who play on the emotions of the voters. An exquisitely apposite example of such demagoguery is the claim that the Electoral College itself is a relic of slavery. This was recently repeated by Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN) who brayed:

The slave states wanted equal representation in the Senate because they wanted to keep slavery. The slave states wanted to have an Electoral College where the members that they had in Congress counted towards the vote of president, where the slaves counted as two-thirds, and in the popular vote they would count as zero. So the slave states didn’t want a popular election because their slaves wouldn’t count towards voting and the slave states would have less votes.

According to Congressman Cohen’s biography, he was educated at Vanderbilt University. His comments suggest that his parents must have paid a hefty bribe to get him enrolled in that once-respected institution. Cohen’s statement reveals a breathtaking level of illiteracy regarding American history in general and the Electoral College in particular. For example, Cohen obviously believes that, when the Constitution was ratified, slavery was limited to the southern states. In reality, slavery was ubiquitous throughout the fledgling nation—both north and south. Yes, you read that correctly. The 1790 census reveals the following:

More than 6 percent of New York’s population consisted of slaves. Likewise, 6.2 percent of the people living in New Jersey were slaves. The number of slaves in Delaware totaled 15 percent of its population. Maryland’s slaves accounted for a whopping 32 percent of its population. The census also found that New England states like Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire had significant slave populations. Even Pennsylvania had a few. Only Massachusetts had none. In other words, the “slave states” included all but one. There was no need for them to impose their will on the other states represented at the Constitutional Convention.

Cohen’s claim that the “slave states wanted equal representation in the Senate because they wanted to keep slavery” and the implication that this somehow drove the debate over the Electoral College is equally absurd. The decision to allow each state two senators regardless of size was an effort to ensure that the large population states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, and New York (all slave states at the time) would not be able to undermine the will of the voters in low population states. The “two senator” structure actually reduced the power of the large slave states. In other words, Congressman Cohen has it exactly backwards.

Another of Cohen’s uninformed assertions goes thus: “The slave states wanted to have an Electoral College… where the slaves counted as two-thirds.” Here, he not only fails history but arithmetic as well. What he is blindly groping for is the three-fifths compromise. Like a lot of people who slept through their history and government courses, Cohen never learned that this often misrepresented compromise was not supported by the big slave states. It was supported primarily by the small states, the majority of which were located in the north, and it had nothing at all to do with the Electoral College. As Tara Ross points out in the Daily Signal:

A more honest assessment of the three-fifths compromise shows what it really concerned — congressional representation and taxation, not the Electoral College. Indeed, the discussions about the compromise and the discussions about the presidential election system were largely separate. The main reason the compromise is cited today is because, late in the convention, it was decided that each state’s electoral vote allocation would match its congressional allocation.

Cohen finishes off his remarks with the following claim: “So the slave states didn’t want a popular election because their slaves wouldn’t count towards voting and the slave states would have less votes.” Once again, he has it backwards. Cohen mistakenly believes the slave-to-white ratio at the time of the Constitutional Convention was equal to what it became after the invention of the cotton gin. It was, in fact, the smaller northern states who most feared direct popular vote. The large slave states had enough white voters to swamp the small states. Virginia alone had as many eligible voters as Delaware, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire combined.

It was because of that large disparity that opponents of slavery tended to favor the Electoral College. It is commonly believed that it was first proposed at the convention by James Madison, whose comments on the matter are routinely taken out of context by the people who peddle the canard that the institution was designed primarily to perpetuate slavery. This, as it happens, has no basis in fact. The use of some system of electors rather than a direct popular vote to choose the President was first suggested by delegates to the convention well known for their lifelong aversion to slavery. To quote Tara Ross of the Daily Signal again:

Rufus King of Massachusetts had already mentioned them. King was not in favor of slavery. To the contrary, he worked against it during his lifetime. William Paterson of New Jersey, another slavery opponent, also endorsed the concept of electors that day.… As slavery opponent Gunning Bedford of Delaware had said so eloquently [at the convention], the small states simply feared that they would be outvoted by the large states time and time again.

The notion that the Electoral College was designed to perpetuate slavery is nonsense. Most Democrats who make this claim, like Cohen and (inevitably) AOC, know little about American history and less about the institution they wish to abolish. Its more crafty critics, like Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton, just lie. The obvious reason they dislike the Electoral College is that they can’t win playing by the rules. This is why the Framers designed it as they did — to preclude the tyranny of the majority. During the past 230 years, the number of states has increased and population centers have shifted, but demagogues haven’t changed much.

David Catron
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David Catron is a recovering health care consultant and frequent contributor to The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter at @Catronicus.
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