Part One - Jan 17:
Part Two - Jan 19:
Part Three - Jan 20:
Joseph J. Ellis is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. Among his previous books are Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993) and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1997), which won the National Book Award. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author, most recently, of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996).
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Atlantic Unbound | January 19, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
To: James Fallows
From: Joseph Ellis
Subject: Re: Our Committee of Correspondence - Part Two
My Dear Fallows,
This salutation strikes me as the proper mix of eighteenth-century formality and nineteenth-century Victorian clubiness. Adams and Jefferson usually saluted each other as "Dear Sir," a nice blend of sensibility and sense. (It's what Jane Austen was talking about.) Feel free to choose your own favorite style.
I'll take up the Electoral College question first. You make the democratic case for abolishing that weird contraption, which was designed by an eleven-man committee at the Constitutional Convention during August and September of 1787. The founders were divided over several questions about the power and role of the presidency, state versus federal sovereignty, sectional and regional influence. The Electoral College was an awkward compromise of those competing interests. In effect, it was another implementation of the so called Great Compromise reached the previous month, whereby representation in the House was made proportional to population, and representation in the Senate was equal for each state. No one at the time regarded the Electoral College as a particularly elegant invention. Most of the delegates assumed that it would only winnow down the list of possible candidates, and the final choice would usually be made by the House of Representatives.
Obviously, it has not functioned that way. In a sense the founders were wiser than they knew, because what they actually created was a device that has produced decisive electoral conclusions when the popular vote is evenly split and when third-party candidates prevent one candidate from garnering a popular majority. In seven elections during the nineteenth century and three in the twentieth (1912, 1968, 1992), the winner of the electoral majority did not receive a popular majority. Each of these elections would have been thrown into the House of Representatives if the President were chosen by a democratic vote and the winner required a majority. No one in his right mind would want to see that happen. And so, one of the chief contributions of the Electoral College has been to produce conclusive verdicts and to avoid what we might call "the Italian Effect" or, perhaps, "democratic diffusion." Lincoln never would have been elected without the Electoral College.
Although the frustration generated by the most recent presidential election is wholly justified and understandable, I take refuge behind the old aphorism that "hard cases make for bad law." Sure, we can and should debate the relevance of the Electoral College. It would be a nice civics lesson for many American citizens. (And sales of Founding Brothers would increase as a consequence.) But, as you recognize, the prospects of the current Congress mustering the votes necessary to change the Constitution in all the ways necessary (i.e., do we want to legislate run-offs when no one has a popular majority or can we accept a President who has a mere popular plurality?) are remote in the extreme. This too is a legacy of my guys, who made it possible, but very difficult, to add constitutional amendments. The current system is not democratic, true enough, but it does blend the individual voters with state and regional interests in a fashion that has worked well for more than two hundred years. The current imbroglio represents only the third occasion in American history when there was a discrepancy between the winner of the electoral vote and the winner of the popular vote. That's a pretty good record. Rather than expend our energy in the futile cause of abolishing the Electoral College, I would prefer that we use the same energy to improve the technology of voting machines and pass legislation mandating some national rules for managing and reporting presidential elections.
The question you raise about the intelligence of our political leaders obviously depends on how one defines intelligence. Neither the book-learning sense of the term, nor the sheer brainpower (i.e. IQ) sense, has much of a correlation with presidential success. Within the revolutionary generation, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were, in the judgment of their peers (and in my judgment), the wisest political leaders, but neither of them attended college. John Quincy Adams was probably the smartest and best-read President in American history, but his presidency was an unmitigated disaster. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a mediocre student at Groton and Harvard, once famously described as "a third-class mind and a first-class temperament," and he became the greatest President of the twentieth century.
So the pattern is pretty clear. We obviously don't want ignorant idiots in the White House. We prefer smart Presidents to stupid Presidents. But Bill Clinton is an excellent example—along with Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter—of the way smart folks can do truly stupid things. On the other side of the gun barrel, Ronald Reagan is an excellent example of someone unburdened by learning or heavy-duty intellectual equipment whose presidency was a major political success.
Two thoughts occur to me in this area, neither particularly original nor, shall we say, intelligent in the brainpower mode. First, over the past half-century or so, the marathon campaigns required to compete for the presidency, and the intensified media scrutiny all aspiring candidates must endure, have created a major deterrent that screens out some of the most intellectually interesting and gifted prospective candidates. Neither John Adams nor Thomas Jefferson would ever submit their personal lives to such a process. And what sane, sensible, and mature human being would feel otherwise? Perhaps this is more of a psychological than intellectual observation, but I think you have to be a somewhat unbalanced, slightly crazy person to run for national office nowadays.
Second, there is a kind of intelligence that will not show up on IQ or SAT scores that has historically proven most efficacious in the executive office. It is the capacity to distinguish between the forests and the trees, the arteries and the capillaries, the strategy and the tactics. Washington, Lincoln, and both Roosevelts had it. Isaiah Berlin, the great British political philosopher, described it as the difference between the hedgehog and the fox. The fox knows many little things. The hedgehog knows one big thing. (Of course, it goes without saying that the one big thing you know had better be right.) My sense is that this is a mental skill or talent that can be learned but cannot be taught. Washington learned it during those eight long years leading the Continental Army. John Adams and Harry Truman learned it from reading history. Benjamin Franklin seems to have been born with it. Engineers like Hoover and Carter almost always lack it. The supporters of George W. Bush want us to believe that he acquired it as a cheerleader at Andover and a fraternity man at Yale. We'll see.
One of the limitations of my analysis is that it makes this distinctive brand of intelligence entirely a function of personality. The larger truth, of course, is that some historical moments are more conducive to producing hedgehogs than others. And that is one of my points in Founding Brothers. The revolutionary generation produced more leaders, as E. H. Carr put it, "with a sense of the future in their bones." We might want to talk about the reasons for that in our last exchange.
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