Focusing on Electing the President

James Wilson-
James Wilson, delegate from Pennsylvania
Philip Fisbourne Wharton, 1873

Independence National Historical Park

Focusing on Electing the President

"According to the plan as it now stands, the President will not be the man of the people as he ought to be, but the Minion of the Senate."

- James Wilson in Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention

The convention continued debate on the provision that when no candidate had a majority in the Electoral College the Senate would choose from the five candidates with the most votes. This topic consumed most of two days, concluding with the Convention creating an ingenious method for electing the President when no candidate had a majority: election by the House with each state delegation having only one vote. Any other way might have alienated several delegates and would have worked against ratification.

The issue was simple. The members were in agreement with the Electoral College concept as the least objectionable of the many possible methods of selecting the president. Many of the delegates thought that once Washington was no longer available, very few elections would produce a candidate with a majority of the electors' votes.

The committee recommended that the Senate choose. But the Senate confirmed subordinate executive officers, conducted trials on impeachment, and approved presidential treaties. If it also then chose the President, that person could become a creature of the Senate, not an independent executive capable of checking legislative excess. Yet, the small states were convinced that the large states would dominate the Electoral College. If ties were broken by the Congress as a whole, or by the House of Representatives, the large states would always predominate. Both problems were avoided by Hugh Williamson's (NC) suggestion to let the House decide the matter, but with one vote per state delegation.

This provision has only been used twice - to elect Thomas Jefferson in 1801, and John Quincy Adams in 1824.

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Friday, September 7, 1787
The Presidency and the Cabinet
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Last updated: February 26, 2015

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