Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The War of 1812, and twenty years of a one-party state

The Jefferson-Adams rematch was the last gasp of the Federalists as a real political force in the United States; oh, they kept some seats in Congress, and ran for the Presidency, but they never regained their majorities in the former or took the latter. The only interesting presidential election from 1804 to 1820 was 1812, when James Madison ran for reelection against DeWitt Clinton, nephew of Vice President George Clinton, who had died in April. Clinton at least made the popular vote interesting, as Madison barely got over 50%, but 128 to 89 is not that close a race.

Thing is, DeWitt wasn't actually a Federalist. Oh, he ran with Federalist support, but that only accounted for about a third of the vote; the other 15% came from Republicans unhappy with Madison, particularly those who wanted a Northern president. Jefferson and Madison were both from Virginia, as was Washington, and Secretary of State James Monroe, a post that J&M both held before their elections, was a Virginian as well. The Republican Party was the only game in town, and the Federalists only had any success in New England.

The other major reason DeWitt made it a real contest was the War of 1812, which Federalists really didn't like, partly because Madison supported it and partly because they wanted to resolve our problems with Great Britain peacefully. There were a few problems, and they weren't trivial. England didn't believe that people could stop being British and start being American, and their fleet was understaffed, so they came onboard American ships and took anyone who was British, or looked British, and told them "You're in His Majesty's Navy now".

Great Britain* also didn't like us trading with France, since they were at war with Napoleon at the time, and started dicking us over by blockading France, which meant no sweet sweet francs pouring into American pockets. Lastly, a bunch of people wanted to annex Canada and take more Indian land, and the UK really wasn't in the mood to lose more of their North American territory, not to mention trading with the people who caught and skinned all those beavers and such*, so that made things kind of awkward.

Anyway, Federalists didn't like the nascent war, and DeWitt was the only one who was against it (or at least he was against it when he was campaigning in the northeast; back then, you could get away with telling some people one thing and others the complete opposite if they were far enough apart), so he had their vote. What he didn't have was their formal endorsement, mostly because they realized that would do more harm than good since most people didn't like them that much.

DeWitt's campaign in 1812 confirmed the decline of the Federalist Party, and would be echoed in 1824, as all four candidates then were Republicans, reflecting tensions within the party, and the different interests of the South, Northeast, and West. (It was just the West back then, since the country wasn't wide enough to have a distinct left-right middle region.)

*I use the terms England and Great Britain interchangeably in this post, for the sake of variety, but they're not actually the same thing. See CCP Grey's video for more information, which I highly recommend.

*There was a spirited arms trade between the British and the various tribes, most of which ended up being used on frontier settlers in the Northwest Territory, what's now the Midwest.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Twelfth Amendment: making the Electoral College slightly less dysfunctional

In 1796, screwups in communication between both parties' electors resulted in John Adams getting a slim majority of the vote, and being elected president, with Thomas Jefferson coming in just behind him, and landing the vice presidency despite having run against Adams and not wanting the job. The rematch in 1800 featured a narrow victory on Jefferson's part, but the electors barely did better than last time, and he tied with his running mate Aaron Burr, putting the election in the House's hands, which took a week to pick Jefferson out of the Federalists' spite for him as their greatest opponent.

So the system was clearly working very badly, and the necessary change was quite clear: if the electors could vote separately for president and vice president, there would be no need to arrange for the party's vice presidential candidate to come in second. The idea that states would select wise men for the electoral college, who would in turn debate among themselves who would make the best president, was dead on arrival, and never actually happened; initially, everyone agreed that Washington would be president with Adams as his second in command, and that conversation took place long before the Electoral College met.

All that being quite apparent to the knowledgeable observer, they got to work fixing it immediately, right? Hahaha no. The twelfth amendment, stating that electors had ballots for both contests rather than every vote being for president, was proposed on December 9, 1803. The states did get to work pretty fast ratifying it, though; Rhode Island was the tenth on March 12, and New Hampshire got it to thirteen out of seventeen June 15. Massachusetts, Delaware, and Connecticut rejected it, but after New Hampshire's approval none of that mattered.

There were strong and vociferous objections to the twelfth amendment; insufficient to prevent its passage, or even significantly slow it, but three states did think it was a bad idea. Most notable was the claim that the vice presidency would simply fall to a party flunky, and not be the man that the second-greatest number of electors thought could do the job. The fact that this had never yet happened is a compelling counterargument, but just because something has not been the case the first two times it is tried does not mean that it will never be. It was pretty unlikely in this case, though, especially since if Federalist electors had gotten a few more votes, Adams would have gotten a majority and his running mate Charles Pinckney would have been one vote behind.

There was little complaint about a vice president being chosen based on popularity, but that rests largely on the popular vote being relatively insignificant at the time. Most of the states had little to no use for the people's opinion in the presidential election, and while that would change, it had not yet, and in fact had even decreased from the elections of 1789 and 1792.

Amusingly enough, though the 12th amendment was ratified only a few months before the election of 1804, it did not have any political relevance for decades. John Adams' narrow loss was not an ordinary defeat for the Federalist Party, and it went into a fairly steep decline over the next few years; Jefferson beat Charles Pinkney 162 electoral votes to 14, and while the War of 1812 was hardly an objective victory for the United States, Federalist opposition to it effectively destroyed the party as a political force.

Monday, June 2, 2014

1800 - Jefferson versus Adams 2: Electric Boogaloo, or how the Electoral College lost its groove

Well, 1796 hadn't gone so well, what with Jefferson running for president and getting the vice presidency as a consolation prize.Trying to get just one person to vote for him and someone who wasn't his running mate, so Jefferson would get the most votes and Burr would be just behind, was a really neat trick, and beyond the abilities of people who didn't have phones. Adams and Jefferson supporters both tried it in 1796, and both groups had a lot more people than they could afford voting for Adams and not-Pinckney or Jefferson and not-Burr. Would they come up with a better plan in 1800? Short answer: no. Long answer: they overcorrected, and it actually kinda turned out worse.

The setup was almost exactly the same: President John Adams ran for reelection, and his running mate was Charles C. Pinckney, the brother of 1796 Federalist nominee Thomas Pinckney, who was elected to the House after his loss. Vice President Thomas Jefferson ran against him, the first and only time that would happen*. Campaigning between the two was bitter, fierce, and frankly kind of mean-spirited, so pretty much like it is nowadays. Well, I say between the two, but neither Adams nor Jefferson really took part in the race, since that was the Done Thing back then; having your colleague accuse your opponent of wanting to bring the king back, or teach "murder robbery" in school, was just fine, but doing it yourself was just gauche.

There wasn't a lot of actual voting by default at this point, since several states already had the legislature involved in the elector process or control it entirely, and a few more changed to benefit the party that controlled the legislature. When election day rolled around, there were only a handful of states where the people got a remotely direct say in the election of the president: KY, TN, RI, VA, MD, NC. Of those states, Rhode Island was the only one to cast no votes for Jefferson, though NC was split 8-4 for him.

Those are the records we have for the popular vote, so on paper 1800 seems like a massively one-sided election: Jefferson with 41k and 61%, Adams with 36k and 39%. Since almost all the Federalist states had the legislature choose the electors, it seems like Adams was massively unpopular. If that had been the vote with everyone going to the polls, Adams would likely have gotten the 16 votes from Massachusetts and little else. He actually came very close to beating Jefferson, 65 electoral votes to 73.

So Jefferson got 73 votes, and Adams got 65. Therefore, for each party the goal was, respectively, for Burr to get 72 votes, and Pinckney to get 64. That's exactly what Pinckney actually got, and it's kind of a shame that they couldn't win five more votes and have that scheme work. Burr, however, also got 73, and so the vote was a tie and the election went to the House. The House that would be doing the voting, however, was the one elected in 1798, which had an overall Federalist majority, and more importantly eight out of sixteen state delegations with a majority of Federalists -- enough to deny a majority of the vote.

The Federalists had already lost: Jefferson and Burr got more electoral votes than Adams and Pinckney, and they had to choose between Jefferson and Burr for the Presidency. Thing is, most of the Federalists hated Jefferson, and they weren't just going to acquiesce to his election. So six of the eight states with Federalist majorities voted for Burr, just to stick it to Jefferson, while all seven Republican states voted for Jefferson. Georgia's sole representative, a Federalist, also voted for Jefferson, while one of Maryland's five joined the three Republicans in voting for him, and Vermont had one of each, so Maryland and Vermont didn't cast votes.

Eight votes for Jefferson, six votes for Burr, and two not voting. That's where it stood for 35 ballots, from February 11 to 17, while leading Federalist Alexander Hamilton started writing letters urging his fellows to vote for Jefferson. While they were both scum, in Hamilton's view, Jefferson at least had principles, wrong though they were; Burr was an unmitigated opportunist, and would be a worse president. So on the 36th ballot, Federalist James F. Bayard of Delaware left his ballot blank, as did two of his colleagues from Maryland and Vermont, changing the latter states from tied to favoring Jefferson, giving him two votes and the majority he needed. Federalists in South Carolina also cast blank ballots rather than voting for Burr, but that didn't make so much of a difference.

It was settled. Thomas Jefferson was elected president, and Aaron Burr vice president. And on March 3, Adams left the White House, and his greatest rival was sworn in as his successor. That was one of the greatest acts of American democracy at the time, and remains to this day. Adams lost, and rather than wage some fractious and destructive campaign to retain power, he relinquished his office. For that, he deserves far more credit than an aged and weary Washington leaving after the second term he didn't even want in the first place.

*In theory, it could happen again, though it would require a third-party ticket that actually got some votes, so neither major party managed a majority. With no electoral college majority, the presidential election goes to the House, and the vice-presidential election goes to the Senate. If one party has majorities in more than half the state delegations, but the other has a majority of the Senate seats (which is currently the case), then the president would be of one major party and the vice president of the other.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

How did the Electoral College start to break down?

The first actual test of the new election system didn't go so great. 1789 and 1792 don't count, since you don't get credit for everything going swimmingly when there's only one candidate. After Washington retired, though, his vice president John Adams wanted to take his place, which set up a tense race, since he wasn't the only one. The major opposing candidate was Thomas Jefferson, who used to be secretary of state, but quit after Washington kept favoring the Federalists Adams and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton instead of him.

When Washington ran, the general agreement was that he would be president and John Adams would be vice president, and since everyone was on board with that, having every elector vote for him and most (but not all) of the electors vote for John Adams wasn't too difficult to arrange. The Adams-Jefferson race changed that, since barely more than half the electors favored Adams, which didn't leave much room for error.

The fundamental problem was that the electors couldn't vote separately for the president and vice president. As long as someone got a majority of the votes, that person was elected president, and the runner-up was vice president. If there were a tie, it would go to the House, and while this wouldn't be quite as embarrassing the third time around, it still wouldn't be good, and could get messed up pretty easily. So both Federalists and Republicans tried to arrange for all their electors to vote for the presidential candidate (Adams or Jefferson), and a couple to vote for someone who wasn't the vice presidential candidate (Thomas Pinckney or Aaron Burr).

This scheme failed pretty massively for both sides; Adams got 71 votes, but Pinckney managed 59, and he only managed that much because South Carolina, ordinarily a Republican state, cast 8 votes for him and Jefferson. Jefferson, meanwhile, managed 68 votes, and Burr was driven down to 30. Now, this seems pretty embarrassing, but remember that this was 1796, and they didn't have Skype, email, phones, or even the Pony Express. Good organization requires communication, and you try coordinating the actions of seventy people spread out over a thousand-mile coastline over the course of a month (the College had to meet on December 15, and the election was in early November) when your only option for telling them whom to vote for is a horse.

So Adams was elected president, and Jefferson accompanied him to DC as the vice president, followed by four solid years of bickering. The existing system for elections clearly didn't work too well, but Congress wasn't too interested in changing it. Rep. William Smith of South Carolina proposed an amendment distinguishing between ballots for president and ballots for vice president, but nothing happened. Would 1800 be any less chaotic than 1796?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why was that Electoral College crap so complicated? Why didn't they pick something better?

The thing to understand here is that the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which is where all this got decided, was full of compromises. The idea when answering questions like "how should we elect the president? how long should he serve? should we even have one single president, or a committee?" wasn't to arrive at the objectively best solution, but something that as many people were okay with as possible. The structure of our government isn't the Platonic ideal -- it's what worked for most of us when it was passed.

The other thing to understand is how awful communication was back then. Most of the delegates were leery of having the general public decide big elections not because "lol John Q. doesn't know jack, stupid proles" but because the local newspapers that informed most voters tended to be sacks of crap. They didn't cover current events, and they couldn't be trusted to help people make an informed decision. Voting for members of the state legislature and House of Representatives was small enough that people could probably get a decent idea of what was going on.

The other major concern for a direct popular vote was regionalism: if a significant fraction of the people simply voted for a candidate from their state, national unity would be out the window. Yes, I know, I've banged this drum before, but it was a serious fear back then. Calling the former British colonies the United States of America didn't magically make everyone join together, and there were already tensions between the states over commerce, industry, and of course slavery.

Frankly, there were a few proposals for electing the president. Some wanted the governors to pick him, and Madison favored Congress having the responsibility. Nobody liked the idea too much, but having states send as many people as they had votes in Congress to decide who should be president seemed like the least bad option available.

More than a few people thought there was a decent chance that the Electoral College wouldn't have a majority for a single candidate; Madison was betting that this would happen nearly every time. There was a lot of contention over how the election would proceed in that event, since the general preference was for the House, which was closest to the people, to choose, but that kinda screwed over the small states. That concern got assuaged by giving each state delegation one vote, just like in the Senate, where each state got two votes; that arrangement was echoed in the Senate's role in the election process, since they chose the vice president, each senator getting one vote.

The Electoral College was a complex system, set up to try to keep as many people semi-satisfied as they could manage. It still practically fell on its face the first time there was an actual race, and had even bigger problems the next time. More on that tomorrow.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why didn't Washington run for a third term?

Because he didn't want to. Frankly, he had to be persuaded to run for reelection in 1792, but his advisers made the case that the country needed another four years of the Washington administration to glue it together that little bit more. Two terms was a reasonable time to serve, and he reluctantly acquiesced.

1796, however, was a different story. George was feeling increasingly unwell, coupled with the strain of having managed the national government for eight years, with decades of public service before. The newspapers were also getting on his nerves, having grown more prolific and vituperative since his first inauguration; that very stress was fueled by members of his administration, funding party publications and urging others to follow.

He was keenly aware that every action he took would set precedent; this was true for everyone, of course, but the President is a bigger single part of government than anyone else. They had fought a long, painful, and expensive war to break away from a monarchy, and set up a very weak government in the Articles of Confederation to guard against tyranny. The weaknesses of the Articles did not negate the fears that the men at the forefront of the development of American governance had about power. So he left after two terms, and his example set up such a pressure that nobody tried for a third term until Grant in 1880, and even then that was largely because prominent Republicans favored him for the nomination, and he needed the money.

Of course, another primary reason for his retirement was the physical deterioration I mentioned before. He was sixty-four in 1796, and he had spent twenty years fighting on the American frontier before the Revolutionary War began. Washington was not in good health, particularly his teeth, which had been giving him serious pain for many years. He ended up dying in December 1799, and while his final illness owed a great deal to spending several hours a day in the snow and not keeping dry, hands up everyone who thinks being president would have been easier on him than that.

The root of his departure was at least half principle, the same principle which led him to resign as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army once the war was over. It would have been easy for Washington to take power, but he retired instead. He only left retirement because they asked him to be the first president, and after those two terms, he went right back to his farm. This is not to be hagiographic, or portray civil service as something one should be reluctant to take part in, but giving up power is not a very common thing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How did the first presidential election work? Did everyone just want George Washington, or what?

Pretty much, yeah. The idea when they were writing the Constitution was that Washington would come out of retirement and be president; national unity was a huge concern, and would be for the next several years, and he was the single most adored person on the continent. The real question was, who would be his vice president?

Despite Washington being a national figure, he was still from Virginia, and the smart money was on a northern man, to make sure New England and New York had as much of a stake in the nascent federal government. Quite a number of people fit the bill, but the consensus eventually came to John Adams of Massachusetts.

Now that the outcome was agreed upon, the task of arranging it began. This might sound like a subversion of democracy, but the process wasn't really all that people-powered to begin with. See, at that time the president and vice president were chosen by the Electoral College, a body made up of a delegation from each state. They were allowed one member per vote in Congress, so as many as they had representatives plus two for the Senate; how they chose who would be voting was entirely up to them, and most of the states restricted the influence of the voters.

Method of choosing ElectorsState(s)
each elector appointed by the state legislatureConnecticut
New Jersey
New York (a)
South Carolina
  • two electors appointed by state legislature
  • each remaining elector chosen by state legislature from list of top two vote-getters in each congressional district
each elector chosen by voters statewide; however, if no candidate wins majority, state legislature appoints elector from top two candidatesNew Hampshire
state is divided into electoral districts, with one elector chosen per district by the voters of that districtVirginia (b)
electors chosen at large by votersMaryland
state had not yet ratified the Constitution, so was not eligible to choose electorsNorth Carolina
Rhode Island

Every member of the electoral college had two votes, to be cast for two different people, at least one of whom had to be from a different state. Whoever got the most votes would be president, and the runner-up would be vice president; if no one got a majority, or if there were a tie, the election would go to Congress. Electing Washington was easy: everyone would cast one vote for him, unanimous election. Having Adams as the vice president was a little tougher, since if everyone voted for him as well, there would be that tie, which would be kind of embarrassing in the very first election.

So it was decided that some electors would vote for Washington and someone else, so Adams would get a comfortable second place. Massachusetts and New Jersey voted only for Washington and Adams, and everyone else cast a few ballots for another man, sometimes more than one, usually people from that state who deserved recognition (a phenomenon that would come to be known as 'favorite sons', and happen more in the party nominating convention). Some, like John Jay and George Clinton, would later achieve high office (Chief Justice and Thomas Jefferson's second Vice President, respectively).

(North Carolina and Rhode Island hadn't ratified the Constitution yet, so they didn't get to vote. New York had done so, but the legislature was so dysfunctional, as it had been for years and frankly continues to be, that they couldn't agree on whom to appoint as electors.)