Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems

Founding Fathers: The politics of the 1789

A provision written into the Constitution required ratification by only nine states to form a union. New Hampshire became the ninth state on June 21, 1788, followed by Virginia four days later and New York on July 26. With 11 states, the wheels went into motion to form the first constitutional government. It was necessary for those 11 states to re-elect congressmen and senators which turned out to be virtually the same people who had been serving in the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation adopted in 1781.

In 1781-89 there were no polling places and there were no political parties (oh! happy days!). Interested citizens gathered wherever there was enough room for assembly (in churches or taverns) and talked over whatever was on their minds. If a request to send a representative was in order, they selected someone and sent them along. Always, the person selected had to be someone who could afford the time or who was willing to make great financial sacrifices. Almost always, the person being asked to serve was someone who had already spent a great deal of time speaking out, and perhaps even writing, on the subjects important to the local citizens. Delegates thus selected formed the colonial, and later, state assemblies. In turn, these assemblies appointed delegates to the Colonial Congress (prior to 1781) and then the Continental Congress (1781-1788).

With the new federal Constitution in place, each state quickly adopted a state constitution. The local citizens (for the first time) elected members to form the state legislatures and actually voted for a Representative to the U.S. House. U.S. Senators were appointed by the state legislatures.

The Constitution provides that:

"Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress: ..."

The elector's purpose wwas to cast the votes for President and Vice-President of the new United States.

Such was the situation in 1789 when the electors met to cast the votes for the first President. The Constitution, at that time, specified that:

"The electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for two persons, of whom one at least shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves. ..."

In 1804 (see Jefferson-Burr below) that wording was changed by the XIIth Amendment to:

"The electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, ..."

[Fast forward to the 2000 election: The revised wording explains why Dick Cheney had to rush off to Wyoming to change his voter registration from Texas. Had he kept his Texas registration, the Texas Republican electors would not have been allowed to cast their votes for both Bush as President and Cheney as Vice-President.]

Back to 1789. The original wording did not specify a separate vote for President and Vice-President. Each elector was to cast two votes and the President would be the person winning the majority of the electoral votes, and the Vice-President would be the person with the second highest electoral votes. In case of a tie the House would decide between them. If no one received a majority, the House would decide from among the top five, with each state having one vote.

With the first Presidential election in 1789 there was no problem. George Washington won 10 of 11 states. New York did not vote (abstained). North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the new Constitution. Again in 1792 there was no problem. Washington won 15 of 15 states; ten as in his first election, plus New York, North Carolina (ratified Nov. 21, 1789), Rhode Island (ratified May 29, 1790), and by 1792, Vermont and Kentucky had been admitted. In 1796 John Adams won 9 of 15 states and served one term.

However, things changed in 1800 when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied with 73 votes. Both having a majority, the election was thrown to the House where it dragged on through 36 ballots until February 17, 1801, with the election of Jefferson. It was after this process that the first election scandal surfaced. Some people accused Burr, while others accused Jefferson, of having stooped so low as to have contacted House Members or their associates outside of the House chamber to influence the outcome! A reluctant Washington had set the tone in the first two elections. It simply was unseemly for anyone to appear that they actually WANTED the job. In fact, Burr, toward the end of the process, had publicly stated that he would defer to Jefferson but Burr's New York constituency, with Alexander Hamilton's hand on the throttle, pushed for Burr to the last ballot. This fiasco prompted the XIIth Amendment mentioned above. Many electors had cast one of their initial votes for Burr expecting Jefferson to be President and Burr Vice-President, but, when the tie vote was sent to the House, the climate changed. There, the fight became strong central government; the Federalist -- versus original intent; states' rights.

The XIIth Amendment didn't completely solve the problem of Presidential elections. It still exist today but the House has had to decide only once since the XIIth Amendment was adopted. In the election of 1824 John Quincy Adams received only 7 of 24 states and Andrew Jackson won 11. Neither having a majority of electoral votes, it went to the House. There, Adams was elected with 13 states versus Andrew Jackson's 7 (other candidates received the other 4). [How's that for over-turning an election?] Jackson got his revenge in 1828 winning 15 states outright to 9 for Adams. [Note: Population among the states was so evenly distributed that the number of states translates roughly into the number of electoral votes.]

It may have been the Jackson-John Quincy Adams situation which started the change in political thinking, where the candidates themselves would participate (campaign) hoping to effect the outcome. But those campaigns consisted only of the candidates staying at home and issuing written statements to define their positions. Unlike today, the press played a useful role in those elections by taking sides and strongly supporting one side or the other. With today's fence straddling and devious strategy of covert support and hidden opposition, the public becomes confused.

A few papers have maintained integrity. The Washington Post is clearly pro Democrat while the Washington Times is pro Republican. The Manchester, NH, paper is pro Republican and clearly says so. On the other hand, MOST news outlets have slithered into a slimy abyss of deception. The New York Times is pro Democrat but tries to pretend that it is bi-partisan. Unfortunately there is no opposing-view publication in New York. Knight-Ridder, which includes the Charlotte Observer, is just like the New York Times; pretending to be bi-partisan yet covertly supporting Democrats. As a consequence, many readers are never sure whether the political story is true or shaded to suit the publisher's opinion.

Two hundred years ago the papers performed another vital service. They published the past records of the candidates, making comparisons and pointing out differences in deeds and philosophy. To achieve this the publications looked into the background and performance of the candidates. Today's publishers find that wasteful, because it would require their reporters do some actual work. It is far easier to read press releases issued by the candidate's staff.

All three major TV networks pretend to be bi-partisan yet anyone spending a moment looking behind their stories and how they cover the candidates will see the partisanship. This is not good for the political process. There is no shame in a news outlet taking sides... The shame is in lying about it.


[The "New York Times" reports (July, 2000) in an article by David Cay Johnston, that the IRS has ruled that parents may NOT continue claiming a dependent deduction, on their federal income tax return, for a kidnaped or abducted child. The article didn't go into specifics, but following the IRS logic it may be supposed that the deduction would transfer to the kidnapper. (This is not intended as a joke. There is nothing funny about it whatsoever). One might wonder what George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, et al, would have to say about this concept of taxation. Didn't these guys call George III a tyrant over some tea tax?]

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