The Framers of the Constitution and the Electoral College

imagesAs we approach the next presidential election cycle, it may be worth exploring the birth and evolution of the electoral college. No other nation uses such an unusual methodology for electing its chief executive officer, and there have certainly been times when the results from the electoral college have not been consistent with democracy. A review of the decisions made at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 can illuminate the problems which the Framers of the document had in creating a method for electing the President.

The Convention had spent much time attempting to design an executive that would not be a replicate of the English king while ensuring that the office would have sufficient power to be independent of the legislature. The final decision to use the electoral college as the method to elect the president came near the end of the Convention, although the concept had been introduced much earlier. Later in life, Madison indicated that the method of electing the president “was not exempt from a degree of the hurrying influence produced by fatigue and impatience…”[i] In addition to the restlessness of the delegates, two other factors contributed to the creation of the Electoral College. One was the Framers’ views of political parties, and the second was the lack of any acceptable alternatives.

 

Why the Electoral College? – The Problem of Parties

Part of the Framers’ hesitancy about having the people directly elect the president came from their concern that no candidate would receive a majority. They could not foresee the role that political parties would play in the future, and many of them opposed parties. Jefferson, in a 1789 letter, had written: “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” Adams, likewise, had written in 1789 that, “there is nothing which I dread as much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.” While neither man had attended the Convention, many of the delegates shared their perspective. Madison’s theory of republican government included the fear of factions and the need to control them. While today we view a faction as a splinter group within a political party, the founders used the terms faction and party interchangeably, and considered all parties to have a narrow agenda that only benefitted the members of the group. Washington was opposed to political parties during his entire eight-year term as president, and warned the nation of the dangers of parties in his farewell address, when he talked of “the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.”[ii]

The founders’ anti-party perspective grew out of their sense that parties acted out of a narrow sense of their own interests or ideology, and as such, did not serve the public interest. This is what Washington referred to in his farewell address when he stated that parties “serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party.” Yet the founders also resigned themselves to the fact, as Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, that “the latent causes of faction are…sown in the nature of man,” that they were the price of living in a free society. Adams too believed that “All countries under the sun must have parties. The great secret is to control them.” Part of the objective of the constitutional arrangements that the Framers were designing at the Convention was to control the deleterious effects of parties.[iii]

What the founders had difficulty seeing was the positive role of political parties in a democratic system, especially one built on divided power and checks and balances. For such a system to work, parties would ultimately need to play a key role in organizing the will of the majority, creating a legitimate opposition, and tying the president and legislature together to accomplish public policy objectives and pass laws. According to historian Richard Hofstadler, the Convention ”had framed a Constitution which, among its other ends, was meant to control and counteract parties, and yet they gradually began to realize that they could not govern under it without the help of such organizations…the new Constitution which they had so ingeniously drawn up could never have [worked] if some of its vital deficiencies, not the least the link between the executive and legislature, had not been remedied by the political parties.”[iv]

The founders would eventually realize that parties were more than just a necessary evil, that they could indeed be a force of good in a free society, a way to “organize social conflict and political debate.” Madison’s views on party would evolve over time, as Robert Dahl has noted. In 1787, Madison was primarily concerned with the protection of minority rights from the threat of overbearing majorities. By the 1790s, he began to see that the real problem was the threat of minority factions. Dahl argues that Madison began to see the need for organized political parties as a way to protect the rights, liberties, and entitlements of the majority from minority factions. Madison and Jefferson would form a national political party, the Republicans (not to be confused with the modern Republican Party), that would later be called the Democratic-Republicans, and ultimately, under Andrew Jackson, would become simply the Democrats. Both Madison and Jefferson believed that the only way to combat the policies of Hamilton and the Federalists in the 1790s was to organize a political party that could command the loyalty of a majority of citizens. Each future president would ultimately become not only the nation’s political leader, but also the leader of a party whose membership extended to the Congress and the people.[v]

Why the Electoral College? – Lack of Alternatives

“The United States came within a hair’s breath of adopting a kind of parliamentary system,” writes Robert Dahl. Under such a system, as is found in Great Britain and many other countries in the world, the legislature elects the executive, who is usually a member of the legislative body. The executive, often called a prime minister, is also the head of the party with a majority in the legislature, and he or she forms a government. In a parliamentary system, the legislative and executive branches are more fully tied together. The Virginia Plan had proposed that the legislature elect the executive, and the Convention voted numerous times for this proposal. Yet, the Framers feared that the president would be too weak, a creature of the legislative branch, and so they moved toward the electoral college alternative, almost out of a sense of desperation, since they knew of no other alternatives. “Had Britain progressed further toward the norms of cabinet government and strong party connections between executive and legislature that emerged in the next century, the framers might have reasoned differently about the political dimensions of executive appointment and leadership,” Jack Rakove has written. But at the time the Framers were drafting the Constitution, the British parliamentary model did not yet exist.[vi]

After ratification, one major flaw became apparent in the electoral college system. The Constitution called for each elector to cast ballots for two people, as a means to compel electors to cast a vote for at least one candidate who was not from the elector’s home state. In this way, they hoped candidates with national credentials would emerge. Once political parties began to form, the candidates for president and vice president could end up in a tie vote, throwing the election to the House. This occurred in the election of 1800, when the Republicans nominated Jefferson and Burr to run as a ticket for president and vice president respectively. President Adams stood for election as the Federalist candidate. Both Jefferson and Burr ended up with seventy-three electoral votes, and it took thirty-six ballots before Jefferson emerged as the winner in the House. The Twelfth Amendment eventually fixed this problem by eliminating the requirement for double balloting and allowing for a separate vote for president and vice president.

Gradually, the American system for choosing a president through the electoral college would become more grounded in the popular will. The Framers’ chief fear that no national candidates would emerge, or that none would receive a majority, proved false, largely due to the formation of political parties. Abraham Baldwin of Georgia, a little-known delegate to the Convention who was generally silent during the debates, had predicted that “the increasing intercourse among the people of the states, would render important characters less and less unknown.” Wilson agreed, believing that “continental characters will multiply as we more and more coalesce.”[vii]

Over time, states would change their rules so the electors would vote for the candidate that won the popular vote. When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, electors were chosen by the state legislatures in ten of the eighteen states. By the time of Andrew Jackson’s election in 1832, only one state (South Carolina) had the legislature select the electors. The rest of the states chose their electors based on the candidate that won the popular vote in the election. Though there is no constitutional requirement that the electors vote for that candidate, generally they are selected by and are members of the political party whose candidate wins the election, and they pledge to support their party’s candidate. To further strengthen this requirement, twenty-six states have passed laws that require the electors to cast their ballot for the winner of the popular vote.[viii]

Today in the United States, forty-eight of the fifty states also assign their electors on a winner-take-all basis. In other words, all of the electors from a state vote for the winner of the popular vote, regardless of how close that vote may be. By way of illustration, George W. Bush won all twenty-five of Florida’s electoral votes in 2000, even though he won the popular vote in the state by less than 600 votes. The shift to winner take all began in 1824, and by 1836, all but South Carolina used this system. The change occurred primarily to enhance the influence of state political leaders, who “concluded that by concentrating all of the state’s electoral votes in a single slate, they could enhance their weight in the electoral college and thus their influence on the elections.”[ix] As the election of the president became tied ever closer to the popular will, the occupant of the office began to see himself as embodying the will of a majority of the nation, since he was the only person elected by all of the people.

The compromise that finally created the electoral college came with a cost, as most compromise does. Because the number of electors are equal to the number of House and Senate seats that each state receives, small states have proportionally more voting leverage. Although not as pronounced as the disparity in the Senate, “the vote of a Wyoming resident…is worth four times the vote of a California resident in the electoral college.”[x] Prior to the Civil War, the electoral college worked to the advantage of the slave-owning South, due to the three-fifths rule.

But the most pernicious result of the electoral college system is that the candidate with the most popular votes does not always win the presidency. This has happened four times in our nation’s history, in 1824, 1876, 1888 and most recently 2000. Al Gore received 450,000 more popular votes that year, but George W. Bush prevailed in the electoral college in large part because he won all of Florida’s electoral votes by the narrowest of margins. Attempts to amend the Constitution to implement the direct popular election of the president have proved controversial. Robert Dahl has indicated that over seven hundred proposals have been introduced in the House to change the electoral college system. In 1993, a proposal actually passed the House with 83 percent of the vote, but then died in the Senate.[xi]

Proposals to eliminate the winner-take-all provisions that most states follow date back to Madison’s time. In an 1823 letter to George Hay, Madison favored assigning electoral votes in a proportional manner, rather than based on the winner-take-all approach that had become increasingly common by that time. Recent proposals to change this method surfaced in the aftermath of the 2012 election, in which the Democratic candidate Barack Obama won with 51 percent of the popular vote and 332 electoral votes. Some Republican strategists, frustrated in their attempts to win the White House, proposed changes to the winner-take-all approach, but only for selected states that typically vote Democratic in the presidential election but which are controlled by Republicans at the state level. Under one of these proposals, electoral votes would be awarded to the winner of each congressional district, with the two statewide electors given to the candidate that wins the popular vote. As the “National Journal” notes: “rewriting the rules would dramatically shrink or eliminate the Democratic advantage, because of the way House districts are drawn. The decennial redistricting process has dumped huge percentages of Democratic votes into some urban districts, while Republican voters are spread over a wider number of districts, giving the party an advantage.” In addition to the demographic shifts that have focused Democratic voters into urban areas and Republicans into rural and suburban areas, gerrymandered districts (named for Elbridge Gerry) further contribute to the problem. In 2012, Democrats won one million more votes than the Republicans did for House seats, yet the Republicans garnered an additional thirty-three seats. Depending on how changes to the electoral college system are made, it could result in the candidate who wins the popular vote actually losing the election, worsening the problem with the present system. One analyst has estimated that if electoral votes were allocated on the district basis, Obama would have lost the election despite receiving five million more votes than his opponent, Mitt Romney, a result that is difficult to justify in the world’s oldest democracy.[xii]

 

Sources:

 

[i] James Madison letter to George Hay, August 23, 1823, retrieved October 18, 2013 from http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a2_1_2-3s10html

[ii] The Jefferson quote is from his letter to Francis Hopkins on March 13, 1789, retrieved from www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/thomas-jefferson/letters-of-thomas-jefferson/jetfl75.php on 9/25/2013; the quote from Adams is from his letter to Jonathan Jackson on October 2, 1789 retrieved from www.notable-quotes.com; see also Richard Hofstadler, The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840, (Los Angeles, 1969), especially Chapter One

[iii] Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, p. 79; Hofstadler, The Idea of a Party System, p. 28

[iv] Hofstadler, The Idea of a Party System, p. viii

[v] Robert A. Dahl, James Madison: Republican or Democrat, retrieved from htttp://faculty.rcc.edu/sellick/DahlEssay.pdf on 10/10/2013

[vi] Robert Dahl, Pluralist Democracy In the United States: Conflict and Consent”, (Chicago, 1967), p. 86; Rakove, Original Meanings, p. 268

[vii] Beeman, p. 302

[viii] Dahl, Pluralist Democracy in the United States, p. 92; U.S. Electoral College: Who are the Electors? Retrieved from www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/electors.html on October 17, 2013

[ix] Dahl, How Democratic is the American Constitution, Kindle location 673; Fair Vote. Org, How the Electoral College Became Winner Take All, retrieved from www.fairvote.org/how-the-electoral-college-became-winner-take-all.html on October 18, 2013

[x] Dahl, How Democratic is the American Constitution, Kindle location 666

[xi] Dahl, How Democratic is the American Constitution, Kindle location 714

[xii] Madison letter to  Hay; the Madison letter came to my attention from an interesting article by Rob Ritchie and Devin McCarthy, Why James Madison Wanted to Change the Way we Vote For President, published June 18, 2012 retrieved October 18, 2013 from http://www.fairvote.org/why-james-madison-wanted-to-change-the-way-we-vote-for-president/#.UmKbXhTn_cs; Reid Wilson, The GOP’s Electoral College Scheme, National Journal December 17, 2012, retrieved October 18, 2013 from http://www.nationaljournal.com/columns/on-the-trail/the-gop-s-electoral-college-scheme-20121217 ; see Proposed GOP Changes to Electoral College Election Laws, January 28, 2013, retrieved October 18, 2013 from http://www.whiteoutpress.com/articles/q12013/proposed-gop-changes-to-electoral-college-election-laws/

About Me

I have a life long interest in history, politics and current affairs. I graduated from UCLA with a degree in political science, where I also took numerous classes in American history. I then earned a masters degree in public policy and administration from California State University Long Beach. I have spent my entire career working in or with local governments, first in the city management profession and then as a consultant. This has given me a unique and realistic perspective on the role of government in society.

JFK and the Partial Test Ban Treaty

kennedy_color-POn an MSNBC talk show in April 2015, one of the analyst equated the Iran Nuclear framework with President Kennedy’s pursuit of a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. The analyst argued that it was Eisenhower’s eventual support that saved the partial Test Ban Treaty, and wondered whether any Republican would step into this role for Obama. In fact two other interrelated factors were much more important. The first was the public and political perceptions of the dangers of nuclear war in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the two superpowers just barely avoided calamity. The second was JFK’s ability to manage the process of treaty signing and ratification.

Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were deeply affected by the Cuban missile crisis. During it, Kennedy had told the British ambassador: “A world in which there are large quantities of nuclear weapons is an impossible world to handle. We really must try to get disarmament if we get through this crisis…because this is just too much.” Yuri Zhukov, a close advisor to Khrushchev, had told Averell Harriman that in the aftermath of the crisis that nuclear war was “unthinkable”, and that both sides should work toward “an agreement on nuclear testing.” Public perceptions on the need for a test ban treaty had also shifted in a remarkable way after the crisis. Only 25% of American’s were in support of a test ban in March 1962, but 61% supported such a ban by August 1963.

Despite the support of the two key leaders and eventually a large part of the public in the United States, there were still those who opposed a treaty, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, many Republican Senators, southern Democrats and the right wing. Most of the opposition focused on the fear that the Soviets would cheat, a refrain that is also heard today over a potential nuclear deal with Iran. Senator Richard Russell was fairly typical in this regard when he said that “those Russians…have never carried out any agreement they’ve made.” Kennedy believed that both he and Khrushchev “occupy approximately the same political positions inside our governments. He would like to prevent a nuclear war but is under severe pressure from his hard line crowd.”  One wonders if Obama feels that same way vis-à-vis Iranian President Rouhani. Obama finds himself defending a potential deal from conservatives in Congress, who have gone so far as to send an open letter to the Supreme leader in Iran. Meanwhile, Rouhani may be contending with similar opposition to any deal from Ayatollah Khamenei and other conservative elements in Iran.

In 1963, the objection of many of these groups and of key Senators made a comprehensive test ban treaty, one that included underground testing as well, all but impossible. JFK also maintained that there was a need for far more frequent and intrusive inspections than Khrushchev would accept. This still left the door open for a limited test ban treaty, one that covered atmospheric, underwater and outer space tests, which did not require inspections.  Kennedy’s peace speech laid the groundwork for this by showing Khrushchev that he was serious about relaxing tensions with the Soviet Union, of which the Partial Test Ban Treaty would be the first step. It was also an attempt by the President to solidify support for the treaty. It was a speech that needed to be given well before the 1964 election, since the Senate would never approve a treaty of this type during an election year. Obama probably faces similar pressure with the Iran nuclear deal, even though he does not need formal Senate approval.

In the peace speech, which he gave at American University on June 10, 1963, JFK urged the American people to examine their own attitudes towards the Soviet Union. “As Americans we find Communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements…In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” He also announced that Khrushchev had invited a delegation to Moscow to discuss a test ban treaty, and that in the meantime the United States would stop atmospheric testing. The speech was later considered a landmark in the effort to reduce tensions during the Cold War, although the initial public response was tepid.

In an attempt to build support for the Treaty in the Senate, Kennedy sent a delegation to Russia to accompany Secretary of State Rusk that included five Senators, including two Republicans. Perhaps President Obama should take a page from Kennedy’s book in this regard and consider bringing a limited number of reasonable legislators into closer consultation on the final negotiations. The Iranian nuclear deal, if one is finally reached, won’t require Senate approval under the Constitution, since it will be an executive agreement. Still, the President will need the approval of both houses of Congress to implement any deal, since only the legislative branch can permanently remove the sanctions on Iran. Obama has also agreed to sign the Corker bill that is likely to emerge from the Senate, which requires Congressional review of any final nuclear agreement. Any deal that has the support of the Congress will be stronger in the long run, although the gridlock that marks congressional politics must give Obama a great deal of concern.

Kennedy was also masterful in managing the ratification process. Kennedy knew that opposition to the treaty from the Joint Chiefs would be fatal, and so he agreed to various safeguards, including the continuation of underground testing, as a way to neutralize the opposition of the military to even a limited test ban treaty.  The day after a treaty was reached in Moscow, he hit the airwaves to urge the Senate to support this “first step” toward peace. He met privately with wavering Senators and provided a series of assurances to the committee that was reviewing the agreement, which moved Democratic Senator Henry Jackson into a supporter and helped achieve overwhelming support for the Treaty. The President and his staff also organized the presentations that were made before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. One analyst has written that “witnesses were selected with care, their testimony was prepared by administration forces, and the order in which they appeared…was designed to bolster the persuasiveness of the administration’s position.”  All of these efforts probably helped to move the public’s position to support for the Treaty.

As for the issue of Eisenhower’s role, it is clear that Kennedy was fearful of his opposition. Michael Beschloss speculates that JFK was able to neutralize Ike’s opposition by agreeing to not prosecute his former chief of staff, Sherman Adams, on corruption charges. In return, Eisenhower removed his opposition to the treaty.

Ultimately, the Partial Test Ban Treaty passed the Senate on an overwhelming vote of 80-19. The historian Robert Dallek argues that “the treaty was so transparently a step in the right direction of better Soviet-American relations and away from the brinksmanship of the Cuban missile crisis that it is difficult to imagine the public and the Senate turning it aside.” But Kennedy’s handling of the ratification process also contributed mightily in setting the stage for the ultimate ratification by such a wide margin. The lesson for President Obama may be that if a nuclear deal with Iran is to ultimately succeed, he needs to work tirelessly over the coming months to build public and Congressional support. As Richard Neustadt once wrote, the real power of the presidency is the power to persuade.

Sources:

 

  1. Berkowitz, Morton, Bock, P.G., Fuccillo, Vincent J, The Politics of American Foreign Policy, (Englewood Cliffs, 1977)
  2. Beschloss, Michael R., The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev 1960-1963, (New York, 1991)
  3. Dallek, Robert, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963, (New York, 2003)
  4. Reeves, Richard, President Kennedy: Profile of Power, (New York, 1993)
  5. Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, (Boston, 1965)

 

 

Inequality and the Founders

jeffersonDuring the 2008 Presidential campaign, then candidate Barack Obama told plumber Joe Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber) that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” In the aftermath of that comment, Obama’s political opponents attempted to paint him as an out of touch liberal with a socialist view of the world. What a difference seven years and one great recession make. In the build-up to the 2016 Presidential race, even conservative Republican candidate, Senator Ted Cruz, has raised the issue of income inequality, even if his spin on the matter is to place the blame for the widening income gap on Obama and big government. And Cruz is not alone, with Rand Paul and even Mitt Romney getting into the act and making comments on the need to reduce income inequality in America.

Battles over the issue of equality go all the way back to the founding of our nation. Thomas Jefferson embedded equality into the Declaration of Independence as one of those great propositions upon which American was dedicated to, along with liberty and self-government. For the founding generation, there were multiple meanings for equality. Historian Gordon S. Wood, first in a lecture delivered at the American Enterprise Institute in January 1995, and later in an expanded written version published by the Fordham Law Review in January 1996, provided an analysis of what equality meant in Jefferson’s time. The quotes attributed to Dr. Wood below are from the Fordham Law Review article.

The first element was social equality, based on the idea that people see each other as equals and expect to be treated as such. Wood uses a quote from Ronald Reagan to express what this means. ”Whether we come from poverty or wealth…we are all equal in the sight of God. But as Americans that is not enough — we must be equal in the eyes of each other.” In premodern times, certain people were viewed as being superior due to heredity. Wood argues that “people in the premodern world often assumed that a handsome child, though apparently a commoner, had to be the bastard offspring of an aristocrat.”

Jefferson and many of the other founders rejected the notion that some are born superior, and they believed that distinctions between people occurred because of their environment, not due to bloodlines. Wood admits that today we no longer accept this, since we know that people are born with different talents and abilities. John Adams’ view would more likely fit our modern conception: “Were there, or will there ever be a nation whose individuals were all equal, in natural or acquired qualities, in virtue, talents, and riches? The answer in mankind must be in the negative.” Still, Jefferson’s view fits not only our compassionate side, but also is the bridge to our view of the need for equality of opportunity. If all people have equal worth, then we each have some responsibility for each other, and we need to cultivate the talents among all of us. As Dr. Wood writes: “Once the liberally educated came to believe that they could control their environment and educate the vulgar and lowly to become something other than what the traditional society had presumed they were destined to be, then enlightened elites like Jefferson began to expand their sense of moral responsibility for the vice and ignorance they saw in others and to experience feelings of common humanity with them…many of the revolutionaries concluded with Jefferson that all men were basically alike, that they partook of the same common nature.” From this came our moral sense, our sympathetic instinct that made possible the natural compassion found in society.

Equality of opportunity means that people should be able to rise as far as their talents, abilities and penchant for hard work carry them. Talent was not based on heredity but rather was distributed throughout the population, and society should encourage that talent. Tied to this is the concept of social mobility, that people should be able to move up the economic ladder based on their skills, abilities, talent, and hard work. Jefferson, who often wrote about a natural aristocracy, was referring to an aristocracy of skills and talent and not of bloodlines, a core American ideal. With others of his generation, he thought that the natural aristocracy should govern, particularly at the state and national level of government.

Jefferson and many of the other leaders of the revolutionary period went beyond this and believed in a “rough equality of condition for a republican society — with every man an independent property owner.” This was not an attempt at social leveling, where everyone would have absolutely the same material conditions, but reflected a concern that too great a concentration of wealth and power would be inimical in a republican form of government. This would later prove a major source of division between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, since the latter had few concerns with great concentrations of wealth. In this, the writing of the radical Whigs, a group found in England during the 1700’s, may have influenced Jefferson, especially the libertarians Trenchard and Gordon, who feared that concentrations of wealth would lead to the use of power in arbitrary ways. Jefferson also proposed governmental policies to deal with the problem of wealth concentration, in part by the elimination of primogeniture, which focused on reducing inequality caused by passing wealth from one generation to another. By eliminating primogeniture, Jefferson was attempting to eliminate an aristocracy of inherited wealth. He also proposed as part of the rights contained in his draft of the Virginia Constitution of 1776 that 50 acres of land be distributed to “every person of full age,” which would include women as well as men. This proposal was never enacted, indicating that policies involving redistribution may have been as controversial during the revolutionary period as they are today.

Despite his support for limited government, Jefferson was not afraid to recommend policies to alleviate great inequalities of wealth when he saw those existed. While serving as part of the American delegation to the French court in 1785, Jefferson wrote to James Madison about the extremes of wealth he saw in pre-revolutionary France. He told about a conversation he’d had with a peasant woman who had difficulty finding work and often had no bread for her children. Jefferson lamented a situation in which “property is absolutely concentrated in a very few hands.” He went on to say, ”I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property…Another means of lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.” In 1785, Jefferson was anticipating the graduated income tax that was finally implemented in the United States in the twentieth century.

Jefferson believed in minimal government and that the federal government should limit itself to foreign affairs and the relations between the states. He mistrusted all government power. In his experience, government power and private wealth were one and the same in the Great Britain of his time. The aristocracy controlled both the wealth of the society and the instruments of government. He saw small government as a means to control the power of the wealthy elite, who in England used a strong central government to enhance their power. Lew Daly, in an article printed in Dissent Magazine in 2008, argues that “the ideal, simply, was a system (of limited government) that restricted the legal and political power of the wealthy, in order to prevent them from combining against independent smallholders and those without property.” Since both Jefferson and Madison wanted America to remain a nation of small, independent, yeoman farmers and were opposed to the development of cities and large scale industry, they may have expected that small government would suffice to achieve a roughly equal society.

The Jeffersonian view of government would, from the very beginning, compete with an alternative vision of the need for a robust central government in order to promote the development of industry. This would in part lead to the development of the first party system in the 1790’s, an issue we will take up in a later blog post.