Reconstruction and the Electoral College

A. James Fuller's picture

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.[1] 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. [2] 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!


Jim Fuller

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).

Dear Jim, 

Thank you for this guest post. In pondering Morton's electoral plan and its relation to Reconstruction, I think there are at least two approaches you can take.

One would be to work through how Morton's plan reflected his wartime and postbellum experiences dealing with issues in the South. Even if Morton did not invoke the term "reconstruction" when explaining his plan, one could still make an argument about how the plan related to the day's familiar developments. One question along these lines, for example, would be whether he saw his district-by-district method as undermining the principle of states' rights. I also found myself wondering whether Morton had a concrete sense of how his proposal might gel with section 2 of the 14th Amendment. One other angle along these lines would be to ask whether Morton expected the district-by-district method to safeguard the Republican Party in the southern states, where there was little prospect of carrying most states through straight majorities. Those points link back to core issues in Reconstruction politics, as the latter can be conventionally understood to refer to the federal and state struggles over issues of citizenship, abolition, and the South. 

Before going on to the second point, I'll note that each of the above might speak too narrowly to Morton as a politico. Could it be that he simply saw his plan as a better, more democratic procedure? That would speak to his idealism, which you mentioned. 

A second approach, which is inline with much recent scholarship, is to ask what the term "reconstruction" refers to and how we, as historians, should use it to try to convey a larger message. I addressed this some in my chapter on "Reconstruction, from Transatlantic Polyseme to Historiographical Quandary," which argued that the term was ambiguous at the moment Americans appropriated it to describe a part of their own history, and has become more confusing since then.  In general, I'm skeptical about concepts like the "greater Reconstruction" because the term already carries multiple meanings. While new definitions seem appealing upfront, future scholars will likely find themselves in a definitional labyrinth. But my own take aside, it worth noting that the concept of the "greater Reconstruction," as it's been put forward by Elliott West and adopted by Richard White in his The Repubic for Which It Stands, has a lot to say about race, the conquest of the West, and the forced incorporation of Native Americans. They've had less to say about the radical possibilities for reforming American democratic processes in the 1860s and 1870s, and in that sense using the term might prove confusing given what Morton was after.  

One last suggestion, drawing on the points above, might be to try to explain the significance of Morton's plan without referencing the term reconstruction at all. Is it the case that his ideas were part of a broader epoch of democratic experimentation, featuring ideas such as popular sovereingty and suffrage expansion? Does his idea represent one of the last sweeping proposals to come out of a period of anti-slavery politics, before a turn toward suffrage restriction and the politics of "the best men"? 

Hope some of those suggestions prove helpful! 

Best wishes, 

Dave Prior

Morton’s ideas about a national direct vote reminded me briefly of John J. Crittenden’s unique and unprecedented call for a national plebiscite on his 1860 compromise proposal, which Stephen Douglas endorsed.  He saw it as a way around the constitution’s cumbersome amending process, but he never got into the weeds about how it could work — the proposal was drowned out in the flood of other proposals and the chorus of shouting during secession winter.  Your dilemma is that of every historian -- there is no smoking gun that will tie all of Morton’s ideas into a neat bow (forgive the mixed metaphors ).  Historians work with the preponderance of the evidence, and if the weight of Morton’s statements about the electoral college fit well enough into the background of Reconstruction electoral politics, then the chances are you can make a reasonable set of inferences from what you have.

Not having yet read your biography of him, I can only surmise that Morton’s ideas of government and “party” were shaped by his Civil War experience as Republican governor standing alone against a Democratic state legislature.  That experience, along with the ongoing struggle with resurgent Democrats during Reconstruction, was not going to encourage this man to appreciate the value of a two-party system.  There’s a difference between believing in “a” party and just “party.”  The latter encompasses a system that, as E. E. Schattschneider famously argued, is a necessary element of democracy in theory and reality because it organizes dissent and offers alternatives to violence.  In the American republic, this would be a two-party arrangement that, it is arguable, was institutionalized by the Civil War and Reconstruction.  However, I could see Morton arguing for a two-party system in his support for a Southern Republican party as a counterweight to redeemers and their militias, and maybe in those debates over the nature of elections in the postbellum South  you’ll find, unless you’ve already looked in vain, a discussion of the College and Reconstruction.  If Morton believed his Democratic opponents were the peaceful equivalent of rebels out to destroy the republic, his paean to party needed to complete the circle by accounting for the loyal opposition.

On the electoral college, I’d suggest Alexander Keyssar’s recent amalgamation of history and advocacy, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, (HUP, 2020).  It is strong on its detailed history and would be worth consulting about Reconstruction and consequent reforms soon after Morton's demise.  But I’d urge anyone who does use it to consider Christopher Demuth’s powerful deconstruction of Keyssar’s argument against the College in his review, “The Electoral College by Dawn’s Early Light,” in Claremont Review of Books, (Winter 2021).  And maybe Morton Keller's Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth Century America (HUP, 1977)  would offer some helpful framework for your discussion, given its emphasis on institutional development.

Peter Knupfer

James Fuller,
I read with interest your recent post about Senator Morton's proposal for electors by districts.

1. If you do not know it, you might want to read Thomas M. Cooley and Abraham s. Hewitt, "The Method of Electing a President," INTERNATIONAL REVIEW 5 (1878). The constitutional scholar Cooley addresses numerous proposals to reform a flawed system that persists today. Without naming Morton, Cooley addresses his plan. (Morton is of course dead.) Cooley sees two major problems. a) gerrymandering b) lack of civil service reform. For Cooley, the latter is crucial. Insofar as the results of the presidential election can determine whether a local official has a job or not, corruption on the local level will be inevitable. This proposal would put numerous small officials in districts in charge of determining electors who might affect whether they have jobs or not in the future.

2) Cooley's comments lead me to a general suggestion. What seems a reform today, because we live in a world after civil service reform, may have been much more partisan at the time. It is possible that Morton saw this plan as a way to reduce the power of large cities that tended to vote Democratic. It might well have given more influence to smaller rural districts of the sort that voted for Trump. After all, the first enforcement acts of 1870 and 1871 targeted voter fraud in northern cities as much as voter suppression in the South. Unfortunately, people writing today too often forget that partisan motive. Lower Democratic votes in the North; increase Rep votes in the South.

Because of its large number of electoral votes at the time, New York was crucial. (Almost all Democratic candidates at this time came from New York.) Morton’s proposal might well have had the effect of diminishing the influence of New York City in allotting electoral votes. (Cooley’s oppositional co-author Hewitt became a Democratic mayor of NYC.)
I think you could do research to see the impact of Morton’s proposal in terms of cities and rural areas

As far as I know, no major Republican-other than Charles Sumner, who broke with Morton because over Grant’s effort to annex Santo Domingo-- was for popular vote. (Andrew Johnson was.) From 1876 to 1892 Democrats won the popular vote four times, but the presidency only twice. Even in 1868 Grant’s popular majority would have been much closer without AF AM votes in the South—a number of northern states did not allow AF AMs to vote—and disenfranchisement of some former Confederates in the South. Republicans came up with many schemes to remain in power.

3) In conclusion, I find your work extremely important. Your focus on Morton, who was an important figure in the Republican Party, might help give us a better perspective on the complicated positions of actors at the time. After all, political positions at the time do not necessarily align with what we consider progressive positions today. The nation’s second founding led to some legal reforms—even if the 14th and 15th Amendments were both compromise measures—but it also exposed problems with the nation’s electoral system that remain with us.

Thanks very much for your post.

PS (Some of my posts on Rick Hasen's election law blog provide a bit of context to these issues.)

Brook Thomas
Chancellor's Professor Emeritus of English and the Center for Law, Society, and Culture, UC Irvine. His specialty is 19th-century law and literature in the US. He has published six single-authored books and a case book on PLESSY v. FERGUSON. THE LITERATURE OF RECONSTRUCTION: NOT IN PLAIN BLACK AND WHITE (2017) won the Hugh Holman Prize. He has held von Humboldt, DAAD, Woodrow Wilson Center, ACLS, and NEH Fellowships. A recent podcast on the accuracy and significance of the numerous recent references to Reconstruction in the media and on the floor of Congress is at:
Recent posts on the Election Law blog are

A recent post on Muster
A recent post on H-net Civil War and Reconstruction

Dear David and Peter,

Thank you both for your suggestions and insights! And thanks to those who have written to me directly as well. I don't want it to seem that I am trying to force Morton into my own framework--that his Electoral College reform plan had to be connected directly to Reconstruction and the struggle for racial equality. I like your suggestions in that regard, David, and will go back at it with that in mind. Peter, I think you're right about Morton's view of party and partisanship. He was convinced that the Democratic Party was filled with traitors. He said that not all Democrats in the South were Klansmen or rebels, but that every Klan member and every rebel was a Democrat. Morton was chair of the Committee on Privileges and Elections that investigated the elections across the South in the 1870s and he had plenty of evidence of elections stolen through fraud and violence. In my biography, I argument was not just the ruthless political opportunist that he had been out to be in the literature. Instead, he was remarkably principled and consistent as well as ruthlessly opportunistic (are politicians ever NOT opportunistic?!). Yes, he "waved the bloody shirt," but he did so from a position of principle. It wasn't just getting out the vote by reminding voters who started the rebellion. It was reminding them that what they had won in the war was in danger of being lost.

Thank you for the source recommendations and the suggestions. I will keep these in mind when I turn back to the project and when I take up the issues of Morton's call for equality for immigrants and suffrage for women. I sometimes regret not giving each of these another fifteen pages or so in the book. But there were space considerations and they did not get the full treatment they deserve.

Thank you, Brook, for your comments and suggestions and for the direct message conversation on this topic. I appreciate your help!