Defense of the Electoral College centers on its bias towards small states — to its supporters (of whom I do consider myself one), the Electoral College protects the liberty of small states from the tyranny of an assumed collusion of their larger counterparts.
This argument comes straight from the constitutional convention debate over the president’s election, but in neither time did the argument actually hold merit. Coalitions and divisions between states arose from interests related to economics, not size. Small states resisting population-based representation simply wanted to maintain their power by creating a union with legitimacy drawn from the states, treated as equals, rather than the people.
The Constitutional Convention
At various points in the constitutional convention, small states threatened to leave the proceedings if the foresaw their power in the new government decline. These threats almost came to a head during the debate over Senate representation. Nationalists such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton pushed — and the convention initially accepted — a Senate apportionment scheme that allotted members on the basis of a state’s population.
Angered, small states ranted about their looming decline in power and forcefully argued for representing the states equally in the Senate. The Connecticut Compromise did just that, with the House of Representatives being apportioned based on state population. Divisions on that vote largely followed state sizes.
Similar debates erupted over the method by which the president should be selected. Those from large states tended to favor either direct popular election of the president or the indirect election of president with electors apportioned based on state population.
Again, small states took issue with the proposals, presenting a plethora of arguments that ranged from alleging that large states would collude to control the presidency or the likelihood of individuals within states voting for a “favorite-son” candidate, thus preventing any one candidate from earning a majority of the votes and throwing the election to a large-state dominated legislature (the tie-breaking method in many early plans for presidential election and the final one adopted).
But these fears had no basis in reality, as should have been immediately clear to all present at the convention. Small-state delegates had a cynical desire to maintain their state’s power and so naturally resisted any effort that would bring their residents back to status of united equality. Large-state collusion would never materialize because they had different material interests.
Of the five-largest states at the convention — Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina, in that order — no natural allegiance could emerge. MA and NY naturally had mercantile interests. Boston and the fast-growing New York City bound the two states in favor a strong state with an eye towards economic development (and later embraced the Hamiltonian financial system).
VA and NC had few commercial interests and no large cities to become international ports. They had an interest in preserving slavery and, later, resisting an expansive federal government that helped “stockjobbers” and other “speculators.”
PA, with the nation’s largest city and its capital, had split interests: Naturally, Philadelphians would align with those in MA and NY, but the western frontiersfolk of PA cared little for commercial emphasis and policy geared towards presumed speculators. They wanted a government that protected from Native American raids and which did not align closely with the British.
As party splits emerged, western PA became Republicans while Philadelphia remained in the Federalist camp. It should have been obvious that the different interests between (and within) these states based on the vastly different nature of their economies would have prevented any collusion.
Coalitions of Region, Not Size
Unsurprisingly, no large-small state divisions emerged; geographic differences largely defined the nascent parties. In 1796, the first competitive election, location, not state size, explained support for Federalist John Adams or Republican Thomas Jefferson. Northeastern states of all sizes supported Adams whereas southern states of all sizes chose Jefferson. Of the five largest states, only NY and MA voted for Adams. PA, VA, and NC went for Jefferson. Of the five smallest states (Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Rhode Island, and Vermont), 3 went for Adams and 2 for Jefferson. The hotly contested election of 1800 saw 4 of the largest states and 3 of the smallest states go for Jefferson. Clearly, no alliances on the basis of state size formed.
A Nation of States and Unequal People
In the end, the cynical actions of small-state delegates forever changed the republic by creating a natural inequality on the basis of geography. Those living in large states find their Senate votes worth fractions of those in small states — this also holds true for the Electoral College, though the disparity is less pronounced. Small-state delegates pushed a union wherein legitimacy came from the states, thus demanding their equal status in government. Nationalists envisioned a government with legitimacy, or power, coming from the people, and so urged representation to follow the population, not be bound by the amorphous and rather arbitrary state lines.
The huge consequences related to this decision gave small-states the power they craved, but it created a union with representation determined by arguments based on false premises.
 New York City, at that time, had not yet developed into a central commercial port and New York did not immediately embrace the Constitution. NY and MA did not initially ahve the same interests as NY had a frontier that bordered with Native Americans and British Canada. MA had no frontier of which to speak.
For more on the early republic, read Gordon S. Wood’s “The Empire of Liberty,” which you can purchase by clicking on the image below.
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