What Alexander Hamilton Would Want

Our first president was from Virginia, and our second president was from Massachusetts. In fact, our first six presidents were from one of those two states. It’s an oversimplification, but the competition between Virginia and Massachusetts in the early part of our Republic was not unlike the competition we have today between Democrats and Republicans.

Now, I’d never want to compare Donald Trump to George Washington, but perhaps it would be less startling to imagine a situation in which John Adams had been elected in 1796 despite losing the popular vote, and that he had been openly friendly to King George III, asked him to intervene in the election, steal, read and disseminate Thomas Jefferson’s private mail correspondence, and then began appointing British loyalists as his top advisers and nominating them to positions like Secretary of State.

As it was, Adams was only elected because one elector each in Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania defected to his cause. But if it had been widely known prior to the Electoral College meeting in their respective states that Adams had been surreptitiously aided by the British Crown, the electors would have had to contemplate what Alexander Hamilton wrote about their job description in the Federalist No. 68. To begin with, Alexander explained why they had created the Electoral College:

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 querter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant 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.

The number one concern was to avoid allowing a foreign power “to rais[e] a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.” We would have the people vote for electors who would be watchful for foreign interference. Those electors would be chosen for this purpose and this purpose alone. It would be hard to know who they would be beforehand, which would make it hard for a foreign power to bribe them.

And there were more precautions. For example, they would never convene as one body.

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 ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place…

…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.

You might object that the electors are supposed to vote the way that the people have voted, but that didn’t happen uniformly in 1796 or in many elections since. In recent years, one presidential Elector voted for John Edwards in 2004 and in 2000 an Elector for the District of Columbia simply refused to vote in protest. In any case, Hamilton was clear that the electors’ job was to exercise their own judgment. In fact, he said that “It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person,” but the “sense” in which this would happen is through “committing the right of making [the selection of president], not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.”

To be clear, the people were to “commit the right” of making the ultimate decision to the electors.

And this was to be done not only to prevent, as much as possible, a foreign power from interfering in the selection of our leader, but to assure that the position not fall to a person with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.”

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 requisite 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. Though we cannot acquiesce 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 aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.

It was foreseen that the Electoral College might not be able to form a majority around a single candidate, so the House of Representatives was chosen as the ultimate arbiter. In a piece I mostly disagree with, Garrett Epps made a compelling case that the Framers of the Constitution did not foresee the Electoral College forming a majority very often, and that it was their expectation that the House would normally resolve our elections. They didn’t anticipate mass communication, and few people were as nationally famous and respected then as George Washington.

That is, they believed that, with the exception of George Washington, no political figure would ever become well enough known (after all, the population of the U.S. in 1787 was nearly four million people!) to command a popular majority. “Nineteen times out of twenty,” delegate George Mason predicted, the state electors would not produce a winner. When that happened, the delegates decided, choice of a president would be thrown into the House of Representatives.

Had they known about Celebrity Appentice, they might have reconsidered that judgment.

In any case, it is entirely appropriate for the electors to demand a full intelligence briefing on Russia’s role in promoting Trump’s campaign and Trump’s connections to Russia, including his susceptibility to blackmail. Their primary (really, only) job is to determine if the president-elect is loyal to the country and the Constitution or if they are controlled by a foreign power. Aside from that, they need to assure that the president has an “aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.”

As for Hamilton and his supporters, they opposed the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1796, but only reluctantly supported John Adams: “Hamilton and his supporters did however believe that Adams lacked the seriousness and popularity that had caused Washington to be successful, and feared that Adams was too vain, opinionated, unpredictable and stubborn to follow their directions.”

Trump clearly lacks popularity and seriousness, and is vain, opinionated, unpredictable, and stubborn. Yet, his supporters don’t want him to follow the directions of Washington establishment figures like Alexander Hamilton.

For the electors, they deserve an intelligence briefing so they can fulfill their constitutional duty to the nation and honor the vision and trust of the Founders.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.