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MVB Senate speech on election of president and vice president, 29 December 1823

Mr. Van Buren, of New York, rose and said, that pursuant to the notice he had heretofore given, he would now ask leave to introduce a resolution proposing an amendment of the Constitution of the United States on the subject of the election of President and Vice President of the United States. Should the permission he asked be granted, it was his intention further to move that the resolution he offered be referred to the select committee already appointed on similar propositions. To enable that committee better to appreciate his views, as well as to explain the motives which had induced him to add to the number of propositions on the same subject already before them, he would, in the remarks he intended to make, refer to those propositions, and notice their respective contents. He would do this, not for the purpose of full discussion, but only so far as was necessary to mark the difference between them and the one he designed to offer, and for a brief explanation of the principles upon which that difference is founded. Before he proceeded to that object, he would add his humble testimony to the justice of the remark, that the extreme difficulty which is experienced in every attempt to improve the present Constitution, afforded the most striking evidence of the great wisdom and care which presided over the deliberation and governed the decision of those who made it. He would further add, that, although he felt much reluctance in originating a proposition of this character, he had not witnessed the frequent unsuccessful attempts at amendment which had been made with as much regret and dissatisfaction as was expressed by some. On the contrary, thinking as he did that as yet no improvident amendment of the original instrument had been made; and, believing, from the slow and scrutinizing process through which all amendments must pass, that there was little danger that any of equivocal character would obtain, he was induced to regard the frequent unsuccessful attempts to alter the present system as productive of much good, by strengthening and confirming the confidence of the people in the wisdom of its provision, and by increasing and perpetuating our gratitude for the services and respect for the memories of those illustrious men who formed it. That such had been their effect, he had no doubt.

There are, said Mr. Van Buren, already before the Senate, three distinct propositions on this subject, viz: One introduced by a Senator from Missouri; one by a Senator from New Jersey; and one by a Senator from North Carolina: to which, one had, that moment, been added, by a Senator from Massachusetts—the three first of which he would briefly notice. The last had, for its object, a course entirely different, as well from the one he intended to introduce, as those before it. The plan of the gentleman from Missouri proposes to divide the different States into districts, not for the choice of Electors of President and Vice President, but to take the votes of the people directly for those officers, allowing to each State as many votes as they are now entitled to, rendering a majority of all the votes necessary to a choice, and in the event of no election, on the first vote, by the people, the same to be made by the House of Representatives, each State having but one vote, as is now provided by the Constitution. The only remark he would now make, on that feature of the resolution which dispenses with the agency of intermediate Electors, was, that inasmuch as, with reference to the condition of the representation in particular States, secured to them by the Constitution, it does not profess to give the choice to a majority of the people, and, as it renders a resort to the House of Representatives almost indispensable, in the event of there being no choice in the first instance, he was not now prepared to give his assent to it. To judge of the propriety of so much of the different propositions as provide for a division of the several States into districts, a very brief inquiry into their operation and motive becomes both necessary and proper. It has been said, that that mode would effect the double purpose of bringing the election nearer to the people, by securing to them, in every State, the immediate choice of the Electors; and of protecting the right of the minorities in the different States. But when it is considered that, by the Constitution, each State has now the power of securing to its citizens those objects, when and as the people of those States represented in their State Legislatures may think proper to do it, he was disinclined to believe that a desire, on the part of any one State, to interfere in these respects with the internal condition of another, constituted the motive which induced them to urge the measure under consideration. The object which would be effected by it was of a different character. With regard to one effect, which it was calculated to produce on the different States, there was not, in the discussion on this floor last year, the least reserve, and, he presumed, there would not be any now. The alteration of the system, if adopted, can only be effected by consent of the parties to the present compact, and gentlemen, representing States differently situated, do but exercise a right, which no one can complain, in proposing such terms as are most acceptable to, and will best subserve the interest of, their immediate constituents. It is well understood, that the tendency of this measure will be to reduce greatly the present weight of the large States in the general scale, by subjecting them to the full operation of the political divisions which are supposed to be more peculiar to them, and thereby preventing them from bringing their consolidated strength to bear upon the Presidential question. It is proposed to do this on the plan of the gentleman from Missouri, without concession of any description on the part of those States who would be benefited by the change. To decide whether the consent of the large States can, with reason, be expected to this change, it is proper to look for a moment to the present relative conditions of the States, on the score of influence, in the existing plan of Government. As he had not, as yet, heard any thing upon this subject, either now or at the last session, he would remark, that he made the reference he proposed under the full influence of those frank and liberal feelings which had characterized every thing that had hitherto been said or done on this subject. His design was to look at things as they were, without any other motive or feeling than a simple desire to ascertain, by a reference to facts, whether, if any alteration in the Constitution, in this particular, ought to be made, what that alteration should in justice be. It was to him a source of great satisfaction that a subject, so delicate in its character, had hitherto been commented upon in this House with so much freedom, and yet without the least asperity. It clearly showed, if proof of that could be necessary, that the objects of all were only such as, in their different views of the matter, ought, in justice, to be obtained.

The great departments of the Government were, the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. The latter is organized by the two former, and the influence of the respective States, in its organization, is of course the same as it is in the other two. In the choice of the Executive, and in the popular branch of the Legislature, each State has a representation proportioned to its representative members, with this exception, that, in the choice of the Executive, an addition of two votes was given to each State, without regard to its numbers, or the amount of its contribution to the public Treasury. But in this branch of the Legislature the case is widely different. Here, in consequence of the peculiarity of our condition, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, the equitable principle of representation, founded on population and contribution, has been entirely disregarded. Here, each State, on the score of its sovereign character, has equal weight; and what, he asked, was the relative importance of this branch in the Government? He would not say it was that by which all the efficient power of the Government was controlled, but he would say, that but a slight consideration of the Constitution was necessary to show that this branch did so more than any other. With the single exception of originating revenue bills, its legislative powers were coextensive with the popular branch. No law could pass without the assent of the Senate. Almost all the important proceedings of the Executive are subject to its revision. All appointments require its approbation, unless its assent is first obtained to a law providing a different mode. The consent of two thirds of this body is necessary to the validity of all treaties; and it has the sole power to try impeachments of all the high officers of the Government, as well executive as judicial. In a branch of the Government possessing such extensive powers, the small but patriotic State of Illinois, with a population of fifty-five thousand, has a representation equal to that of Pennsylvania, with a population of one million and fifty thousand. The five largest States in the Confederacy, viz: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and New York, with a population of four millions eight hundred thousand, have a representation but equal to the five smallest States, with a population of three hundred and fifty-three thousand. Nearly one half the nation, residing in the five largest States, has a representation but equal to the one twenty-seventh part, residing in the five smallest States. About one-half the whole people, residing in five States, are represented here by ten voices, whilst the other half are represented by thirty-four voices. The disproportion of the relative influence of the several States, having reference to their population, as a just basis of representation, cannot fail to strike every mind. The same inequality existed at the adoption of the Constitution, but in a much less degree. Then, taking an average of the population of the States, and considering those as small, who do not come up to it, the large States were in a majority; now, by the admission of new States, with assent of the old, they are in a minority. There were, at that period, eight large and five small States. Now, by the same criterion, there would be found to be but ten large, and fourteen small States. Still, this was all right; it was according to the compact into which all the States had voluntarily entered; and he fervently hoped, for the peace and happiness of the people of these States, that the day might be far distant, when even a desire should be entertained to alter it. But, when it is proposed so to change the Constitution, as to reduce still more the relative weight of the large States, in the general scale, it surely becomes proper to reflect on the existing condition of things. And in view of that, he asked, whether it was reasonable to expect the large States will ever assent to the proposition made by the gentleman from Missouri, reducing their political weight in the Confederacy, without concession of any kind, on the of the other States? He thought not. Still, as one of the representatives of one of the large States he would give his assent to the measure proposed, of dividing the States into districts for the choice of Electors, provided it was done in the spirit which produced the Constitution, that is, a spirit of mutual concession. He was willing, for one, to make concessions for general harmony; and all he asked was, that they should be reciprocal; and those, he thought could, with care and justice, be made.

By the present Constitution, in the event of no one person having a majority, for the office of President, of the votes of the Electors, on the first ballot, the choice devolves on the House of Representatives; and, in such choice, each State has an equal vote. It is believed that, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, the contingency on which this result was made to depend was not thought likely to happen. And it is supposed that from the great number of small States since admitted into the Confederacy, and from other causes, its occurrence for the future may be frequently expected. It is reasonable to suppose, that, inasmuch as it was evidently the leading design of the Constitution, that, in the choice of President and Vice President, the States should be represented, with the exception already noticed, according to their relative numbers, and, as they deem it but just, that such would be the case, this feature in the Constitution is, by the large States, considered inequitable. But, what is of greater importance, the provision bringing the election to the House of Representatives is deemed objectionable by all the States, on the ground that it jeopardizes the purity of the election, and exposes the whole system to danger, by affording facilities to the corruption of a part. If this wide-spread apprehension is well founded, and how far was so, was a point he would not at this moment discuss, it surely was one which addressed itself alike to all the States, whether great or small, and certainly not with the least force to the latter. All then that he asked, as a concession for harmony and the general good, was, that if the States were districted, the ultimate choice of President should be placed elsewhere, and decided upon more equitable principles. If that was conceded, and from the temper manifested by the Senate last year, he had every reason to hope it would, the next question would be, as to the least objectionable mode. He was not favorably inclined to that proposed by the Senator from New Jersey, because, although it provides for the ultimate choice, so far as it respects the relative weights of the States upon just principles, it does not effect what he considered at least an equal if not a greater object, the removal of the decision from the House of Representatives. Such as it was, however, coming from the Senator of a small State, it marked the just and liberal views which governed his conduct. He would prefer a different mode from that proposed by the Senator from South Carolina; for, although that contained much that was desirable, both in its principle, and as it respects the weight of the respective States in the decision, and as removing it at all events from the House of Representatives, still he feared that the project of sending the question back, under the same circumstances, to the Electors, from time to time, until they made a choice, would be found in practice extremely difficult, if not very dangerous. He would not now remark on the circumstance, that this proposition did not provide for districting the States, without which he did not hope that the small States would consent. He presumed that it was intended by the honorable mover to connect it with some proposition for that purpose, as he had, in the Senate, expressed his entire willingness to do. Under such views of the subject, he would ask leave to introduce a proposition essentially different from those on their table: one which, if not entirely just, was, he thought, liable to the fewest objections. In doing so, it was proper that he should state, and he was quite certain that he would thereby secure for the proposition a degree of consideration which it might not otherwise obtain, that the plan he offered was the same in principle with that heretofore proposed by a venerable Senator from Virginia, who was now, to Mr. V.B.'s great regret, and the public misfortune, prevented from attending. He said the principle was the same; his own humble effort had been solely directed to the object of rendering it more simple in its form and operation. How far he had succeeded in that, the Senate would judge, when the subject came under their particular consideration.

Having said this much upon that branch of the subject, Mr. V.B. would proceed to state briefly another point in which the proposition he offered differed essentially from the others proposed, and in which difference was involved a principle in the Government, as important, in his view, as any which had for some time been discussed on that floor. In doing so, it was a subject of gratification to him, that this principle had no reference to the relative and conflicting interest of the States in the Confederacy, but looked equally to the welfare and security of all. To a correct understanding of the point, he wished to present, it became necessary to take a brief view of the principle upon, and the circumstance under which, our present form of Government was established. Under the Articles of Confederation, the representation of each State in the General Government was equal. The Union was in all respects purely Federal, a league of sovereign States upon equal terms. To remedy certain defects, by supplying certain powers, the Convention which framed the present Constitution was called. That Convention, it is now well known, was immediately divided into parties, on the interesting question of the extent of power to be given to the new governments: whether it should be Federal or National; whether dependent upon or independent of the State governments. It is equally well known that that point, after having several times arrested the proceedings of the Convention, and threatened a dissolution of the Confederation, subsequently divided the people of the States on the question of ratification. He might add, that with the superadded question of what powers have been given by the Constitution to the General Government, to the agitation of which the feelings which sprung out in the Convention greatly contributed, it had continued to divide the people of this country down to the present period. The party in the Convention in favor of a more energetic Government, being unable to carry, or, if able, unwilling to hazard the success of the plan with the States, a middle course was agreed upon. That was, that the Government should be neither Federal nor National, but a mixture of both. That of the Legislative Department, one branch, the power of representation, should be wholly National, and the other, the Senate, wholly Federal. That, in the choice of the Executive, both interests should be regarded, and that the Judicial should be organized by the other two. But, to quiet effectually the apprehensions of the advocates for the rights and interest of the States, it was provided that the General Government should be made entirely dependent for its continuance, on the will and pleasure of the State governments. Hence, it was decided that the House of Representatives should be apportioned among the States, with reference to their population, and chosen by the people; and power was given to Congress to regulate and secure their choice, independent of, and beyond the control of the State governments. That the Senate should be chosen exclusively by the State Legislatures, and that the choice of the Electors of President and Vice President, although the principle of their apportionment was established by the Constitution, should, in all respects, except the time of their appointment and of their meeting, be under the exclusive control of the Legislatures of the several States. The scheme of Government thus formed, was submitted to the people of the respective States, through their Legislatures, for ratification. For a season its ratification was warmly opposed in almost every State. Although the control over the choice of but one branch of one department of the Government was vested in Congress, danger to the rights of the States was everywhere apprehended, and the question of the ratification of the Constitution rendered extremely doubtful.

To stem this torrent of opposition, the most distinguished commentators on the proposed plan (the authors of the Federalist) placed strongly and truly before the people of the States, the fact of the dependence of the General upon the State Governments, and the Constitutional right of those Governments, or even a majority of them, if the power they had conferred should be abused, to discontinue the new Government by withholding its Senate and Chief Magistrate. Among other things they said⁠—

"The State Governments may be regarded as constituent and essential parts of the Federal Government, while the latter is no wise essential to the operation or organization of the power. Without the intervention of the State Legislatures, the President of the United States cannot be elected at all. They must in all cases have a great share in his appointment, and will perhaps, in most cases, themselves determine it. The Senate will be elected absolutely and exclusively by the State Legislatures. Even the House of Representatives, though drawn immediately from the people, will be chosen very much under the influence of that class of men whose influence over the people obtains for themselves an election into the State Legislatures. Thus each of the principal branches of the Federal Government will owe its existence, more or less, to the favor of State Governments, and must consequently feel a dependence which is much more likely to beget a disposition too obsequious, than too overbearing toward them."

The ratification by a sufficient number of the States was obtained. On reference, however, to the proceedings of the State conventions, it will be seen that, in several of the States, the control by Congress, over the choice of Representatives merely, was strongly remonstrated against. That amendments were proposed for its qualification by the States of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and New York. That most of them resolved that it should be a standing instruction to their Delegates in Congress to endeavor to effect that and other amendments proposed. The proposition of the gentleman from New Jersey, to which Mr. Van Buren had alluded, would, if adopted, break an important link in the chain of dependency of the General upon the State Governments. It would surrender to the General Government all control over the election of President and Vice President, by placing the choice of Electors on the same footing with that of Representatives. It would at this time be premature to go into a minute examination of the provisions of the resolution alluded to, to show that such would be its effects. Upon examination, it will be found that such would be its construction. That it does in substance what another proposition, upon their table, originating in the other House, does in words. But even was there doubt upon that subject, that doubt should be removed by an express provision, reserving to the States their present control over the election, except as to what is particularly provided for in the resolution now proposed. If it is fit to take from the States their control over the choice of Electors of President and Vice President, and give it to the Federal Government, it would be equally proper, under the popular idea of giving their election to the people, to divide the States into districts for the choice of Senators, as was proposed in the Convention, and give to Congress the control over their election also. If the system be once broken in upon in this respect, the other measure will naturally follow, and we will then have what was so much dreaded by those who have gone before us, and what he feared would be so much regretted by those who come after⁠—a completely consolidated Government⁠—a Government in which the State Governments would be not otherwise known or felt than as it became necessary to control them. To all this, Mr. Van Buren was opposed. He was so, because it was a matter not necessary or fitly connected with the subject under consideration; that being a question between the States themselves, as to their relative interest⁠—a question which might and ought to be settled, and leave their relation to the Federal Government as it stands at present. The other is a question between the States, collectively, and the Federal Government, affecting most materially the relation they now bear to each other. But, even if it were presented under different circumstances, he would oppose it. Because, however ardent his attachment to the Federal Government, and however anxious he might be to sustain it, in the exercise of the powers given to it by the Constitution⁠—and, in that respect, he would, he trusted, go as far as any man ought to go⁠—he was unwilling to destroy or even release its dependence on the State Governments. At the time of the adoption of the Federal Constitution, it was a question of much speculation and discussion, which of the two Governments would be most in danger from the accumulation of influence by the operation of the powers distributed by the Constitution. That discussion was founded on the assumption that they were, in several respects, rival powers, and that such powers would always be found in collision. The best lights which could then be thrown upon the subject, were derived from the examples afforded by the fates of several of the Governments of the Old World, which were deemed to be, in some respects, similar to ours. But the Governments in question having operated upon, and been administered by, people whose habits, characters, tempers, and conditions, were essentially different from ours; the inferences to be derived from that source were, at best, unsatisfactory.

Mr. V. B. thought that experience (the only unerring criterion by which matters of this description could be tested) had settled for us the general point of the operation of the powers conferred by the Constitution upon the relative strength and influence of the respective Governments. It was, in his judgment, susceptible of entire demonstration, that the Federal Constitution had worked a gradual, if not an undue increase of the strength and control of the General Government, and a correspondent reduction of the influence, and consequently of the respectability of the State governments. The evidence in support of this position was abundant, and, if the matter should come under full discussion, could be readily afforded. He thought, further, that existing causes, which were every day gaining force, would, for the future, more rapidly increase that operation. He considered the qualified dependence of the General upon the State Governments as their strong arm of defence to protect them against future abuses. Under that view of the subject, he was opposed to so material a change of the present condition of the respective governments as would be produced by the amendment to which he objected. He was in favor of leaving matters, in that respect, as they stood. Under this impression, Mr. V B. had prepared a resolution which avoided the defect attaching to that of the gentleman from New Jersey⁠—requiring the contemplated division of the States into districts, to be coextensive with the number of Electors instead of Representatives, and at the same time secured the great object upon which he had been commenting.

Mr. Van Buren then introduced the following resolution:

Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the following amendment of the Constitution of the United States be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States:

The Electors of President and Vice President of the United States shall be chosen by the people of the several States, in districts equal in number to the number of Electors to which each State is entitled, to be composed of contiguous territory, and, as near as may be, equal in the number of persons to be represented, or of persons qualified to vote for members of the most numerous branch of the State Legislature. The qualification of the voters at such election shall be the same as is required of Electors for the most numerous branch of the State Legislature. The Electors of President and Vice President, convened at the time and place appointed by law, for the purpose of giving in their votes, shall have power, in case any of them fail to attend, to choose an Elector or Electors, in the place of him or them so failing to attend. Congress may determine the time of choosing the Electors, the day or days on which they shall give their votes, which shall be the same throughout the United States. But the authority to divide the States into districts, for the choice of Electors; to direct the election to be held; to prosecute the manner thereof, except as to the time of holding the same, and the qualifications of the voters; and the place of meeting of the Electors aforesaid,⁠—is reserved, exclusively, to the Legislatures of the several States.

If, upon counting the votes for President and Vice President, in the manner directed by the Constitution, it shall appear that no person has a majority of the whole, number of the Electors chosen, it shall be the duty of the President of the Senate forthwith to notify the President of the United States thereof; who shall immediately by proclamation, and also by notification to the Executives of the several States, publish the number of votes given to each person as President. Whereupon, the Electors shall again meet on the day which shall have been by law appointed for that purpose, with the like power of supplying vacancies, and vote for one of the two persons as President who shall have received at the first meeting of the Electors the greatest number of votes for such office. Or, if it should happen that more than two persons have received the greatest, and also an equal number of votes, the said Electors shall vote for one of them as President. The said Electors shall thereupon transmit one of the lists, to be made at their first meeting, and also that made at their second meeting, signed and certified by them, to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate, to be proceeded upon as the Constitution has prescribed, except that the person having the greatest number of votes at the second meeting of the said Electors shall be the President. But, if two or more persons shall have received the greatest and an equal number of votes at the second meeting of the said Electors, the House of Representatives shall choose one of them for the President of the United States, as now prescribed by the Constitution.

Both the resolutions were referred to the same committee to whom the other propositions for amending the Constitution have been referred. 

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Source: <em>Annals of Congress</em>
Collection: N/A
Series: Series 4 (3 December 1821-31 December 1824)