An Eighteenth Century “Oops”

100129CC-DB-ADAMS_JEFFERSON06_thumbnail_t320_240Today in the Amendments series we look at an example of a successful course correction taken during the first years of the Republic: the Twelfth Amendment.

The text is a bit lengthy, so I won’t quote it here.  Basically, it altered the way Presidents and Vice-Presidents were elected.  Originally, each member of the Electoral College voted for two names.  Whoever received the most and second most votes would become President and Vice-President, respectively.

While this seemed fine in theory to the Founders, what they failed to take into consideration was the possibility of political parties that could lead to either ticket-splitting (the Election of 1796) or an electoral tie (the Election of 1800).  This caused particular problems for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, political opponents who had to serve together as President and Vice-President after 1796.  Four years later, jeffersonJefferson as the winning presidential candidate was to accidentally tie with his own party’s  vice-presidential candidate (Aaron Burr), unwittingly throwing the election into the House of Representatives.

Because 1) having the two leaders of the Executive Branch belong to different political parties could be rather unstable and 2) the constant potential for a draw would persist under the original electoral model, it became quickly evident that things needed to change.  They did so with speed, and by the Election of 1804 the new system was in place.

There are at least two ways to look at the Twelfth Amendment, I think.  The first is, in contradistinction to some of my rather pessimistic thoughts last week, that our system of government can be flexible enough to rise to the challenge and make necessary changes.  This is, admittedly, the more hopeful point of view.  My second thought, however, is slightly more sober.  What the Twelfth Amendment tells us is that the Founders (who had written the Constitution less than 25 years before) didn’t always know what they were doing.  As much as they might have displayed realism with their vision of the separation of powers and branches of founding_fathers_are_gangsters_by_beenthereb4-d37y5ulgovernment, they also showed some rather naive idealism or optimistic oversight in not accepting the potential for political parties’ emergence.

Though in this case the mistakes of the 1780s were recognized and corrected early, such an early “coding error” in our national operating system–and the others we will see addressed along the way–means that we must keep things in perspective.  While as an American, therefore, I may affirm the larger principles of the Constitution,  I must also admit that just because certain structures, policies, and procedures are contained in its original manuscript does not mean that we must accept them uncritically.  Especially if–as in 1796 and 1800–they aren’t working.


2 comments on “An Eighteenth Century “Oops”

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