This is the first in a series of four articles exploring the history behind, problems with, and solutions to the flaws of the United States electoral system. Part two will focus on electoral security.
The implementation of the electoral system of the United States in 1788 was the most radical divergence from the tradition of European monarchies whose origin began with the dissolution of the Roman Republic nearly 2,000 years prior. The new American system of government created a cascade effect throughout the world, inspiring the French Revolution, anticolonialism in Latin America, and the Age of Revolution as a whole.
While the very concept of a democratic republic rocked the existing world order, its tenets were not completely unprecedented. In their creation of a new electoral system, the Founding Fathers drew inspiration from three sources: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and Germanic traditions.
The idea of certain members of the general public being able to participate in the governance of their polity, the foundation of the American electoral system, formally extends back to 508 BCE. In this year, Athens, an ancient Greek city-state, introduced a system in which adult male landowners who possessed Athenian citizenship could vote to exile unpopular members of their community. Eventually, the scope of popular voting expanded, as these landowning Athenian male citizens became able to hold any public office through sortition, or election by lot, which started Athens’ era as a true democracy. This form of direct democracy contrasts the United States’ representative democracy by removing any sort of political middleman standing in between the voice of a citizen and voting on any given issue.
This system lasted until 322 BCE when Athens was subjugated by Macedonia. While later rulers in the Hellenistic Age nominally sought to revive Athenian democracy, this feat was never accomplished. Unbeknownst to the ancient Greeks, however, a gaggle of wealthy wig-wearing landowners would take up the mantle of some of their ideas two thousand years later.
A system that somewhat more closely resembles our own than that of Athenian democracy is the Roman Republic. Beginning with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy in 509 BCE, the Republic vested a measure of political power in adult male Roman citizens who could vote for members of two branches of government. The first of these branches was the comitia centuriata, which controlled all military affairs and among themselves elected certain government officials, while the other branch was the comitia tributa, which passed laws and elected other officials.
Similar to our Electoral College, individual votes were aggregated into groups; a majority of individual votes decided the vote of each group, and a majority of groups decided the election. However, unlike our current system, not all votes were equal; the Roman electoral process was heavily biased in favor of wealthy landowning males, with the lower classes having some sway but very little in comparison to the aristocratic elite. The Roman Republic formally ended in 27 BCE with the ascension of Caesar Augustus, an event that ushered in the age of monarchy for Europe.
The third, and arguably most important, pillar of inspiration for the American electoral system is the Germanic tribal system which evolved into the national law of England and other states. Originating with the Germanic peoples that began migrating south from Scandinavia as early as 1000 BCE and ultimately settling in the lands stretching from modern-day Germany to England, this societal apparatus designated institutional hierarchies in government. Before the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Germanic peoples were usually tribal in nature with a political hierarchy that was more fluid. Germanic chiefs could consult with the greater community on issues of importance, and charismatic individuals with strong enough proposals could steer the decision-making of a community.
Germanic political hierarchy solidified further once tribes settled and adopted feudalism, the governing system in which local lords govern their respective territories and pay some degree of homage to a king. The top level of government took the form of the king, his council, and the assembly. This assembly was known as the witan in Anglo-Saxon England and operated as a restricted body of nobles allowed to advise the king on some issues. Eventually, the witan was replaced by the Anglo-Norman commune concilium, an institution that blended the Germanic witan with the old Roman system of concilium where local representatives met with imperial designates. This eventually evolved into the English parliament with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the primary foundational document of the American Constitution.
In spite of it being a legal contract that merely increased the power of the aristocracy on the national stage, the Magna Carta ultimately planted the seed of popular sovereignty by weakening the grip of monarchy and establishing law as a power to which the king was subject. Over time, power became more diffused; in 1295, for example, clergymen, knights, and even two citizens from each city were included in Parliament.
The time during which a bulk of the Founding Fathers’ views on governance stems from is the latter half of the 17th century, a time of great chaos for the English monarchy and period of change for English governance. From 1649 to 1702, there were seven English rulers, five of whom were monarchs, two of whom were military dictators, and two who ruled jointly. The monarchy was overthrown, reestablished, overthrown again, and re-established once more.
However, it was in this period of strife and violence that forces were set in play which would eventually lead to representative government. Two major events are worth noting in particular: Oliver Cromwell’s accession to the rulership of England and the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89.
Firstly, Oliver Cromwell was the commander-in-chief of the armies of Parliament in the English Civil War which ended with the execution of King Charles I and the ascension of Cromwell to the position of Lord Protector. This marked the beginning of the end for the doctrine of divine right, the idea that kings derived their authority for rulership directly from God. Although the monarchy was ultimately restored, it never regained its former powers over society.
Secondly, the Glorious Revolution was the overthrow of the Catholic James II by the Protestant Dutchman William of Orange, who came to be titled William III, and his wife Mary, who became Mary II. In contrast to most revolutions, this so-called revolution was requested by the largely Protestant English Parliament who was alienated by James II’s Catholicism and his declarations regarding religion. In exchange for Parliament’s support, the dual monarchs William III and Mary II signed the English Bill of Rights which ultimately gave Parliament, a representative body, power over the monarchy.
Not only were these major events incredibly meaningful to the Founding Fathers’ worldviews in and of themselves, but they also, at least in the case of English philosophers, helped to inspire aspects of the Enlightenment. This was a European intellectual movement during the 17th and 18th centuries that explored themes such as rationality, humanity’s relationship with nature and God, and natural rights, the rights which every human being is immutably granted at birth.
During this period, the doctrines of past governments, such as the aforementioned Roman Republic and Athenian democracy, were reevaluated by contemporary thinkers such as John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. These figures drew upon many of the democratic and republican values of these past civilizations and were among the first to agitate for the rights of the individual, the separation of church and state, the separation of powers among different branches of government, and the idea that power was derived from the will of the governed. All of these, of course, are ideas that are now fundamental to the governance of the United States.
The Founding Fathers were not simply passive readers, however. They also had and wrote about their own opinions regarding the systems of the past. For example, James Madison argued in Federalist Papers No. 10 that the direct democracy of ancient Athens “can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction;” in other words, pure democracy is not sufficient enough to stave off a tyranny of the majority in which a dominant viewpoint, ideology, or people group can oppress a minority. There can be no complete removal of factionalism either, he claimed, as doing so would mean suppressing the liberty of the individual. Thus, he and the other Founding Fathers agreed, to one degree or another, that the appropriate solution was a mitigation of factionalism through a representative democracy, the bedrock principle of American governance.
Another clear influence of both Enlightenment and classical philosophy on the Founding Fathers is seen in the Declaration of Independence, most famously in the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” With this phrase, in particular, Thomas Jefferson, the drafter of the Declaration, took inspiration from the aforementioned John Locke, who argued that among a person’s natural rights are life and liberty, and from Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher who claimed that the primary goal of life is to secure happiness based on long-term freedom from physical pain and mental anxiety.
Whether expressed through the Federalist Papers, our Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence, it is clear that the Founding Fathers were the heirs of a rich intellectual and political lineage populated by great minds and radical events that stretched back to Classical Antiquity and witnessed the rise and fall of democracy, republicanism, and monarchy.
Knowing and understanding this history is key to protecting and preserving the liberties and free governance that we enjoy today.