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Election by the people and the merits of election by Congress

by npcole

Cite as: Dr Nicholas Cole, ‘Election by the people and the merits of election by Congress’ in N. P. Cole, Grace Mallon and Kat Howarth, The Creation of the Electoral College, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2016), item 119.


The debate recorded here sees Wilson stating his preference for the election of the President by the people at large --- an innovation which, he points out, had been successful in New York. He would make this a formal suggestion later in the Convention, though it appears to have been rejected without much debate.

This is a reminder that many states at the time had an executive chosen by the members of the State Legislature. Perhaps this explains one of the reactions to Wilson's suggestion of a democratically elected President. As Sherman's response shows, some saw an executive independent of the legislature not as a proper 'separation of powers' but as the definition of tyranny. Put that way, it suggests the relationship of Charles I and Parliament. The powers given to Congress to impeach The President (albeit with a high threshold), Congressional oversight of taxation and spending, Congressional oversight of the power to declare war, the involvement of the Senate in most of the President's key decisions, and the lack of an absolute veto mean that the executive office actually created was not, in fact, completely independent of Congress.

The arrangements for the Electoral College left open the possibility of some kind of popular election. Whether because state legislatures could be considered truly representative of their populations, or whether because it was assumed that states like New York would opt for some kind of democratic choice of electors (whether proportionally to a popular vote, by district or on a winner-takes-all model is simply not specified by the Constitution at all and there was no debate of such matters), the debate at the Convention settled in to a dispute over whether to allow Congress to make the choice, or whether to create the electoral college. The latter appears to have been seen as the more 'democratic' choice (albeit not fully so), which perhaps explains why Wilson's proposal had such little support.

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