Elections from the Founders' Perspective
For over 200 years since our nation's founding, elections of public officials have occurred every two years and in some cases more often than that. Many Americans do not realize that elections are far different than envisioned by the Founders, both in the way we conduct them and in the kind of people we see on the ballots. Like most other things we do today, changes have taken place so gradually that we hardly notice, and unless we study the Founders' ideas, we find ourselves saying, "Isn't this the way we have always done it?"
Once again, as we have said so many times before, the problems and frustrations we feel today have occurred mostly because we have departed from the Founders' counsel and wisdom. In this, as in many other issues of the day, we repeatedly remind Americans that the Founders had answers to nearly every problem we have in America today-if we would only listen.
Let's listen to the Founders' wisdom concerning some important election questions of the day:
Question: What kind of people should we be electing to public office?
Answer: In early America it was customary in some state legislatures to have powerful spokesmen of the day come before the representatives of the people at one of their early sessions and remind them of the importance of the lawmaking process. An eloquent example of this kind of dissertation is found in a speech by patriot Samuel Langdon before the Massachusetts legislature in 1788. He declared:
"On the people, therefore, of these United States, it depends whether wise men, or fools, good or bad men, shall govern.... Therefore, I will now lift up my voice and cry aloud to the people....
"From year to year be careful in the choice of your representatives and the higher powers [offices] of government. Fix your eyes upon men of good understanding and known honesty; men of knowledge, improved by experience; men who fear God and hate covetousness; who love truth and righteousness, and sincerely wish for the public welfare.... Let not men openly irreligious and immoral become your legislators.... If the legislative body are corrupt, you will soon have bad men for counselors, corrupt judges, unqualified justices, and officers in every department who will dishonor their stations.... Never give countenance to turbulent men, who wish to distinguish themselves and rise to power by forming combinations and exciting insurrections against government.... I call upon you also to support schools in your towns.... It is a debt you owe to your children." (See The Making of America , page 10)
Question : How can one distinguish between a true patriot and one who pretends to be patriotic in order to get elected?
Answer: Samuel Adams, the father of the American Revolution, gave the key to knowing who was a real patriot when he said:
"But neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man."
He then went on to say that public officials should not be chosen if they are lacking in experience, training, proven virtue, and demonstrated wisdom. He said the task of the electorate is to choose those whose "fidelity has been tried in the nicest and tenderest manner, and has been ever firm and unshaken."
A favorite scripture of the day was Proverbs 29:2, which says: "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn." (See The 5000 Year Leap , page 59-60)
Question : Did the Founders anticipate the rise of political parties?
Answer: Contrary to most history textbooks, the answer is yes. They called them factions. James Madison said they arise naturally among men because of the propensity of people who think alike to join together. He said:
"By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest..
"The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good." ( Federalist Papers No. 10)
Question : How did the Founders feel the influence of political parties would be controlled so as not to have such an influence over the whole nation?
Answer: The Founders felt that a large and extended republic would provide enough variety of interests that one party or faction arising in one part would naturally be resisted by other factions in other parts of the nation. Here is the way Madison explained it:
"The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State." ( Federalist Papers No. 10)
Question: Then why do political parties seem to have such a huge influence in our day over our political decisions?
Answer: Because states and the federal government have given political parties political power into the election process, contrary to the advice of the Founders. State and federal legislatures have passed laws which define the structure of a party, laws which give parties control over candidates on the ballot, laws which give parties the power to appoint presidential electors, laws which provide public money to finance campaigns and political party primary elections, and laws which dictate party activities in national elections. All of these laws have given political parties legal power and have brought into the political process all the passions and tumult that the Founders said naturally come with parties or factions.
In his famous Commentaries on the Constitution , in 1833, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story explained that the Founders specifically designed the electoral system of electing a president so as to avoid the tumult and intrigue of both direct election by the people or national party politics, including national nominating conventions. He described why the Founders developed a system of electors from each state to choose the president:
"Assuming that the choice [or election] ought not to be confined to [or be done by] the national legislature, there remained various other modes, by which it might be effected; by the people directly; by the state legislatures; or by electors, chosen by the one, or the other. The latter mode was deemed most advisable; and the reasoning, by which it was supported, was to the following effect." ( The Founders' Constitution , Vol. 3, page 557)
Question : In choosing a president, why did the Founders feel a small group of electors in each state would be much preferred over political parties in deciding who would best serve?
Answer: Justice Story continues:
"The immediate election should be made by men, the most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favourable to deliberation, and to judicious combination of all the inducements, which ought to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass for this special object, would be most likely to possess the information, and discernment, and independence, essential for the proper discharge of the duty. It is also highly important to afford as little opportunity, as possible, to tumult and disorder. These evils are not unlikely [meaning they are very likely] to occur in the election of a chief magistrate directly by the people, considering the strong excitements and interests, which such an occasion may naturally be presumed to produce. The choice of a number of persons, to form an intermediate body of electors, would be far less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of one, who was himself the final object of the public wishes." (ibid.)
Question : What advantage did the Founders see in requiring a system of a small group of independent electors to meet in their respective state capitals to elect the president as opposed to legally enabling political parties with campaigns, primary elections, multi-million dollar media events, and huge national nominating conventions?
Answer: Justice Story continues:
"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 would expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all convened at one time in one place. The same circumstances would naturally lessen the dangers of cabal, intrigue, and corruption, especially, if congress should, as they undoubtedly would, prescribe the same day for the choice of the electors, and for giving their votes throughout the United States. The scheme, indeed, presents every reasonable guard against these fatal evils to republican governments. The appointment of the president is not made to depend upon any pre-existing body of men [such as political parties], who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but is delegated to persons chosen by the immediate act of the people, for that sole and temporary purpose." (ibid.)
Question : We find ourselves in a predicament today where some very powerful forces, whether they are political parties or other factions, seemed to have made our decisions for us concerning the electable choices we have on our ballots. Sometimes, neither of the electable choices is very appealing. Did the Founders have any advice for this kind of problem?
Answer: The Founders were very practical men who recognized a reality of our human society that no candidate is perfect. Recognizing that, it then becomes a matter of choosing the best candidate that can possibly be elected. Thomas Jefferson seemed to sense the reality that we are often presented with situations that we are uncomfortable with, when he observed:
"It is a melancholy law of human societies to be compelled sometimes to choose a great evil in order to ward off a greater." ( The Real Thomas Jefferson , page 423)
Jefferson would also be the first to say that no matter who comes to power, the people and the states must hold his feet to the fire so as not to allow him to violate the Constitution. He said it forcefully this way:
"In questions of power, then, let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." ( The Five Thousand Year Leap , page 165)
If we do not feel comfortable with the choices we presently have, then we must make sure we choose Congressmen and others who will bind down runaway politicians with the check and balance provisions of the Constitution.
As we view the upcoming political party conventions, with all their machinations, let us remember that, as we have said so many times, the Founders really did have a better way to do it.
Earl Taylor, Jr.