H-CivWar is pleased to offer this guest post to the Authors’ Blog from Dr. A. James Fuller of the University of Indianapolis on Senator Oliver P. Morton (R-IN) and his plans to reform the electoral college.
Reconstruction and the Electoral College
by A. James Fuller, Ph.D.
Professor of History, University of Indianapolis
A Republican Senator proposed a plan to reform the electoral college and change the way that presidential elections occurred in the United States. Although he said that he favored abolishing the electoral college and moving to the direct, popular election of the president and vice president, the senator recognized that such a plan could not hope to become a reality given partisan opposition to it as well as the reluctance of smaller states to change the current system. Instead, he hoped to change the rules to have the electoral votes counted by congressional district, with each state having two at-large electors who would be those committed to the candidate who carried the state’s popular vote, but the rest would go to the candidate who received the most votes in each district.
The proposal was offered in the 1870s by Indiana’s U.S. Senator, Oliver P. Morton, the chair of the powerful Committee on Privileges and Elections. He first proposed his plan in the wake of the 1872 election, but raised it again before and after the disputed election of 1876, a contest in which he was a leading contender for the Republican nomination and, then, a member on the commission that settled the election in 1877. I am writing this blog entry to ask for help on an article about Morton’s plan for reforming the electoral college.
In my 2017 biography, Oliver P. Morton and the Politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction, published by Kent State University Press, I gave the plan only a brief treatment, but I think the subject is one of several aspects of Morton’s career that deserve a bit more attention. A former anti-slavery Democrat who became one of the founders of the Republican Party in Indiana, Morton served as the Hoosier State’s war governor during the War of Rebellion. As governor, Morton won fame and notoriety for his efforts in supporting the cause with exemplary raising and supplying of troops and battling the state’s Democrats politically. He ran Indiana on his own during a twenty-two-month period of “one-man rule” after he refused to call the Democrat-held legislature back into session because they tried to thwart the war effort. He also pushed the army to investigate and prosecute the Copperheads who tried to sabotage the Union in the Midwest and who attempted to assassinate him in the summer of 1863. This led to the sensational Indianapolis Treason Trials held just in time for the 1864 elections. Morton and Lincoln were both reelected. In 1865, Morton suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He recovered to be elected to the U.S. Senate and took his seat there in 1867. For the next decade, Morton served as one of the most prominent of the Radical Republicans in the senate. He was also a Stalwart Republican supporter and good friend of President Ulysses S. Grant. A champion of African American rights, he was a staunch political leader of the Radical plan for Reconstruction. He supported the 14th and 15th Amendments, investigated the Ku Klux Klan, and famously “waved the bloody shirt” against the Democrats. He saw Reconstruction as a continuation of the war and remained consistent in his ideological principles. Even when other Radicals had died or abandoned the cause, Morton remained steadfast in his fight for equality. This led him to be a top candidate for president in 1876, but hiscandidacy fell short and he ended up supporting Rutherford B. Hayes. He died on November 1, 1877, after suffering another stroke.
During the war years, Morton developed a nationalist ideology in ways that were similar to other Republicans of the time, including Abraham Lincoln. That ideology largely followed the formulation explained by my friend Michael S. Green in 2004: freedom, Union, power, and to those principles Morton added party. Freedom meant ordered individual liberty under the law as stated in the Declaration of Independence.  The Union was the nation that guaranteed freedom. To protect both freedom and the nation, the power of government was sometimes necessary. But government power could easily be used to trample on those cherished ideals, so it had to be held by a party dedicated to their preservation—which Morton understood to be his own Republican Party. Often criticized as a partisan opportunist, Morton was actually quite consistent ideologically and, for him, party was principle. If the Democrats won, it would mean the end of freedom and the nation. They would destroy those cherished ideals to which Morton dedicated his life. They would win with the ballot what that they had lost on the battlefields of the rebellion.
Although he never directly said so, I see his plan for reforming the electoral college as part of his broader efforts throughout Reconstruction. In the wake of the 2016 election, I penned an article-length essay on his plan but am still struggling to ready it for publication. It comes down to not being able to quite connect the dots to show how Morton’s vision for election reform fit with his ideological commitments. I am trying to argue that his vote-by-district electoral college plan was part of a “greater Reconstruction” or “wider Reconstruction” that pushed for the expansion of democracy on more fronts than the Southern Question. Perhaps I just don’t have the evidence needed. I could not find a place where Morton came right out and said, “this is part of Reconstruction” or “this will secure racial equality.” But it fits together consistently within his life and career. I am asking for help in working through this in a way that would make the piece publishable. I also have two more possible articles on his work on the rights of women and Chinese immigrants that will need to be formulated similarly. I would appreciate any suggestions or advice!
1. A. James Fuller, Oliver P. Morton and the Politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2017).
2. Michael S. Green, Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party During the Civil War (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004).