The implication of Hardaway’s argument is that the electoral college was created to placate the small states. However, in all the debates over [how to elect] the executive at the Constitutional Convention, this issue never came up. Indeed, the opposite argument received more attention. At one point the Convention considered allowing the state governors to choose the president but backed away from this in part because it would allow the small states to choose one of their own.
Any discussion of the original reason for the electoral college that doesn’t talk about slavery is nonsense.
The Electoral college was proposed by the slave-owning states, and supported by the pro-slavery coalition at the Constitutional convention, in order to give extra influence to slave-owning states.
The most influential delegate, Madison argued that “the people at large” were “the fittest” to choose the president. But “one difficulty . . . of a serious nature” made election by the people impossible. Madison noted that the “right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes.” In order to guarantee that the nonvoting slaves could nevertheless influence the presidential election, Madison favored the creation of the electoral college.
Hugh Williamson of North Carolina was more open about the reasons for southern opposition to a popular election of the president. He noted that under a direct election of the president, Virginia would not be able to elect her leaders president because “[h]er slaves will have no suffrage.” The same of course would be true for the rest of the South.
Direct election by voters would have meant that (for example) Virginia’s 200,000 slaves wouldn’t give them any extra power in presidential elections. With the electoral college, however, Virginia and other slave states got an enormous boost in electoral power.
Virginia emerged as the big winner—the California of the Founding era—with 12 out of a total of 91 electoral votes allocated by the Philadelphia Constitution, more than a quarter of the 46 needed to win an election in the first round. After the 1800 census, Wilson’s free state of Pennsylvania had 10% more free persons than Virginia, but got 20% fewer electoral votes. Perversely, the more slaves Virginia (or any other slave state) bought or bred, the more electoral votes it would receive. Were a slave state to free any blacks who then moved North, the state could actually lose electoral votes.
If the system’s pro-slavery tilt was not overwhelmingly obvious when the Constitution was ratified, it quickly became so. For 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slaveholding Virginian occupied the presidency.
Of course, slavery was defeated eventually – but the unjust and anti-democratic electoral power held by the slave states, both in the electoral college and in Congress, meant that it took a war to end slavery. It’s interesting to wonder how American history might have gone differently if the Constitution hadn’t been written to give a powerful boost to slaveowning states. Historian Gary Wills writes:
Without the federal ratio as the deciding factor in House votes, slavery would have been excluded from Missouri; Andrew Jackson’s policy of removing Indians from territories they occupied in several states would have failed; the 1840 gag rule, protecting slavery in the District of Columbia, would not have been imposed; the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery from territories won from Mexico. Moreover, the Kansas and Nebraska bill outlawing slavery in Nebraska territory and allowing it in Kansas would have failed. Other votes were close enough to give opposition to the South a better chance, if the federal ratio had not been counted into the calculations from the outset. Elections to key congressional posts were affected continually by the federal ratio, with the result that Southerners held ‘the Speaker’s office for 79 percent of the time [before 1824], Ways and Means for 92 percent.’
The malignant effects of the pro-slavery Constitution continue to the present day, of course, most obviously in the election of Donald Trump, which almost certainly would not have happened without the electoral college.