What is gained and what is lost by giving political parties a role in electing our President?
- Understand the process originally established in the Constitution for electing a President.
- Recognize ways in which the original electoral process failed when political parties took a role in selecting candidates.
- Evaluate the role of political parties in sorting presidential candidates.
- Handout A: The Election of 1800
- Handout B: Sorting the Candidates
To create a context for this lesson, have students complete Constitutional Connection: Presidents and the Transfer of Power.
Have students read Handout A: The Election of 1800 and answer the questions.
Have them interview a parent or other adult. Students should ask about the purpose of political parties, how successful they are at selecting better candidates, and what specific successes or weaknesses they have.
You may also want to have students do an activity on the Electoral College.
Have students imagine they are electors in a presidential election. On a blank sheet of paper they should write the names of two Americans alive today whom they would like to see as President or Vice President (not including the sitting President). Important: Students may NOT talk or work together.
Collect the ballots and assign two students to count them. While the vote-counters are working, ask students to share the names of the individuals they listed on their ballots.
When your vote-counters are done, have them write the top five vote-getters, along with the number of votes each received, on the board. Explain to students that the number of votes necessary to win is half the number of students in the classroom, plus one.
Ask students to think about the outcome of an election that has no prior sorting process where potential candidates are evaluated.
- Was the process democratic?
- Was the outcome desirable?
- Why is it a good idea to have a sorting process?
Have students work in small groups. Distribute Handout B: Sorting the Candidates.
First, have students read the list of desired outcomes on Handout B. Students should add any desired outcomes they think should have been included, and cross out any listed outcomes they think are unimportant.
Students should then rank the desired outcomes from most important to least important.
Finally, ask students to recall their interviews and their own knowledge of political parties in order to evaluate our current two major-party system. How well does it accomplish all of those desired outcomes? Have a representative of each group share their thinking.
Asking students to recall their homework interviews (if they conducted one) or their own knowledge, have them share their understandings of the US political party system. As a large group, discuss the following questions:
- Is the two-party system the best way to identify/sort candidates?
- What are advantages of a two-party system? Disadvantages?
- Is it a strength or a weakness of our constitutional system that such an important task is performed by political parties—institutions that are not mentioned in the Constitution?
Ask students to follow up with the person they interviewed for homework. They should share knowledge gained in the lesson and ask their interviewee some of the class discussion questions.
Have students research the election of 1824—the first election after the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to be settled by the House of Representatives. Ask them to write a brief explanation of the reasons that election had to be settled by the House.
Contentious Elections and the Peaceful Transition of Power
Contentious elections are nothing new in U.S. history. This eLesson explores some of our most bitter presidential elections, and challenges students to analyze the value of a peaceful transfer of power within our governing system.
Jonathan White: 1824 & Contentious Elections | BRI Scholar Talks
BRI Senior Teaching Fellow Tony Williams sits down with Jonathan White, associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and author of several books on the Civil War, to discuss his essay on the presidential election of 1824 in our new digital history textbook, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Together, they piece together the historical background behind one of the most contentious elections in American history. In 1824, none of the four candidates—Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, or William Crawford—were able to obtain a majority of the Electoral College vote. The Twelfth Amendment required the election be sent to the U.S. House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams was chosen as the sixth U.S. president. Can we learn any lessons about democracy from contentious elections? Was the election a crisis or a demonstration of the successful workings of constitutional principles? About Jonathan White: Jonathan White is an associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and is the author or editor of ten books, including "Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman and Emancipation" and "Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln," which was a finalist for both the Lincoln Prize and the winner of the Abraham Lincoln Institute’s 2015 book prize. He serves on the Boards of Directors of the Abraham Lincoln Institute, the Abraham Lincoln Association, the Lincoln Forum, and the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia. His most recent books include "Lincoln on Law, Leadership and Life" and “Our Little Monitor: The Greatest Invention of the Civil War." He is presently writing a biography of a convicted slave trader named Appleton Oaksmith. Check out his website at www.jonathanwhite.org/ or follow him on Twitter at @CivilWarJon.
John Quincy Adams and the Election of 1824
The Election of 1824 was the first to be decided in the House of Representatives after the Twelfth Amendment was passed. Jackson received the most electoral votes and the greatest percentage of the popular vote (inasmuch as it existed in 1824), but the House voted for John Quincy Adams. In this lesson, students explore the election of 1824 and evaluate the Electoral College system.
The Election of 1860
The election of 1860 was the only election in our history that did not result in a peaceful transfer of power. As political developments changed the way the Constitution’s compromises on slavery were understood and applied, Americans from both North and South expressed fears about conspiracies to either impose or prohibit slavery throughout the nation. Fearing a loss of power within the Union, many Southerners revisited arguments about the nature of the Constitution. Some argued that the Constitution was a compact among the states, and that interpretation seemed to allow for states to secede, or withdraw from that compact. After the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected President in 1860—without even appearing on the ballot in ten Southern states—Southern states rapidly took action to secede from the Union, and President Lincoln took action to keep the Union together.
Rutherford B. Hayes and the Disputed Election of 1876
The US Constitution provides an orderly process for electing the President, as described in Article II and the Twelfth Amendment. However, in the election of 1876, two conflicting sets of electoral votes were submitted by each of four states. The Constitution provided no process for determining the legitimate set of votes. Acting outside any constitutional mandate, Congress created a special commission to investigate the returns from Oregon, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. Voting along party lines, the commission ruled that Rutherford B. Hayes had won the disputed election.