When the American colonies declared their independence from Britain in 1776, the fundamental principle underlying the new government they created was the principle of liberty. To the Founders, liberty meant freedom from government oppression, because at that time, government was the primary threat to the liberty of individuals. The Declaration of Independence contains a long list of grievances that the colonists had against the Bang of England to document how King George had infringed upon the liberty of the colonists, and those grievances provided their justification for creating a new government, independent of Britain. At that time, the concept of liberty was a relatively new and truly revolutionary idea, and it provided the fundamental principle for the design of the new American government. Two centuries later, the principle of liberty has been replaced by the principle of democracy, and most Americans at the end of the twentieth century surely would view the fundamental principle of American government to be democracy, not liberty.
The modern principle of democracy holds that public policy should be determined by the views of the nation’s citizens, as aggregated through electoral and other political institutions. The government should do what the people want. But the Founders went to great lengths to insulate the activities of their new government from democratic pressures. One of the ways that they tried to limit their government from democracy was by selecting the nation’s chief executive through the use of an electoral college, rather than through direct democratic election. The electoral college never worked as planned, however, and by 1828, when Andrew Jackson was elected president, the method of electing the president had almost completely metamorphized into the democratic system that still exists at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
This metamorphosis of the electoral college mirrors changes that have occurred more generally in American government during its first two centuries. At its founding, American citizens believed that their government was created to protect their liberty, and the government was designed to be limited in scope. The Constitution was written to protect the rights of individuals and limit the powers of government. In other words, it was intended to preserve liberty. Not only did the Founders not intend for public policy to be determined democratically, they actively tried to design their new government to prevent public policy from being directed by the demands of its citizens. They recognized that liberty could be compromised by democracy, and that the will of the majority had the potential to be just as tyrannical as a king or dictator. Yet over the centuries, the principle of liberty that the Founders fought for became less of a priority for American citizens, and the principle of democracy became more significant. At the end of the twentieth century, the term liberty had an almost quaint sound to it, while trying to encourage the spread of American-style democracy around the world had become a significant part of American foreign policy.
The Founders tried to prevent the formation of a democratic government. It sounds almost anti-American to question the principle of democracy, at least as the term democracy is understood today. The electoral college was an important part of their attempt to limit the influence of democracy on American government. The evolution of the electoral college is, in one sense, only a small part of the story of the transformation of the fundamental principle of American government from liberty to democracy Yet it is an important part of the story, because it was one of the earliest manifestations of this transformation. Within a few decades of the nation’s founding, one of the most significant checks that the Founders tried to enact to control democracy had been eliminated.
Liberty, Democracy, and the U.S. Constitution
The hundred years preceding the American Revolution saw a major change in the way that people viewed the rights of individuals and the relationships between citizens and their governments. When Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan in 1651, he argued that without government, life would be a war of all against all, and that to maintain an orderly society, people had to pledge their allegiance to the sovereign, and to follow the sovereign’s rules. The rules of the sovereign amounted to a social contract, Hobbes argued, and the government was justified in killing those who did not accept the sovereign’s rules. Only a few decades later, John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, offered a radically different vision of the social contract. People did not get their rights from government, as Hobbes suggested. Rather, people naturally had rights, and it was the role of the government to protect those natural rights. The social contract as Locke envisioned it was an agreement among citizens to respect each others’ rights, not a contract between the government and the people, as Hobbes had described it. The government of the United States was established to preserve this Lockean notion of rights.
The ideas of Locke and other European Enlightenment writers became popularized by the mass media. One prominent example was a series of newspaper columns written in the London Journal in the 1720s by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, using the pen name Cato. Cato’s letters were collected and widely reprinted. These ideas found their way to the American colonies, where newspaper columnists and pamphleteers incorporated this new concept of liberty into their writing, spreading the idea of liberty to the general public and transforming the way that citizens viewed their governments. The idea that governments should serve their citizens, rather than the other way around, was a radical new idea in the 1700s, but one that laid the intellectual foundation for the American Revolution. The Revolution was fought to secure the liberty of the new nation’s citizens, and the Founders firmly believed that the main threat to liberty was the power of government. Thus, their challenge was to create a government that had the power to protect the liberty of its citizens but that was constrained from violating those rights it was designed to protect.
The new nation’s first constitution was the Articles of Confederation, which were approved by the states in 1781. Under the Articles, the United States was run by a unicameral legislature and had no executive or judicial branches of government. It had no powers of direct taxation, but rather had to requisition the state governments for funds. State governments had a substantial amount of control over the federal government under the Articles. Following the philosophy of liberty, the Articles of Confederation guaranteed the rights of Americans and strictly limited the powers of the federal government. Indeed, by the mid-1880s many of the Founders believed that the Articles too severely limited the powers of the federal government, to the extent that it had insufficient power to protect the liberty of its citizens. Thus, in 1787 Congress called for a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation in order to create a stronger federal government. The result was the United States Constitution. The Constitution represented a major change in both the structure of the federal government and in the powers of the federal government. Still, it was designed to protect the liberty of its citizens and to prevent decisions from being made democratically.
A limited amount of democratic decision-making is called for in the Constitution, but only to undertake the enumerated powers of the federal government. The government was deliberately designed to be limited in scope. In the event of any remaining uncertainty, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution—a part of the original Bill of Rights that was ratified along with the Constitution—reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In short, unless the Constitution says that the federal government can undertake a certain activity, the Constitution prohibits the federal government from undertaking it. During the nineteenth century this idea was taken seriously, and Congress would routinely debate whether specific proposals were within the powers enumerated by the Constitution. In the twentieth century the idea increasingly fell by the wayside, and the limits of public policy became determined by the popular opinion of the electorate rather than by the limits specified in the Constitution. Why this happened is well beyond the present scope; for present purposes, the point is that the transformation of the electoral college was an early step in the process.
The Constitution specifies that the government itself arrive at decisions by a democratic process. Legislation must be approved by both houses of Congress and then approved by the president, for example. Presidential vetoes can be overridden by a two-thirds vote, and a two-thirds vote is required to impeach a president. Legislative and executive responsibilities are constitutionally separated, and they remain separated as interpreted by the Supreme Court at the end of the twentieth century. Thus, even within the government, decisions are not simply made by democratic voting. Rather, there are procedures and a division of power that are established by the Constitution, and the powers of government were intended to be limited only to those enumerated by the Constitution. The Constitution was designed with democracy as a means to an end, as a tool of governmental decision-making. The Constitution was also designed with a system of checks and balances so that the three branches of government would each check the power of the others as a method of limiting the scope of governmental activity. The Founders actively tried to prevent creating a government that would undertake whatever actions met with a consensus of approval of those who were in charge and actively tried to insulate the decisions of those who were in charge from the demands of the citizenry.
The Electorate and Their Government
The notion of three branches of government, each with roughly equal power, checking each other, is a part of the fundamental design of American government. At the end of the twentieth century, Americans had the idea that their government should be accountable to the electorate, but the Founders had very different ideas, as is evident simply by looking at the design of the Constitution. Consider each of the three branches.
The legislative branch was intended to be most accountable to the electorate in the Founders’ design, because members of the House of Representatives were chosen in popular elections. Senators, however, were originally chosen by their state legislatures, and this system continued until 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, specifying that senators were to be chosen by a direct vote of the electorate. But for more than a century, and for more than half of the nation’s history (as this is being written), senators were chosen by their state legislatures, not by popular vote. The logic of that system is straightforward. The House of Representatives already represents the views of the nation’s citizens. To have a Senate elected by those same citizens means that legislation must meet the approval of two bodies who represent the same population and the same interests. As the Founders designed it, legislation had to meet the approval of the representatives of the citizens in the House of Representatives, and the representatives of the state governments in the Senate, which is a much more stringent test. The Seventeenth Amendment that mandated direct election of senators was yet another step in the transformation of American government from liberty to democracy In the Constitution as originally written, senators were not democratically elected, but were chosen by other government officials, and this deliberately insulated senators from the democratic pressures of American citizens.
Thus, looking at the legislative branch of government, only half of it was originally democratically elected by the citizens. The other half was chosen by people in government. Furthermore, the Constitution did not specify who had the right to vote for members of the House of Representatives. It said only that the voters “shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous branch of the State Legislature.” The qualifications for voting were determined by the states themselves and differed from state to state, but the Constitution, as originally written, gave nobody the explicit right to vote in federal elections. Several constitutional amendments have since changed that. People had the right to vote in federal elections only if their states gave it to them. In the original Constitution, democratic input by citizens was very limited, even in the legislative branch of government.
The judicial branch of government is overseen by the Supreme Court, and justices are still appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress. There has never been any direct accountability of Supreme Court justices to the electorate. Similarly, the Constitution specified that the president would be selected by an electoral college, or by the House of Representatives if no candidate got votes from a majority of the electors. The Constitution never has specified how a state’s electors are chosen, and the Founders tried to insulate the election of the president from popular democratic pressures, too.
Looking at the three branches of government as originally designed by the Founders, only members of half of one branch were to be chosen democratically. If each branch was designed to have roughly equal power, as would have to be the case if the branches were designed to check and balance each other, the federal government was designed to be only one-sixth democratic, and even there, it allowed the states to determine who could vote for members of the House of Representatives. Senators were chosen by their state legislatures, the president was chosen by an electoral college, and Supreme Court justices were appointed by the president. The government was not designed to be democratic, and the Founders had no intention of allowing citizens to directly select the individuals who ran the government. Rather, various mechanisms were established for selecting federal officials such that no faction would be able to maintain control over who would hold positions of power. The electoral college was one of those mechanisms designed to prevent the government from becoming democratic.
The Electoral College
The Constitution was designed so a group of highly qualified experts would be designated to select the president and vice president. Article II, Section 1, states,
Each State shall appoint, in such a 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; but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed as an Elector.
Constitutional amendments have changed some aspects of the process by which the president is elected, but this provision remains unchanged.
It is apparent from the wording of this provision of the Constitution that the Founders did not intend for electors to be democratically elected (although they did not rule out the possibility) and is even more apparent that however the electors were chosen, they did not intend the method of choice to dictate how the electors would cast their ballots. Otherwise, why would the Constitution rule out federal officials as electors? Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution continues, “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.” The person receiving the most votes would then become president if that person received votes from a majority of the electors, and the person with the second-highest number of votes would become vice president. This provision was changed slightly by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804 so that the president and vice president were voted on separately, but the electoral college system remained essentially unchanged otherwise. The Constitution has never bound electors to vote for specific candidates, and the Constitution makes it clear that the Founders envisioned electors using their discretion to select the candidates they viewed as best-qualified. That system remains intact at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and even though electors are associated with specific candidates, it has not been uncommon for an occasional elector to break ranks and vote for someone other than the candidate chosen by the state’s voters.
In practice, most presidents have won election by receiving a majority of the electoral votes, but at the time the Constitution was written, the Founders anticipated that in most cases no candidate would receive votes from a majority of the electors. The Founders reasoned that most electors would prefer candidates from their own states, so the typical elector would vote for one candidate from his own state and a candidate from another state, following the constitutional requirement, and it would be unlikely that voting along state lines would produce any candidate with a majority of votes. This state bias is reinforced by the fact that these electors are constitutionally charged to meet in their states and then forward their votes to the president of the Senate to be counted. There is much less of an opportunity for consensus under this system than if the electors from all of the states gathered together in a common location, making it even more likely that no candidate would receive a majority.
Today, it is common for people to conjecture that electors were to meet in their own states rather than gather in a central location because transportation was much more difficult then. Yet it is apparent that the system of having electors meet in their own states rather than all together as one group serves another purpose: It makes it more difficult for the electoral college to arrive at a consensus when there is in fact no consensus candidate. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution specifies that “if no Person [has] a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse [sic] the president.” The Founders envisioned that in most cases no candidate would end up receiving votes from a majority of the electors, so the president would end up being chosen by the House of Representatives from the list of the five top electoral-vote recipients.
As it has evolved, the actual practice of electing a president is quite different from the way that the Founders intended. The Founders intended electoral votes to be cast by electors who would be more knowledgeable than the general public, rather than by popular mandate, and the Founders envisioned that in most cases the final decision would be made by the House of Representatives rather than the electors anyway. Furthermore, there was no indication that the number of electoral votes actually received should carry any weight besides creating a list of the top five candidates. The House could then use its discretion to determine who on that list would make the best president. Quite clearly, the process was not intended to be democratic, although it has evolved that way despite the fact that the constitutional provisions for selecting a president remain essentially unchanged. As specified in the Constitution, the election process should resemble the way that a search committee might serve to locate a high-ranking corporate (or government, or academic) administrator. The committee, like the electoral college, would develop a list of candidates, and the CEO (or bureau chief, or university president) would then select his or her most preferred candidate from the list. As it actually has evolved, this multi-step process has been set aside in favor of popular elections.
The electoral college system envisioned by the Founders was designed to select a chief executive for the nation from a candidate pool composed of an elite group. Successful candidates would have to be well-known and viewed as highly qualified in many states to get enough electoral votes to make the final list and would have to have enough respect from within the House of Representatives to be chosen from a list of five finalists. Those involved in the selection process would be an elite group of Americans, and the process was engineered in order to produce a president who came from the upper echelons of the American elite. The process was not intended to be democratic.
The Selection of Presidential Electors
The current selection of electors is by a restricted general ticket, which allows voters only to vote for a bloc of electors who represent a specific candidate, but this method of election was not well-established until at least three decades after presidential elections began. The most common method for selecting electors early in the nation’s history was to have state legislatures do it. In the first presidential election, only two states, Pennsylvania and Maryland, used general-ticket elections to select their presidential electors. In the second presidential election in 1792, there were fifteen states, and three used general-ticket elections, ten chose their electors in the state legislature, and two had district elections for electors. In the election of 1800, which elected Thomas Jefferson for his first term, there were sixteen states, and only one used general-ticket election while ten had their state legislatures choose their electors.
The selection of electors by state legislatures remained common through 1820, when James Monroe was elected to his second term of office. In that election, nine out of twenty-four states chose their electors in the state legislature, while eight used general-ticket elections. After 1820 the selection of electors through general ticket elections became rapidly more common. In 1824, twelve of the twenty-four states used general-ticket elections, and only six selected electors in their state legislatures. By 1828, eighteen of twenty-four states used general-ticket elections and only two chose electors in the legislature, and by 1832, only South Carolina chose their electors in the legislature; one state had district elections; and the other twenty-two used general-ticket elections. In 1836 all states but South Carolina used general-ticket elections. South Carolinians did not vote directly for their electors until after the Civil War.
The movement toward democratic elections for president in the nation’s early history is striking. States used a variety of methods for selecting their electors, but through 1820, the most common method of selecting electors was through the state legislature, without direct voting. By 1832, just twelve years later, direct voting was used almost nationwide. The design of the Constitution makes it apparent that the Founders did not intend to have the president elected by direct vote, but they left it up to the states to determine exactly how presidential electors would be chosen. The result was that, despite the retention of the electoral college, the president is effectively chosen by direct vote and has been since the 1820s. The movement toward the democratic election of the president also corresponds with a more democratic notion of the office itself, beginning in the 1820s.
The Elite Presidency: 1789–1829
When the office of the president was being designed by the Founders at the Constitutional Convention, one factor underlying the discussion was the assumption that George Washington would be elected the first president. Washington, revered today, also commanded a huge amount of respect after the revolution, and the office was designed in part with the thought that Washington would set the precedent for the details of the office that were left out of the Constitution. Design of the government would have been more difficult, and might have proceeded along different lines, had there not been such an obvious and popular candidate to become the first president.
The Founders were wary of the potential for tyranny that majorities could exert in a democratic government and tried to guard against the exploitation of a minority by a majority in several ways. The role of democratic decision-making was severely limited both by insulating the new government from direct voting and by constitutionally limiting the scope of the government. In addition, the Founders wanted to guard against the emergence of factions to prevent citizens from viewing their interests as being represented by one group of political candidates rather than another. Especially with regard to the presidency, the system was designed to select the most qualified individual to head the executive branch of government, rather than to select a candidate who represented some citizens more than others.
The Constitution makes no reference to political parties, and the methods of selecting federal officials were designed to prevent them from playing a major role. Modern sources tend to cite party affiliations for all past presidents, but political parties in the modern sense did not assume any importance in presidential elections until 1828, when Andrew Jackson was elected. Candidates for the office came from a political elite, and because of widespread selection of electors by state legislatures, candidates needed to win the support of others in the political elite in order to win the office. Despite the rapid emergence of factions in American government, prior to 1828 parties did not campaign for presidential candidates.
George Washington and John Adams, the first two presidents, are associated with the Federalist Party, a distinction which became crucial during Adams’s term as president. Washington remained unchallenged as head of state during his two terms as president and had a solid enough following that his vice president, John Adams, was elected president when Washington chose not to serve a third term. But while Washington was not seriously challenged during his two elections, Adams won his election by a margin of only two electoral votes over Thomas Jefferson, a member of the Democratic-Republican Party, who then, following the rules of the original Constitution, became vice president.
By the time of Adams’s election in 1796, there had developed some serious philosophical differences regarding the way that the federal government should evolve. At the center of much of the controversy was Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton served as much more than just the secretary of the Treasury during Washington’s administration; indeed, one historian referred to him as effectively being the “prime minister,” partly because the Treasury Department was so large compared to the rest of the government at that time, and partly because Hamilton took it upon himself to strengthen the position of the federal government whenever the opportunity presented itself. One of the issues that created a considerable amount of controversy was the creation of the first Bank of the United States as a federally chartered corporation. As Treasury secretary, this was Hamilton’s project, but among its significant opponents were James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Despite opposition, in 1791 the first Bank of the United States was given a twenty-year charter.
The Bank of the United States was but a part of Hamilton’s broader vision of the role of the United States government. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton had argued that all communities can be divided into the few who are rich and well-born, and the remaining mass of people. Their interests are often at odds, but the masses are seldom good judges of what is right. Thus, Hamilton wanted a Constitution that would ensure the “rich and well-born their distinct, permanent share in the government.” As secretary of Treasury, he tried to design a government that would protect and promote industry. Hamilton’s “Report on Manufactures,” written while he was secretary of Treasury, promoted government policy that encouraged government protection of industry, and Hamilton advocated an internal improvements program that would spend enough to maintain the national debt. Hamilton viewed the debt as creating a tie among the interests of financial groups, businesses, and creditors with the federal government. “A national debt, if not excessive, will be to us a national blessing,” Hamilton said.
James Madison, who had strongly opposed parties and factions in The Federalist Papers No. 10, revised his opinion as a reaction to the Hamiltonian expansion of the scope of government and, along with Thomas Jefferson created the Democratic-Republican Party to try to counter the growing power of the federal government that they viewed was occurring in the Washington administration. After Washington stepped down, his vice president, John Adams, was elected president in a close election. Thomas Jefferson’s electoral vote total was almost equal to that of Adams’s, and he was able to create an unpleasant political environment for Adams, who was the first one-term president and was unseated by Jefferson in the election of 1800. The problems created by having a president and vice president from different parties laid the foundation for the Twelfth Amendment, which created separate electoral balloting for the offices of president and vice president.
Jefferson’s two terms were followed by his fellow Democratic-Republicans, Madison and Monroe. While their political alignments originally arose in opposition to Hamilton’s vision of a United States government that would promote elite commercial and business interests, their policies drifted toward Hamilton’s. Interestingly enough, despite Madison’s leadership in the opposition to the First Bank of the United States, whose charter ran out in 1811, the Second Bank of the United States was chartered in 1816, also for twenty years, during Madison’s presidency. Madison had decided that a nationally chartered bank was not such a bad idea after all. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., noted,
The approval of the Second Bank of the United States in 1816 by the man who twenty-five years before had been the ablest opponent of the First Bank was an appropriate commentary on the breakdown of the Jeffersonian idyl.
What appeared to be a fissure between factions that created the Democratic-Republican Party in hindsight did not result in a great division, especially in comparison to the political divisions that would appear within a few decades.
The first six presidents were members of America’s political elite, chosen by America’s political elite. After a close election for his first term, Jefferson received 162 out of 176 electoral votes to win his second term in the first election where the vice president was selected from a separate ballot. Madison and Monroe, the fourth and fifth presidents, each won two terms in office with electoral landslides, making the elite nature of the office uncontroversial. Outside of George Washington, Monroe might lay claim to the title of the least partisan of all American presidents. But controversy erupted in the election of 1824, when John Quincy Adams was selected by the House of Representatives to be the nation’s sixth president.
Four candidates received electoral voters for president in 1824. Andrew Jackson received the highest number of electoral votes with 99, followed by John Quincy Adams with 84, William H. Crawford with 41, and Henry Clay with 37. Because no candidate had a majority, following the rules modified by the Twelfth Amendment, the House of Representatives was to choose the president from the top three vote recipients. Rather than choose Jackson, a war hero but a political outsider, the House chose Adams, the son of the nation’s second president and a member of the political elite. Adams’s election followed the rules, but Jackson’s supporters were outraged by the choice, believing that Adams was chosen only because of a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Henry Clay in which Clay was appointed secretary of state in exchange for Clay’s support of Adams’s candidacy.
The Electoral College Before Jackson’s Presidency
The history of the election of 1824 tends to emphasize the collusion between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay that eventually delivered Adams the presidency. But a neglected underlying factor in the historical controversy was the evolution of the electoral college in the nation’s first few decades. Adams’s election followed the constitutional rules exactly, and even followed the intent of the Founders. No candidate received votes from a majority of the electors, so the House was to select the candidate it preferred, which it did. Neither the Founders nor the Constitution intended to give any preference to the top electoral vote-getter or to take into account the number of electoral votes each candidate received. And even if they had, the electoral vote counts of Adams and Jackson were very close anyway. Members of the House simply undertook their constitutional responsibility to choose a president following exactly the constitutional rules and the intentions of the Founders. So why were Jackson’s supporters so upset? They were upset because the actual practice of presidential elections had deviated significantly from the Founders’ intent in the decades preceding the 1824 election, and if the actual practice at the time had been followed, rather than the literal rules of the Constitution, Jackson’s supporters believed that he would have been elected president.
The Founders intended for the electoral college to be composed of knowledgeable electors, as a kind of search committee to forward a list of the top candidates for the presidency to the House, which would then choose the president except in cases where there was a consensus among electors. But the system had never worked that way. John Quincy Adams was the first president who did not receive an electoral majority, meaning that the nation had selected presidents for more than three decades without ever having a president selected in the House. Over those decades, the methods that states used to select their electors had changed so that rather than having state legislatures choose them, they were chosen by the electorate directly. Furthermore, electors represented specific candidates instead of being chosen for their ability to select good candidates. Thus, in effect, there was popular voting for president despite the process specified in the Constitution, and if the president was in fact elected by popular vote, Jackson’s supporters believed that he should have been selected as president in 1824.
Another factor was that after the election of 1800, when Jefferson narrowly edged out Adams, there was not a close election again until 1824, and with nearly a quarter of a century of consensus choices, Americans became accustomed to the idea that the popular vote-winner became president. When almost all states had adopted general-ticket voting for electors, the notion that the nation’s chief executive was chosen by popular vote was reinforced. The Constitution has always specified, and still specifies, that the presidential electors cast votes for president. Despite what the document says, and despite what the Founders intended, by 1824 the nation had gone to popular voting for president. Jackson’s supporters felt cheated because Jackson was denied the presidency despite the fact that he got the most votes.
The Formation of the Democratic Party
The dissatisfaction of Jackson’s supporters was consistent with the increasing democratization of American government. Presidential elections were increasingly being decided by popular vote, with the big transition occurring in the 1820s. In the election of 1820, nine states still chose their electors in their state legislatures, but by 1824, when John Quincy Adams was elected, only six did. In 1828, when Andrew Jackson unseated Adams to become president, only two states had their legislatures choose their electors. The increasingly democratic election methods came along with the formation of the Democratic Party, which was organized for the specific purpose of electing Andrew Jackson to the presidency Jackson’s supporters, led by Martin Van Buren, formed the Democratic Party after the election of 1824 to ensure that, in the next election, Jackson would get a majority of the electoral votes and so could not be denied the presidency by an elitist House of Representatives.
Van Buren’s efforts would undoubtedly have gone in a different direction had the electoral college actually functioned as the Founders intended. The formation of a political party to get popular support made a great deal of sense under the new system in which the president was chosen by popular vote but would have made no sense a few decades before, when most electors were chosen by their state legislatures. The formation of the Democratic Party was a significant event in American politics, but the party was formed only because of the transformation of the electoral college.
Van Buren’s efforts to form the Democratic Party began even before John Quincy Adams was inaugurated as president. Although Adams’s bargain to appoint Clay as secretary of state seemed reasonable to Adams, and there was no doubt that Clay was eminently qualified, Van Buren was quick to paint Adams as undertaking partisan activity. In contrast to presidents over the previous two decades, Adams had a very narrow base of political support, which in itself created political opposition and enhanced the appearance of factionalism. Adams could only appeal to his supporters in order to accomplish anything while in office, enhancing the appearance of governance by a political elite. Although the “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay gave Adams the immediate reward of the presidency, it also initiated the process that unseated him four years later, gave rise to the party system that has dominated American politics since, and greatly accelerated the movement of the United States toward democracy as its fundamental principle.
Well-defined factions had existed within American government for decades. It was in George Washington’s administration, after all, that Jefferson and Madison had begun their political party to oppose what they viewed as an unwarranted expansion of government power. In contrast to the elitist notion of party that had characterized American politics and that had placed John Quincy Adams in the White House, Van Buren began to promote a new and more positive view of political parties. Van Buren’s idea was that “Parties should be democratic associations, run by the majority of the membership.”
Van Buren was well aware of the American tradition opposing political parties, tracing its origins back through The Federalist Papers No. 10, and supported in word by all six of the first presidents but Van Buren, a senator from New York, perceived legitimate political differences among politicians that could be expressed along party lines. More significantly, he viewed the opposition of incumbents to organized parties as support for the continuance of political dominance by America’s aristocratic elite. Without organized opposition, the elite could continue to dominate American government indefinitely. Parties served the legitimate interest of organizing political opposition, resisting the concentration of power in an elite group and providing a broader representation of the political views of most Americans.
Van Buren did not misperceive the role that his new Democratic Party would play. Indeed, the Founders tried to insulate the federal government from democratic control for what they believed were good reasons and had no notion that the president would be chosen by the popular vote of American citizens. Yet the Democratic Party had formed to do just that. The efforts of Van Buren and the Democrats were an unqualified success, and Jackson won the presidency in 1828, defeating the incumbent president by an electoral total of 178 to 83. The modern party system was born, as both the Democrats and their opponents recognized that after Jackson’s election, a party organization would be necessary to win the presidency. After Jackson’s two terms as president, Van Buren was elected president for one term and was unseated by his Whig challenger William Henry Harrison in 1840. The American two-party system has evolved since then, but fundamentally it has not changed.
Jackson campaigned for the presidency based on a platform of liberty. Jackson viewed himself as following a Jeffersonian tradition, both in opposing the status quo of the previous administration and of trying to limit the powers of the federal government and loosen the grip of the political elite over American government. The federal government remained relatively limited in scope, but under Jackson’s predecessors its power had been slowly but steadily growing and was controlled by elites, allowing the broader population little say in the operation of their government. Jackson wanted to limit the powers of the federal government, and he believed that the way to do so was to move from government by elites to government by democracy. The Founders had intended for the federal government to be controlled by elites rather than responding to the masses, placing Jackson’s populist ideas at odds with his predecessors, but the Founders just as clearly intended for the federal government to be strictly limited in scope, making Jackson’s ideas in this area more in harmony with the Founders.
One of the most visible issues that Jackson pursued was the Second Bank of the United States, which he opposed as an institution that centralized power and shackled the growth of the American economy. Jackson believed that the policies of the Second Bank perpetuated monopoly in the banking industry, giving privilege to the few at the expense of the many. Despite an attempt by Congress to extend the bank’s charter, Jackson was able to veto the bank, and it passed out of existence in 1836, the last year of Jackson’s second term. Jackson’s philosophy of government came from a group of successful businessmen who pushed laissez-faire ideas. While monopolistic business practices could prove harmful, the Jacksonians, following Adam Smith, believed that government was more often the source of monopolistic business practices than the solution. Rather than try to get the government involved in the economy, Jackson attempted to pull back, in the case of the Second Bank and in the case of government regulation and support of the economy more generally.
Jackson wanted to dilute the economic power wielded by America’s business elite, and he viewed that much of that power was driven by government policy including policies of incorporation. In Jackson’s day, banks were the corporations that wielded the most economic power, and Jackson wanted to eliminate bank notes and move to a system of hard money to remove some of the power of banks. Banks were only a part of the incorporation problem, however. Often, corporate charters were granted for projects that conveyed some monopoly power, such as the building of toll roads and bridges, and Jackson wanted to extend the ability to incorporate so that anybody would be allowed to create a corporation following general laws, rather than having to specifically be granted a corporate charter. General incorporation laws at the state level, following the Jacksonian idea, began to spread prior to the War Between the States, and became universal after the war. Corporate forms of business are so common today that it is difficult to imagine business without it, but the modern corporate form is “a direct legacy from Jacksonian democracy.”
Another important issue was the federal funding of internal improvements. Jackson was against it, not just as a matter of policy, but as a Constitutional issue. Jackson saw no allowance within the Constitution for the federal government to engage in public works and believed that if the people wanted the government involved, they should either petition their state governments to undertake the projects they desired or amend the Constitution. This was an issue in which Jackson stood in stark contrast with John Quincy Adams, who in his first State of the Union address proposed a stunning array of public works, including roads and canals, a national university, and federal support for the exploration of the western territories. These activities should be undertaken for the good of the nation, regardless of popular opinion, Adams argued. Adams inadvertently gave Jackson two issues that clearly differentiated the two and created a clear contrast for the presidential election of 1828. The first issue was directly related to the federal government’s involvement in public works, but the second larger issue was the role of popular opinion as a check on government power.
Jackson’s first major move against public works was his Maysville veto in 1828, against a bill that would have provided federal funding for a road that was to be entirely within Kentucky. The bill’s supporters argued that the road would be an important link in the federal transportation system, but Jackson viewed this argument as irrelevant. The federal government had no constitutional authority to finance internal improvements, whether or not they were national in character, Jackson argued.
Jackson also believed that the courts, and the law itself, were too inaccessible to most citizens, and the favored codification and simplification of law to remove some of the power of the courts. Jackson would not have prevented the courts from interpreting the law, but the believed the Supreme Court was substantially overstepping its constitutional bounds whenever it attempted to divine the true meaning of ambiguous parts of the Constitution. To do so made the actions of the other branches of government subordinate to the interpretations of the judiciary, which was contrary to Jackson’s vision of the Constitution’s design.
In contrast to Alexander Hamilton’s view, Jackson opposed the national debt and by 1835 had retired it entirely, an accomplishment in which he took pride. He also wanted the federal government to give up its ownership of public lands. Jackson claimed to be a Jeffersonian Republican, committed to the idea of limited government and determined to turn around what he viewed as the expansion of federal government power under his predecessors. His policies were consistently laissez-faire, and he left his mark on the nation by successfully limiting the scope of government in many ways. At the same time, Jackson viewed the federal government as a necessary check on the power of state governments and believed that this balance was necessary to preserve liberty. When South Carolina threatened secession in 1833, Jackson made it perfectly clear that he would use military force if necessary to preserve the Union, setting a precedent upon which Lincoln called less than three decades later.
In most respects, Jackson’s ideas on public policy were very libertarian, recalling the Founders’ own ideas that the purpose of the federal government was to preserve the liberty of its citizens. He was opposed to federal involvement in public works, in banking and monetary policy, and in giving privileges such as corporate charters to some that were not available to all, and he was opposed to the public debt. But he believed that the federal government was essential to further this goal, so he opposed state nullification of federal laws and opposed the secession of states from the Union. He was also opposed to governance by a privileged elite, and believed that the population as a whole should have more control over their government, as a check on the power of the elite.
The public policy positions taken by Jackson were consistently aimed at the goal of reducing the scope and power of the federal government, but in addition to these policy ends, Jackson also believed in democracy as a means to control the federal government. The top officials in the government should be elected directly, Jackson believed, including senators and the president, in order to make them more accountable to the people, and once elected, they should heed the wishes of the electorate. Because popular election would give voters a direct method of removing from office officials who did not further the will of the electorate, popular elections would create an incentive structure that would hold elected officials more accountable to the demands of the voters. Through democracy, Jackson wanted to remove the federal government from the control of the political elite that had overseen it since the approval of the new Constitution. As it happens, his ideas on democracy have had a more lasting impact on the nation than his Jeffersonian ideas of limited government.
As an outsider, a war hero, and a person who had worked his way up to national prominence rather than having been born into privilege, Jackson found a sympathetic audience in the electorate. As one historian put it,
it was much in Jackson’s favor that he was an ignorant man, fully as devoid as the average citizen could be of all the training, through books or practice, which had theretofore been commonly regarded as constituting the odious superior qualifications of a detestable upper class.
In short, Jackson’s ideas were not the product of thoughtful scholarship and an in-depth understanding of political theory, but rather were a reaction to his perception that a government established to protect the liberty of its citizens had been accumulating power in the hands of a political elite. Democracy was the mechanism Jackson favored for redistributing power away from this elite and returning it to the people.
What Jackson did not anticipate was that by making government officials more accountable to the general public, they would be more inclined to make decisions that pandered to popular opinion rather than sticking to the guidelines of the Constitution. The Founders had good reason for trying to insulate the actions of the federal government from the demands of popular opinion, but Jackson wanted to remove that insulation, making the federal government more accountable to the electorate. Jackson was successful, and his most lasting legacy is that he made the federal government more democratic and thus more oriented toward satisfying the demands of the voters than protecting their liberty. Of course, Jackson would not have been able to do so had the electoral college functioned as the Founders originally envisioned. Given the changes in presidential elections that occurred prior to 1828, it was inevitable that somebody would come along who would mobilize popular opinion, and that person happened to be Andrew Jackson. But Jacksonian democracy was as much a product of the evolution of the electoral college as it was of Jackson himself.
The Two-Party System
The creation of the Democratic Party directly led to the creation of America’s two-party system. With the Democrats explicitly organized to get their candidate into the White House, any opposing candidate would need a similar organization in order to mount a plausible opposition. Thus, the Whig Party developed a similar organization in order to mount an opposition to the Democrats. Eventually they succeeded. Jackson was a very popular president, and after he served two terms, Democratic nominee Martin Van Buren, who had been instrumental in forming the party, was elected to the presidency. Van Buren proved less popular than Jackson, however, and served only one term before being displaced by Whig William Henry Harrison. Thus, the two-party system was born.
The American electoral system naturally lends itself to two parties, but no more. Politicians tend to be viewed as being somewhere on a political spectrum from left to right, and voters tend to favor the candidate that is closest to their own views on that left-right continuum. Thus, in the typical election one candidate gains most of the votes of the people on the right while the other gets most of the votes of the people on the left. In order to win, the candidate must get the votes of people in the middle, and this causes most successful candidates to pull their platforms toward the center of the political spectrum. If a third party were to arise and gain strength, it would tend to take votes from one or the other party, making two of the three parties unviable. They would either have to merge or one would fade away, perhaps after adopting some of the views of the party it was closest to. This idea is well-established as a part of political theory, and the reason for bringing it up here is to show how the emergence of the Democratic Party coupled with the quick transformation of the presidential election system into a winner-take-all popular vote contest inevitably, and rapidly, led to the creation of a two-party system.
The Constitution says nothing about political parties, and the Founders did not anticipate that they would play a major role in presidential elections. However, the nation has had a two-party system since the creation of Jackson’s Democratic Party. The Whigs were the first challengers to the Democrats, but once the Republicans gained strength, the Whig Party disappeared, maintaining the two-party system. This would not have happened without the creation of the Democratic Party to elect Jackson, but perhaps it was inevitable that the two-party system would emerge eventually once the Founder’s vision of the electoral college was phased out in favor of popular voting for electors. Because of that, organized presidential campaigns to gain popular support could pay big dividends in a way that would not be possible if the electoral college had actually functioned as a group of well-informed electors who would forward a slate of candidates to the House for final selection.
Thus, the transformation of the electoral college directly led to the creation of the modern two-party system. Had the system worked as the Founders originally envisioned, states rather than political parties would have been the nucleus of political support. There would have been room for more political parties, on the one hand, but on the other hand, parties would have served a much smaller purpose in presidential elections. If the electoral college was composed of a group of people who knew the candidates and could judge their strengths and weaknesses personally, party affiliation would have been secondary to the political views and personal qualities of the candidates, so there would have been less of an incentive for candidates to affiliate with parties. The modern two-party system in the United States is a direct result of the evolution of the electoral college early in the nineteenth century.
Interests in Jackson’s Administration
Within the context of the growth of federal government power, Andrew Jackson’s presidency had two opposing effects. As noted earlier, Jackson favored a smaller federal government with less power and with less oversight over the activities of state governments. This return to Jeffersonian principles had the immediate effect of reducing the scope and power of the federal government. Pulling in the other direction, however, was Jackson’s desire for more democratic representation in the federal government and Jackson’s assigning of federal government positions based on political patronage. The fledgling civil service system that existed when he was elected was done away with by Jackson. Prior to Jackson’s administration, there was the notion that as long as civil servants performed their duties well, they were entitled to keep their jobs. Jackson saw things differently. He believed that the jobs were not so demanding that people of reasonable intelligence could not perform them, and he argued that more was lost by giving people a guarantee of continuing employment than was gained by retaining an experienced workforce. Thus, Jackson replaced many government workers after his election.
Jackson’s argument about giving government workers an incentive to perform has some merit and found a sympathetic hearing in his day, but one by-product of Jackson’s actions was the transformation of government jobs into political patronage awards. Jackson’s political supporters ended up getting government jobs and had an incentive to continue supporting Jackson if they wanted to keep their jobs. Political appointments have a certain logic behind them, because if government workers perform poorly, incumbent politicians are more likely to lose the next election and those workers are likely to lose their jobs. Thus, political appointees have an incentive to make the government look good. But it was also apparent that many government employees had their jobs only because they supported the Democratic Party.
This aspect of political parties is almost inevitable, although civil service reform that began at the end of the nineteenth century has curbed the process somewhat. When presidents were selected by political elites from a group of political elites, they did not accumulate political debts and were not compelled to act in a partisan fashion. But when a president is elected because of the support of a political party, the president owes his election to the party and is pressured to repay the favor by giving benefits to his political supporters. With a limited federal government early in the nineteenth century, the major kind of benefit that could be tendered was government employment. Thus, Jacksonian democracy brought with it political patronage and reinforced the idea that in a political competition, to the victor belongs the spoils. The nation had taken another step away from liberty and another step toward democracy.
The tariff was a major issue of the time, and while Jackson was philosophically in favor of lower tariffs, he also wanted to keep tariff revenue flowing in order to retire the federal debt. In 1828, Jackson sought to maintain political support by adjusting tariff rates on different goods, producing a tariff with so many different rates tailored to special interests that it has since been called the “tariff of abominations.” Federal tariff policy became one of the issues over which the Southern states argued they should secede from the union. In 1832, most of the “abominations” were eliminated from the tariff in a new bill that reduced rates. Still, the tariff was one of the earliest issues in which interest groups became involved in distributive politics.
While Jackson viewed himself as aligned with Jeffersonian political ideals, his election campaign had little to do with issues and everything to do with personalities. The Democratic Party was formed to elect Jackson, and for that, Jackson owed a debt to those who supported him. Jackson repaid his supporters with federal government positions. Jackson’s avowed motives were in line with the tenets of his Democratic Party. He viewed that replacing a complacent elite group of federal employees with a new group of citizens would enhance the democratic nature of government and would improve the efficiency of its operation. The result was to establish political patronage as a method of rewarding those who support victorious politicians—to the victor belongs the spoils. In fact, during the first eighteen months of his administration, Jackson only replaced 919 people out of 10,093 on the federal payroll, but he did so in a more deliberate manner than his predecessors. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., notes, “Jackson ousted no greater a proportion of officeholders than Jefferson, though his administration certainly established the spoils system in national politics.”
The spoils system and the beginning of interest-group politics came directly from the fact that Jackson relied on his party to get him elected. The strategy of forming a party to elect a candidate, in turn, was a result of the changes in the method of presidential elections. Thus, there is a direct connection between interest-group politics and the transformation of the electoral college. With little imagination, one can envision how American politics would be different today if the president were chosen by a search committee of knowledgeable electors not committed to any candidate, rather than by popular voting.
The Electoral College and American Democracy
The Founders intended for the president to be selected by a very different process than actually occurred. The process differed even in the very first presidential elections, and the electoral college never worked as the Founders had envisioned. Yet because there was substantial consensus regarding the candidates elected to the presidency in the early 1800s, the fact that the process differed from what the Founders intended was not fully exposed until the election of 1824, when the House selected John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson. The original idea was to insulate the presidential selection process from popular opinion, but by 1828, the current system of popular voting for president was firmly in place. That election also marked the first time that a president was elected because of the support of a political party, and it marked the first time that the president did not come from America’s political elite.
Jackson’s presidency brought with it a number of other changes, largely as a result of the way in which he was elected. Political appointments were made as a reward for political support, with no apologies from Jackson, and interest groups that had supported Jackson’s candidacy expected to be rewarded once Jackson took office. Thus, Jackson’s election brought with it interest-group politics and created America’s two-party system. Jackson’s election had a huge impact on American democracy, partly because of Jackson and his policies, but also largely because of Jackson’s reliance on a political party to get elected. That strategy, in turn, was feasible only because the electoral college had rapidly evolved into a system of popular voting for president.
Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party was appropriately named, for Jackson believed that liberty could be protected only by allowing the people to govern through majority rule. The increased scope of democracy over American government was something Andrew Jackson favored. He favored direct election of the president and senators and even favored democratic oversight of the Supreme Court. Jackson saw democracy and liberty as self-reinforcing, because democratic oversight of the government would guard against its being taken over by a political elite and would prevent the elite government from pursuing policies that would benefit the elite few at the expense of the masses. The Founders felt otherwise, for two reasons. First, they did not believe that most people had the capacity to make thoughtful and informed decisions about their government. Second, they believed that rule by majority could be just as tyrannical as rule by a king, or rule by any elite group. Thus, they designed the government to be run by a political elite, constrained in its actions by the Constitution.
Jackson fought for democracy as a method of limiting the scope and power of the federal government, but ironically, the result of his making the nation’s government more democratic has been to increase the scope and power of government in response to popular demands for government programs. This was the result the Founders foresaw and tried to guard against by limiting the role of democracy in their new government. Jackson was a strong president and was able to accomplish many of his immediate goals while he was in office, but the results of his presidency do not look as good, judged by his own goals, over a longer time horizon. Although Jackson wanted to limit the powers of the federal government and succeeded in doing so during his own administration, the more democratic government that he created laid the foundation for future government growth. The growth of government as a direct result of Jacksonian democracy, after Jackson left office, more than offset the reductions in the scope of government that Jackson presided over during his eight years in the White House.
Andrew Jackson’s presidency was pivotal in the development of American democracy, but its lasting impact was largely a result of changes in the electoral college prior to his election. Had the electoral college functioned as the Founders intended, Jackson would have been an unlikely presidential candidate because he was not a member of the political elite. But more significantly, there would have been no point in creating a broad-based political party like the Democratic Party, because popular support for a candidate would have had little impact on a presidential election. In response, the Whig Party was formed, and because of the winner-take-all nature of the presidential contests, the two-party system was born as a direct result of the changes that occurred in the electoral college. Political parties, in turn, have led to the creation of factions and interests in American politics, which the Founders explicitly tried to prevent.
When one analyzes the changes associated with Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the context of the earlier changes in the electoral college, one can see that the most lasting changes brought by Jackson were a result of the electoral college rather than Jackson himself. The growth of political parties and interest group politics, and the promotion of democracy as a fundamental principle of American government, all came as a result of the move to popular voting for president. Jackson’s ideas for limiting the scope of the federal government were completely undone by the growth of democracy in America. Indeed, had Jackson not been so successful in promoting democracy, the cause of liberty would have been better served. But even this gives Jackson too much credit, because by the time he was elected, the incentives in presidential politics had changed, making parties and interest-group politics inevitable. The Founders envisioned a system of presidential elections that would have curbed this, but they left too much discretion to the states. If they had clearly specified the nondemocratic procedure they had envisioned for presidential elections, that would have gone a great way toward insulating the presidency from the demands of popular opinion and would have furthered the cause of liberty that they tried so hard to embody in the Constitution.
This article is chapter five from Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom, ed. John V. Denson (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2001), pp. 137–67.