Notes on The Presidential Game

Following are some themes and issues you should look for as you read McCormick's book. They can also serve as a guide for class discussion and exam questions.

Issues to consider while reading:

What did the Framers do to discourage the development of parties? What factors contributed to the development of parties nevertheless?

What were the sources of the various "rules," and rules changes, in the "presidential game"? That is: which were laws (state or federal?); which were constitutional amendments; and what other sources of rules can you identify?

What events in McCormick's history revealed constitutional ambiguities, or challenged past constitutional practices? Were there any moments at which it was unclear to the participants what the appropriate next move should be, constitutionally?

What "fatal defect" did Hamilton identify in the Constitution's provisions for presidential election? What "radical defect" helped justify the existence of political parties to the Democrats of 1835? Were they really defects?

What justifications were being offered, by the 1830s and 1840s, for the role of political parties in American government?

What were the features of the "presidential game," as of 1844, that lasted at least through the mid-20th century?


For class discussion

The Framers' political principles

“the republican ideal” (pp 6-7 in McCormick)

  • rule of law
  • govt powers (1) specified and limited by a written constitution (2) granted via popular sovereignty
  • protection of individual liberty and certain rights from government action, impervious to majority wishes
  • Const. and govt should maintain a balance among competing interests.
  • republican virtue, especially as a qualification for office; disapprove of demagogy and “overt seeking of office”
  • “Intrigues, cabals, and factions” reflect corruption; political parties are bad.
    • By implication: There is an identifiable public interest which is threatened by the corruption of seeking private/special interest in politics.
  • To promote those principles, the presidency should be independent of other branches; authoritative but subject to checks, producing stability and efficient execution.

democratic principles at the time of the Founding?

  • revolution rhetoric, as expressed in Dec of Indep.: "all men" equal, have unalienable rights, must consent to government
  • equality (between people—or at least elites in U.S. and elites, meaning rulers, in England)
  • tension with English “virtual representation”
  • widespread anti-aristocracy attitudes, derived from unhappiness with English-appointed officials
    • although most Framers, especially those who became the Federalist party, strongly favored rule by a "natural aristocracy"


Framers' aims concerning the presidency

In their system of presidential selection, the framers were concerned to

  • balance large/small state powers (VP invented only to make 2nd vote, for someone outside home state, significant)
  • balance limitation of presidential power and executive ”energy”
  • keep president politically independent of Congress
  • choose persons of great virtue
  • avoid faction, intrigue, manipulation in presidential selection
  • produce a president who would be respected by all, above the fray, who could and would execute laws and conduct foreign affairs in the public interest

They were not particularly concerned with several things often later attributed their design:

  • maximizing popular participation
  • constructing president as representative of a national constituency
  • ensuring pres. has endorsement of a majority (until the very end of their deliberations)


The presidential game: expectations vs. realities

As a result of their design, the Framers expected

  • Electors to be qualified people who would ensure a proper emphasis on republican virtue in presidents
  • Electors chosen via popular election
  • most elections ending up with contingent election in the House of Representatives
  • prevention of faction and intrigue among Electors

What they got (immediately):

  • intrigue and faction operating at all levels, from method of Elector selection to lining up Elector votes
  • candidates for VP
  • nominations (by "caucuses" of like-minded politicians)
  • the "fatal defect"
  • the formation of political parties

Table: State methods of choice of Electors, 1788-1836


Constitutional development in the Federalist era

  • initial definition of much of government structure: federal courts, executive departments
  • active-govt approach of Federalists, esp. debt/Bank of the U.S.
  • institution of a standing army, rather than depending upon militias
  • emergence of political parties as policy-seeking coalitions and as nomination mechanisms for presidential candidates


The 1800 Election

Views of the 1800 election

  • "America's peaceful revolution"
  • a narrowly-averted coup by Federalists
  • a usurpation of power by Jefferson?

A constitutional crisis: the election system nearly failed its basic constitutional function of designating, in a way accepted by all, who is to exercise presidential powers.


The Virginia Game

12th Amendment, along with the informal practices of politicians, generated a consistent presidential game through 1820:

  • two parties, nominating presidential and VP candidates
    • for the Republicans, the Richmond Junto in negotiation with, esp., PA and NY Republicans
    • VPs signify status of NY Repubs, but not viable successors
    • Secretary of State as successor
  • Federalists’ use of nominating caucuses became an effective target of criticism

A new stage of constitutional development: the Jeffersonian transformation

  • narrow construction view of Constitution (yet consider Louisiana Purchase and retention of the Bank of the U.S.)
  • electoral politics based on broad-participation political party organization
  • more active presidential leadership of his party within government


The 1825 contingent election in the House of Representatives

Some specifics

  • CRS report by Thomas H. Neale, "Contingent Election of the President and Vice President by Congress: Perspectives and Contemporary Analysis" (2016)
  • p. 12: In 1824 House used an absolute majority rule within state delegations to determine that state's vote; but this can be decided by the House
  • Table: Electoral vs. House balloting for president, 1824-25

Jackson's four-year campaign against Adams; the "radical defect" in the Constitution


Constitutional development in the Jacksonian era

Nationwide adoption (except SC!) of the general ticket system (popular election & unit rule) -- despite a serious reform attempt.

A new "democratic ideal"

  • In elections
    • near-elimination of property qualifications for voting
    • campaigns as mass-participation events
    • Jackson extolled the "common man" above the well-to-do
  • After the election: the spoils system

A more active president, in both elections and government

  • "The President is the direct representative of the American people" (Jackson's message of protest to the Senate, 1834)
  • use of the veto
  • elimination of govt fiscal policy; emph. on state rights
  • aggressive pursuit of policy goals: Bank of U.S.; nullification & tariff; Indian removal


Development and stability of The Party Game

Presidential candidates are nominated in national conventions by two major political parties, which enuncuate policy goals. Active campaigning ensues -- even, indirectly, by the candidates themselves. Pledged Electors chosen by the general ticket system determine the winner. The winner's supporters enjoy government office as "spoils" of victory.

  • first national party nominating conventions, 1831-32
    • and thereafter: Democrats used 1836 convention to agree on VP; Whigs held "Democratic Whig National Convention" 1839
  • new justifications heard for conventions and parties

Official statements of some early conventions

Key idea: an organized party with leadership empowered to implement internal agreements is the strongest way to gain power to implement one's favored policies.

Stability of the party game: surviving challenges

  • succession of van Buren 1836 (despite Southern misgivings)
  • creation of a lasting new party, the Whigs --> 1840 victory
  • VP succession by Tyler; his break with congressional Whigs
  • Democrats forced to nominate a dark-horse candidate in Polk 1844; he wins; end of McCormick's story