In the run-up to this year’s presidential election, you may recall that four years ago the candidate who received the most votes from its citizens was not elected to this country’s highest office. For many, this was an undemocratic sucker punch that fanned the flames of division and summoned calls to incinerate the Electoral College.
But before we succumb to the urge to dismantle one of the cornerstones of our Constitution, it may be useful to witness the discussions that formed its creation. So hop on board our time-traveling DeLorean as we streak back to Philadelphia, circa May 1787, to check out the Constitutional Convention.
As you enter the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall), you quickly notice two things: One, you are severely underdressed, and two, the room is insufferably hot.
The east room of the State House is crammed with 55 men, ranging in age from 26 to 81. Clearly men of status, they sport finely embroidered jackets and waistcoats, linen shirts with ruffles at the neck and sleeves, and tightly fitted satin knee breeches and silk stockings. These are the delegates selected by their respective states to rewrite the Articles of the Confederation.
Hopefully you packed a lunch — and brought something cold to drink. Because despite the stifling heat of what many will later recall as the hottest summer in 40 years, the windows of the State House stay closed, to maintain secrecy and to prevent swarms of flies from the nearby docks inundating the room.
Thomas Jefferson, serving as ambassador to France and not in the room, refers to the assemblage “as a gathering of demi-gods.” Some you may recognize, since you carry their pictures around in your pocket (Washington and Hamilton, and maybe Franklin on a good day). But most are lesser-known Founding Fathers such as Roger Sherman from Connecticut, and Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts.
As you quietly take your seat, Sherman rises, tall and gangly, to address the thorny issue of how the chief executive should be selected. Jefferson once stated that “Sherman never said a foolish thing in his life.”
“The people,” Sherman declares loudly, “should have as little to do as may be possible with the formation of the government. They want information and are constantly liable to be misled.”
Elbridge Gerry, a highly respected delegate, though now more famous for lending his name to the practice of gerrymandering, rises to support Sherman’s view. “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue; they are the dupes of pretended patriots.”
Suddenly you realize the founders are talking about you, and that, in their view, you cannot be trusted to elect the chief executive. Wow, that’s disappointing.
Over the next few days, though they parse their words with intentional ambiguity, other delegates speak of the need to avoid “the leveling of society.” Ultimately, these educated, propertied men cannot accept the notion that common men (farmers, laborers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers) can make the “right” choice for the highest office in the land. In a near-unanimous vote, the state delegates decide that “the people” will choose an elector, who will, in turn, choose the president.
Having gathered enough firsthand knowledge, you’re ready to head home. You fire up the flux capacitor on the DeLorean and streak back to 2020. On the way, you attempt to digest what you have seen and heard. The Constitution was crafted by America’s aristocrats. While most were not rich, they were men of means. They were highly educated (35 of the 55 delegates were lawyers) and truly the products of their times. So their truth was that a common man could not appropriately choose the chief executive or even their state’s senator. (It wasn’t until 1913, with the passage of the 17th Amendment, that the “people” were given the right to elect U.S. senators.)
Time, and several constitutional amendments have cracked open the gates for women, blacks, Native Americans and others to fully participate in our most important civic duty. So is it time to take the next step toward fulfilling our democratic principles and allow the “people” to select our chief executive, too? As you eagerly suck down an ice-cold Boston Lager, you know the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Tom Baumann is a historical-fiction writer in Isanti, Minn.