Episode 287: Elections in Early America: Presidential Elections & the Electoral College

For four months during the summer of 1787, delegates from the thirteen states met in Philadelphia to craft a revised Constitution that would define the government of the United States. It took them nearly the entire time to settle on the method for selecting the President, the Chief Executive. What they came up with is a system of indirect election where the states would select electors who would then cast votes for President and Vice President. Today we call these electors the Electoral College.

In this final episode of our series on Elections in Early America, we explore the origins and early development of the Electoral College and how it shaped presidential elections in the first decades of the United States with Alexander Keyssar, the Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard University, and Frank Cogliano, a Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh.

About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Each episode features a conversation with a historian who helps us shed light on important people and events in early American history.

Ben Franklin’s World is a production of the Omohundro Institute.

Episode Summary

Alexander Keyssar, the Matthew W. Sterling Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Frank Cogliano, Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh, explore the origins and development of the Electoral College as the method for electing the President and Vice President.

Through our conversations, Alex and Frank reveal how the delegates to the Constitutional Convention settled on the electoral college as a solution to the question of how to elect the President; How the development of political parties complicated presidential elections after the retirement of George Washington; And why reformers were able to ratify the Twelfth Amendment and not other reform proposals.

What You’ll Discover

  • How the delegates to the Constitutional Convention created the system for electing the President
  • What other methods the delegates considered
  • How George Washington’s presence influenced the design of presidential elections
  • The connection between the Electoral College and the Three-Fifths Compromise
  • The idea of a “patriot king”
  • Why the delegates thought political parties would not form
  • Why political parties formed anyway
  • The 1796 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
  • How states changed their election methods during presidential campaigns
  • How the House of Representatives decided the election of 1800 between Jefferson and Aaron Burr
  • Alexander Hamilton’s role in the Election of 1800
  • How the Twelfth Amendment was ratified
  • Other efforts to reform presidential elections in the 1810s and 1820s

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Production of this episode was made possible by a grant from the Roller-Bottimore Foundation of Richmond, Virginia.

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