Article 2, Section 1, Clauses 2 and 3
[Volume 3, Page 555]
Rufus King, Amendment to the Constitution, Senate20 Mar. 1816Life 6:4--7
Mr. King said that, so far as regarded the manner and time of choosing Representatives and Senators to Congress, a majority of the Congress may by law now establish the very manner of choosing Representatives, which was now proposed to be erected into a constitutional rule. It seemed to him, therefore, unnecessary to alter the Constitution by imposing a rule, when, according to the Constitution, a competent power can now make the same regulation by law. Not so with the part of the amendment before the Senate, which the gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Barbour) proposed to strike out. The States may now severally direct the manner of choosing their own Electors; it is proposed that the manner shall be prescribed by the Constitution. That, Mr. K. thought, would be an important change, and the only change suggested in the Constitution which he deemed an improvement. He thought he might venture to say, that if there was any part of the Constitution deemed by its framers and advocates to be better secured than any other against the enterprises which have since occurred, it was the very provision on the subject of elections to the Presidency. The idea was, that the action of that particular agency, that has since controlled it, was as much displaced by the constitutional plan of election of President and Vice-President as could possibly be desired. The opinion had been that all undue agency or influence was entirely guarded against; that the men selected by the people from their own body would give their votes in such a manner as that no opportunity would be afforded for a combination to change the freedom and popular character which naturally belonged to the electoral bodies. Such had been the idea at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. We all know, said he, the course which this thing had taken. The election of a President of the United States is no longer that process which the Constitution contemplated. In conformity with the original view of the authors of that instrument, I would restore, as thoroughly as possible, the freedom of election to the people: I would make the mode of election uniform through the country, by throwing the whole nation into as many districts as there are Electors, and let the people of each district choose one Elector. One idea on this subject, he thought worth more than all the arguments against this course; that then all the people of the country would stand precisely on the same footing; and no particular addresses could be made to the special interests and particular views of particular men, or particular sections of the country. The course now pursued in this respect, Mr. King said, was not entitled to that high distinction. On the contrary, those who reflected on it could not help seeing that our progress in Government was not for the better; that it was not likely hereafter to be in favor of popular rights. It was with the people the Constitution meant to place the election of the Chief Magistrate, that being the source least liable to be corrupt. But if, under the name of the liberty of the people, said Mr. K., we put this power into other hands, with different interests, we place it in a situation in which the rights of the people are violated. In this point of view, he said, this particular clause of the proposed amendments of the Constitution was of great value. Let the question of the mode of election of Senators and Representatives rest where it is; if Congress choose to interpose, let them. The other part of the proposition was in favor of the rights of the people, of the freedom of the country; for with regard to these rights and freedom, no man could name a matter so important as the choice of the President of the nation. It is an infirmity of our nature that we look for chiefs and rulers, either [Volume 3, Page 556] for their superior virtue, or their supposed subserviency to the views of those in subordinate situations. It was against the evil of the latter principle Mr. K. desired to guard. The liberties of the people, repeated he, of which we speak much, are more affected by the choice of the President, than by any other ordinary political act. In this point they are vulnerable; here ought the rights of the people and of the States to be guarded. Our existence and the passions of the present day are ephemeral; public liberty should be immortal. Considering that this body should be to the people and States not only the safe guardians of their rights but the protectors of their liberty, he hoped they would adopt a provision he considered so nearly connected with the perpetuation of both.
All experience had shown that the people of any country were most competent to a correct designation of their first magistrate. So far as history affords us light, it leads to this point; that in time of difficulty and peril to a nation, when it is in utmost need of superior talent for its high stations, no tribunal is more competent to discern and select it than the people. Intrigue, turbulence and corruption may have some sway in quiet times, when all is tranquillity in regard to the general situation of the country; but when the Ship of State is in peril and in danger, turbulence ceases, and the best men are by instinctive power fixed on by the people for their governors. That has been wonderfully illustrated by history; and the best designations of magistrates have been produced in this way. My sober view is, said Mr. K., that, as to the election of Chief Magistrate of this nation, nobody is so competent as the great body of freemen to make a proper selection. Whether their first impression should be taken, as now suggested by Mr. Lacock, was a question of great importance. There would be great difficulty in making the returns of the votes; those who collected and compared the votes might defeat the choice of the people, &c. Not that these objections were insuperable. He was persuaded that the course of things under the present mode of choosing a President was in its nature pernicious, and that it had a tendency to prevent the object intended by the Constitution, of a pure elective majority. Men now live who will probably see the end of our system of government; terminate when it will, that termination will not be favorable to public liberty. For five years past he had seen a character developing itself, the predominance of which he feared. Not a people on earth were more capable of high excitement than this people. During the excitement of the passion to which he referred, if a contested election occurs, the gownsmen must stand aside; another character supersedes them; and there can be little difficulty in judging what will be the result. The march from military rule to despotism is certain, invariable. Those who think they see the probable tendency of our present system should interpose something remedial. The people in this particular are the best keepers of their own rights; and any device to remove that power from them weakens the security of it. He was anxious that the Senate should come to this question without the feelings of party; it was one involving all their interests and those of their families and descendants. He knew that this proposition, if agreed to, would break down the power of the great States. He had no objection, if in curtailing their power, the same measure regulated the rights of the whole nation equally. He was willing to let the election for the Presidency rest wholly on the people.
The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King. Edited by Charles R. King. 6 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1894--1900.
© 1987 by The University of Chicago