Returning Lecturer Dr. Gary Hylander Presents "America Votes"
Dr. Gary Hylander, History Professor at Stonehill College and Boston Colleges
The topic of a program at the Bellingham Senior Center in September was “America Votes,” but the largest part of the discussion during Dr. Gary Hylander’s recent lecture was how the Constitution was created and adopted. Hylander whipped out his well-worn copy of the United States Constitution and noted that he frequently carries the document. The Stonehill College professor said that he refers to the 200+ year- old document so frequently that his students tease him and often ask, “Dr. Hylander, are you packing?”
Hylander explained that the delegates from America’s original colonies were sent to Philadelphia in 1786 with a mandate to strengthen the Articles of Confederation, which had been adopted in 1783. “But this structure was a mess to do business,” Hylander said. “Thirteen separate states, seven different currencies.”
Hylander was eager to get to the topic of Article 2 of the Constitution, the section that deals with how the presidency is structured. But the group was curious about the back story, and Hylander obliged by filling in details to help explain the process of how the Constitution came into being. Hylander’s narration took the group back to 1786, with 55 men all in one small room. “James Madison proposed that the group exceed their instructions,” he explained. “In effect, what was proposed was a coup d’etat, a political revolution.” Madison urged the group to be bold, rather than follow the instructions they had received from each of their governors, and to act in complete secrecy to create a document for an alternative to the confederation that had become so dysfunctional.
We learned that Rhode Island declined to send a representative to this gathering and, when later presented with the Constitution, initially declined to ratify it. Hylander noted, “Rhode Island was threatened with being treated as an independent nation—if the state were attacked, it would be on its own, tariffs would be put in place, the state would be isolated. ”In the end, Rhode Island ratified the Constitution, but only by a 34-32 vote.
Several options were considered for what would be the best form of leadership for this “United States of America.” Alexander Hamilton thought one president should be elected for life, to rule like a king with absolute veto power. He wanted to do away with the checks and balances that have been an important (albeit often maddening) structure in our government. Hamilton also wanted state governors to be appointed, not elected. Clearly, Hamilton’s arguments did not prevail.
As opposed to Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin thought we should have three presidents, one for each section of the country: north, middle and southern states. Obviously this idea was ultimately shot down as well.
In the end, a compromise was to have one president serve four-year terms (not the seven-year terms originally proposed). In the original document there was no limit on how many times a president could be reelected. Only much later was a limit placed on how long a president could serve. Additional original qualifications required that the candidate had to be a man, 35 years of age or older, a freeholder, and a native-born citizen.
Hylander noted that the group asked George Washington to join them at the convention and that his presence gave the gathering legitimacy. “Remember, these were not poor people; they were well-off businessmen,” he said. “The delegates feared power and tyranny, and they knew that Washington had deflected power in the past.” Hylander then related a little side history about how, at the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington’s officers had wanted to march on the Continental Congress to disband it and make Washington the supreme leader. Washington had dissuaded them, and the representatives of this convention felt confident that Washington would not be anxious to grab power when offered the opportunity.
Those who attended the lecture also got a short lesson on the creation of the Electoral College. Hylander explained that Ben Franklin had proposed that the people elect the president. Another suggestion was for Congress to choose the president, but the solution finally agreed upon was the Electoral College, with each state being apportioned electors according to population. The Electoral College was created, like so much else in what eventually became our Constitution, with a compromise. Each state was apportioned electors according to population; but, since there were so many slaves in the southern states, a compromise was agreed upon to count each slave as 3/5 of a citizen, giving the southern states an extra 20 electoral votes.
Hylander described the original electoral process in which each elector wrote down two names, with the top vote-getter becoming president, the second vote-getter becoming vice-president. “For this first election, there were not political parties,”Hylander noted.
Written into the Constitution at the beginning was a provision for how to remove a president for illegal behavior—impeachment. “They were sure that Washington was a good man, but had no confidence that good men would be chosen after that,” Hylander said.
And so next month America will vote again. It’s a system that, with a very few adjustments, has stood the test of time for over 200 years. By participating, each of us affirms the basic structure that our founders created so long ago—what a privilege. See you at the polls!