By Dan Zeiser
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved
Of course, you say, the Constitution caused the Civil War. By recognizing and institutionalizing slavery, the war was inevitable. But this is not the only reason that the Constitution caused the Civil War. There was another, perhaps more important, reason that the founding fathers caused our particular sectional strife. This reason is the electoral college.
The presidency is key to analyzing the impact of the Constitution on the war. The founding fathers envisioned voters electing the best candidates as president and vice president. A quick look at the first few elections reveals their intent. The first administration had George Washington as President and John Adams as Vice President. When Adams was elected President, Thomas Jefferson served as Vice President, even though he was from the rival party. The framers would indeed be shocked to see how we elect our presidents today.
The presidency changed with Andrew Jackson. He portrayed himself as the people’s representative, appealing directly to them for support. The president became the symbolic center of the federal government, as it is still seen today. As a result, the presidency became the focus of partisanship and political parties placed much emphasis on controlling the office. Thus, the method of choosing a president gained great importance. It is here that the framers choice of the electoral college becomes vital.
Concerned about the effect of popular pressure upon the executive, the founding fathers chose to insulate the president from the people. Unfortunately, this played a direct role in the coming of the Civil War. In the first handful of presidential elections, votes were cast not for the presidential candidates, but for slates of party electors pledged to a candidate. In the nineteenth century, however, parties abandoned choosing presidential electors by Congressional district and replaced it with granting all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who won the popular vote. This system permitted bloc voting by state.
Two consequences resulted from bloc voting. First was to amplify the importance of the most populous states, which, of course, controlled the most electoral votes. The second was greater in impact and caused the Civil War. It permitted sectional parties. With support confined to the North, the Republican party could not have won a presidential contest based on the popular vote. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won with less than forty percent of the vote. However, since his support was concentrated in the North, with its majority of electoral votes, he won. As the recipient of all the electoral votes of each state he won, Lincoln swept ninety-eight percent of the North’s electoral votes while winning only fifty-four percent of the vote in these states. The Republican party could only win under an approach where the winner took all of a state’s electoral votes.
The rise of the sectional Republican party led to the war. When national politics were controlled by two truly national parties, it was nearly impossible for the political gridlock that led to the war to occur. With a constituency drawn from both North and South, a party was forced into compromise and sectional accord. Even when the slavery issue rose to the fore, the two-party system was able to deflect its impact. The Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act are examples of the system at work.
For the system to work properly, though, both parties must be accepted as legitimate. A truly sectional party, however, finds it difficult to gain such legitimacy. Since its support is limited to a certain geographic area or particular issue, the opposition finds it difficult to treat it as a legitimate contender. The Free Soil and Know Nothing parties are proof of this. In 1860, Southerners refused to give the Republican party this standing. From their perspective, Lincoln’s election was more than one party assuming power from another, a temporary setback that could be overturned in the next election. As a party whose sole purpose was the elimination of slavery, in the South’s eyes, the Republican success was a turning point. Slavery would be ended, the Southern way of life destroyed. Returning a Democrat to power in 1864 could not put back into place that which had been destroyed. This was different than, say, repealing a tariff that had been put in place. The nation could not be returned to the status quo that stood prior to 1860. Faced with such a situation, the choice for Southerners was clear. If the South remained in the Union, it faced the end of its way of life. To save the society they had built, Southerners could not remain in the Union. Secession seemed the only way out.
It is no great leap to claim that the creation of the Republican party, a truly sectional party in its first years, was the crucial link in the chain of events leading to the Civil War. The success of the party was a direct outcome of the electoral college. Since this system allowed a candidate who won a state to receive all of its electoral votes, it permitted the scenario that resulted in Lincoln’s victory. The founding fathers were truly visionaries. They created a system that has not only survived, but adapted well for over two hundred years. They were not perfect, however. They could not foresee every possibility or consequence of their creation. Nor should they be expected to. The conclusion is clear, though, the Constitution caused the Civil War.