Federalist 68

In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton sought to justify and elaborate upon the provisions of Article II, Section I of the Constitution which describes the election of the President of the United States. Under the Constitution, the President was to be chosen by electors in each state who would meet in their state and cast two votes each - the candidate with a majority of votes would become President, with the runner-up gaining the office of Vice-President. Each state was entitled to a number of electors equal to the number of senators and representatives it had in Congress, and the electors were to be chosen "in such Manner as the Legislature [of each state] may direct" with the additional stipulation that no elector could be a member of Congress or hold federal office.1

Although the Electoral College system is the subject of considerable controversy today, it generated relatively little debate during the ratification process, a fact that Hamilton readily acknowledges. Thus, Federalist 68 serves less as a defense of the system against detractors than as an explanation of its many virtues. For Hamilton, having the President chosen by an independent body of electors "chosen by the people" would have five main advantages: First, it would grant the people a voice in the election process; second, it would ensure that only the most qualified members of society would be choosing the president; third, it would minimize the possibility of disturbances or unrest; fourth, it would serve as a guard against corruption and foreign influence; and fifth, it would make sure that the President was dependent only on the people for his reelection. As a result of this system, argues Hamilton, only the most virtuous and qualified individuals could win the presidency. The one criticism that is answered in Federalist 68 is in the election process for the Vice President; Hamilton defends it against the charge that it is unnecessary, and demonstrates the error of the proposed alternative (that the Vice President should be chosen by the Senate from among its members).

Federalist 68 illustrates many of the themes and topics that were central to the ratification debates. For example, Hamilton's desire to protect against "cabal, intrigue, and corruption" reflects a widespread concern among his contemporaries with the danger posed by factions and foreign interlopers. The threat presented by faction, as explained by James Madison in Federalist 10, was that a minority group could influence the government - through "cabal, intrigue, and corruption" - and further their own interests at the expense of the general welfare. Likewise, the threat of foreign interference was a constant concern for a fledgling nation who saw potential enemies not only in the United Kingdom but in their former allies - the United States was deeply in debt to revolutionary France and Spain, and had recently defaulted on its loans. The specter of foreign interlopers in the executive office was doubly ominous to Hamilton and his contemporaries, who would have been well aware of the Russian and Austrian Empires' interference in the election of the King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the early 1760s.2

Federalist 68

The Method of Electing the President

Independent Journal
Wednesday, March 12, 1788.
Alexander Hamilton


To the People of the State of New York:
THE mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbationApprobation, n. Approval or Praise. from its opponents. The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deignedDeign, v. To reluctantly agree to something one considers beneath oneself. to admit that the election of the President is pretty well guarded. I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for.
The method of electing the President is one of the few parts of the constitution that has not been heavily criticized by the Anti-Federalists. In fact, many opponents of the constitution have noted that the Presidential election process is very secure, and I would go so far as to say it is nearly perfect, as it meets all of the desired requirements.
It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjunctureConjuncture, n. A state of affairs.. Because it is such an important and powerful position, the people should have a say in choosing the President. A group of men, elected by the people for the single purpose of choosing the President, will be the best way to have the people's voice heard.
It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberationDeliberation, n. Thoughtful discussion., and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducementsInducement, n. An incentive. which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernmentDiscernment, n. The ability to judge well. requisite to such complicated investigations. Having the people choose a small group of electors will also make sure that only the most qualified individuals will be directly responsible for choosing the President, and that they can make their choice in the best possible environment.
It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectualEffectual, adj. effective. security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and fermentsFerment, n. Agitation or unrest., which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place. In addition, the election process set up by the Constitution will help to prevent civil unrest and disorder. Having the people vote for multiple electors rather than one candidate for President will make elections less publicly controversial, and keeping the electors separate in their own states will keep them from fighting with each other.
Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendantAscendant, n. A position of power or influence. in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment. And they have excluded from eligibilityEligible, adj. Meeting the requirements for a position. to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. Thus without corrupting the body of the people, the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias. Their transientTransient, adj. Short-lived, temporary. existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it. The business of corruption, when it is to embrace so considerable a number of men, requires time as well as means. Nor would it be found easy suddenly to embark them, dispersed as they would be over thirteen States, in any combinations founded upon motives, which though they could not properly be denominated corrupt, might yet be of a nature to mislead them from their duty. Corruption and conspiracies are two of the biggest threats to Republican government, and the Presidential election is a likely target for foreign and domestic enemies to try to influence the government. Fortunately, the process set up by the Constitution will protect against this. Existing groups, like the Senate or the House of Representatives, might be bribed or threatened long before the election, but the electoral college will not be around long enough for anyone to be able to influence all electors. Senators, Representatives, and other federal officials are also prohibited from becoming electors because they might feel obliged to vote fore the incumbent.
Another and no less important desideratumDesideratum, n. Something desired; a requirement. was, that the Executive should be independent for his continuance in office on all but the people themselves. He might otherwise be tempted to sacrifice his duty to his complaisance for those whose favor was necessary to the duration of his official consequence. This advantage will also be secured, by making his re-election to depend on a special body of representatives, deputed by the society for the single purpose of making the important choice. The electoral college system also ensures that the President does not rely on anyone but the people - through their specially-chosen representatives, the electors - for his re-election. Otherwise, the President might feel obligated to put the interests of those responsible for his re-election ahead of those of the nation.
All these advantages will happily combine in the plan devised by the convention; which is, that the people of each State shall choose a number of persons as electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives of such State in the national government, who shall assemble within the State, and vote for some fit person as President. Their votes, thus given, are to be transmitted to the seat of the national government, and the person who may happen to have a majority of the whole number of votes will be the President. But as a majority of the votes might not always happen to centre in one man, and as it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive, it is provided that, in such a contingencyContingency, n. An event which may occur in the future; a possibility., the House of Representatives shall select out of the candidates who shall have the five highest number of votes, the man who in their opinion may be best qualified for the office. The Electoral College system, then, offers a number of distinct advantages as a method for choosing the President. The process dictates that the citizens of each state select a number of electors equivalent to the number of senators and representatives of their state. These electors will meet in their state and vote for President; whichever candidate receives a majority of the votes becomes President. If no candidate receives a majority, the House of Representatives selects the next President from the the five candidates with the most votes.
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisiteRequisite, adj. Necessary. qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue. And this will be thought no inconsiderable recommendation of the Constitution, by those who are able to estimate the share which the executive in every government must necessarily have in its good or ill administration. This process will ensure that no person who is unqualified for the position will ever become President. A man may be able to be elected governor of a state with no merits other than charisma and craftiness, but only the best sort of people will be able to win the confidence of the entire Union. As a result, we can expect to see the office of the President filled with the most virtuous and able candidates. Because of this, those who recognize the importance of the executive in promoting good or bad administration should support the proposed constitution.
Though we cannot acquiesceAcquiesce, v. To accept reluctantly, to agree without protest. in the political heresy of the poet who says:
"For forms of government let fools contest—That which is best administered is best,"—yet we may safely pronounce, that the true test of a good government is its aptitudeAptitude, n. An innate capacity to do something; suitability or fitness. and tendency to produce a good administration.
We should disagree with Alexander Pope, who thinks that the best form of government is whichever runs the best; however, we should recognize that a good government can be measured by it's ability to promote good administration.
The Vice-President is to be chosen in the same manner with the President; with this difference, that the Senate is to do, in respect to the former, what is to be done by the House of Representatives, in respect to the latter. The election of the Vice President follows the same method as the Presidential election, except that the House of Representatives' role is filled by the Senate (i.e. when no candidate for Vice President receives a majority, the Vice President will be chosen by the Senate from the 5 candidates with the most votes).
The appointment of an extraordinary person, as Vice-President, has been objected to as superfluousSuperfluous, adj. Unnecessary or redundant., if not mischievous. It has been alleged, that it would have been preferable to have authorized the Senate to elect out of their own body an officer answering that description. But two considerations seem to justify the ideas of the convention in this respect. One is, that to secure at all times the possibility of a definite resolution of the body, it is necessary that the President should have only a casting vote. And to take the senator of any State from his seat as senator, to place him in that of President of the Senate, would be to exchange, in regard to the State from which he came, a constant for a contingentContingent, adj. Depending on something else that may not happen. vote. The other consideration is, that as the Vice-President may occasionally become a substitute for the President, in the supreme executive magistracy, all the reasons which recommend the mode of election prescribed for the one, apply with great if not with equal force to the manner of appointing the other. It is remarkable that in this, as in most other instances, the objection which is made would lie against the constitution of this State. We have a Lieutenant-Governor, chosen by the people at large, who presides in the Senate, and is the constitutional substitute for the Governor, in casualties similar to those which would authorize the Vice-President to exercise the authorities and discharge the duties of the President. Some people don't think that the appointment of a Vice-President by the electoral college is necessary, and that the Senate should simply chose one Senator to serve. However, if the Vice-President was selected from among the senators, he would be "downgrading" in a sense - as a senator, he would be able to vote on every bill, but as Vice-President he would only be able to cast his vote to break a tie. In addition, because the Vice-President may have to succeed the President if he is killed, the same reasons that I've already mentioned also apply here. This system even corresponds with the system in place under the New York State Constitution: like the Vice-President, the Lieutenant-Governor of New York is elected by the people, presides over the New York Senate, and fills the office of the Governor under similar circumstances.
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