Slavery, Capitalism and
the History of the Electoral College

Revolutionary Worker #1080, November 27, 2000, posted at

Lots of people have been surprised to discover during this year's election that presidents are chosen by the Electoral College, not by the majority of votes. The usual TV experts have tried to explain to people that such a structure was part of the "wisdom of the founding fathers," that the U.S. "is a republic not a majoritarian democracy," and that people should look to examples from the past, like the 1876 Hayes-Tilden agreement, as models for ending political crisis through compromise.

But a look at this history shows how official U.S. politics has never been about the "will of the people."

Making of a Constitution

"All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Given therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government."

Alexander Hamilton, a leader
among the "Founding Fathers"

"The Constitution of the United States is an exploiters' vision of freedom."

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP,USA

The U.S. Constitution was written by 55 men meeting in Philadelphia during 1787. There were no poor farmers, indentured servants or urban workers in the room. Certainly no African slaves or Indians were allowed. There were no women. These delegates were representatives of the slaveowners of the South and the rich merchants and new manufacturing capitalists of the North.

The Constitution they wrote starts with the words "We the people." But the structure and institutions of this new government were designed to keep political power out of the hands of the people, and firmly in the grip of the ruling classes.

Voting was restricted to white Christian men with property. Candidates for office needed to have even more property than voters. It was a system where men with property picked among the very wealthiest citizens for offices like state legislatures.

It is not widely known that at the beginning of the republic, there was not a popular vote for the President. The President was handpicked by a special convention of propertied men called the Electoral College. It was mainly the state legislatures (meaning the local ruling class in each state) who chose those electors. And it was not until the 1820s that most states adopted a popular vote for the electors, who then picked the president.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention decided to keep their discussions top secret. They banned any publication or circulation of the Convention's minutes.

Alexander Hamilton argued that a strong central government was needed to put down insurrections--like the Shay's Rebellion of farmers in Massachusetts. Militia stood ready to face uprisings among the slaves. The slaveowner George Washington wrote, "There are combustibles in every state to which a spark may set fire." The American Revolution had not brought any radical change in the social order--and the ruling classes wanted to keep it that way.

In short, the Constitutional Convention set up a bourgeois democracy--where there was democracy for the ruling classes, but dictatorship over the masses of people. In the famous system of checks and balances, the main checks (including the army) were directed at the masses of people.

Who Gets Represented?

"How could the government of the newly formed United States, for example, be considered to have derived its powers 'from the consent of the governed' when, at the time of the formation of the United States of America, a majority of the people 'governed'--including slaves, Indians, women, men who did not meet various property requirements and others--did not even have the right to vote to say nothing of the real power to govern and determine the direction of society."

Bob Avakian, U.S. Constitution:
An Exploiters' Vision of Freedom

The Constitutional Convention delegates of 1787 argued over how many representatives each state would get in the national Congress and Electoral College. Each state ended up with two votes in the Senate and a delegation to the House of Representatives based on its population. Each state's delegation to the Electoral College was the number of House representatives plus the number of Senators.

The Constitutional Convention delegates argued over how to count the state populations. A quarter of the people in the U.S. were African slaves. If slaves were counted--the Southern ruling class would have more power in Congress and in the Electoral College. The Northern capitalist ruling class wanted only free people counted. Even then, those two ruling classes had conflicting interests--which would later break out in the U.S. Civil War.

The delegates wrote their compromise right into the opening Article 1 of the new Constitution: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons."

In this Electoral College, electors were chosen in a system where Black slaves counted as only three-fifths a human being and where the vast majority of Native people were not counted as human beings at all. It was a system where elected officials served the ruling class, while officially claiming to "represent" everyone within the society.

The Lesson of Hayes-Tilden

These days, news commentators describe the 1876 election as a model for peaceful compromise. This is revealing, once you look at the important details of this episode, which are routinely left out in media accounts.

In 1876, the Northern capitalists and Southern slaveowners had just fought a civil war over control of the federal government and the abolition of slavery. Federal troops were still occupying the former Confederate states to exercise political power over the defeated plantation owners.

In the election of 1876, Rutherford Hayes represented one wing of the Northern capitalists, while Samuel J. Tilden represented those capitalists who wanted to restore the defeated plantation owners back to power in the South. Tilden won the popular vote over Hayes--after naked Klan terror against Black voters throughout the South. But the election process stalemated in the Electoral College and there was even talk about a "new civil war." Suddenly a deal was announced, Rutherford Hayes became president.

There is nothing positive about this "Hayes-Tilden Agreement"--it was the start of a new counterrevolutionary alliance between the capitalists of the North and the plantation owners of the South. In exchange for allowing Hayes to become president, the Southern plantation owners were given a free hand to drive Black people back into plantation servitude. Federal troops were withdrawn, ending the revolutionary period of Reconstruction.

Through this betrayal, the Black people were denied the liberation and equality they had fought so hard for. With the support of Hayes and the capitalist class, new forms of oppression were imposed on Black people in the South--Jim Crow segregation, lynch law and a new-style plantation system.

Media commentators and political figures today uphold this criminal deal as a positive thing, as a model of how to resolve disputes over power! It shows the racist, oppressor mentality of the people running America today--and what the power structure means when it talks about "civility" in the ruling class.

The Hayes-Tilden agreement shows something else: Though this conflict of 1876 erupted over an election, the key decisions were not reached by counting votes. The Hayes-Tilden agreement was made in a backroom meeting so secret that its details are still unknown. This shows how the key decisions of power and policy are not made by "the will of the people" but by a ruling class.

Abolishing the Electoral College

This system and its ruling class felt embarrassed, publicly, when the possibility emerged this year that, because of this Electoral College, a candidate might become president after losing the popular vote. As a result, there have already been calls from within the ruling class and its political establishment for abolishing the Electoral College and replacing it with a system of "one person, one vote"--a direct, national, popular vote for the Presidency. This "reform" would not represent any advance for the people. The ruling class would be discarding an aging institution and slightly changing the structure of their bourgeois democracy. But this "reform" would not change the class nature of this system in any way.

Since the days of the "Founding Fathers" the real power and dictatorship of a small class of exploiters have been hidden behind the rhetoric of "We the people." And the institution of direct voting for president would continue that, while the key decisions over policy and the choice of government leaders would fundamentally remain as always in the hands of the ruling class.

In his book Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?, Bob Avakian dissects and exposes the class nature of bourgeois democracy from many sides. He writes: "This very electoral process itself tends to cover over the basic class relations--and class antagonisms--in society, and serves to give formal, institutionalized expression to the political participation of atomized individuals in the perpetuation of the status quo. This process not only reduces people to isolated individuals but at the same time reduces them to a passive position politically and defines the essence of politics as such atomized passivity--as each person, individually, in isolation from everyone else, giving his/her approval to this or that option, all of which options have been formulated and presented by an active power standing above these atomized masses of 'citizens.'... [T]he very acceptance of the electoral process as the quintessential political act reinforces acceptance of the established order and works against any radical rupture with, to say nothing of the actual overturning of, that order."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)