June 15, 1804 – Ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

On this day in history, the Twelfth Amendment was officially adopted, creating separate votes in the electoral college for President and Vice-President. The Amendment was a response to the elections of 1796 and 1800, during which problems arose because of the system of voting as laid out in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution.

According to the original procedure for the Electoral College, each elector could vote for two persons. The person receiving the greatest number of votes – provided that number equaled a majority of the electors, was elected President. Whichever candidate received the second greatest number of votes became Vice President.
Complications developed almost immediately. In the 1796 election, John Adams, the Federalist Party presidential candidate, received a majority of the electoral votes.

John Adams

John Adams

However, the Federalist electors scattered their second votes, resulting in the Democratic-Republican Party presidential candidate, Thomas Jefferson, receiving the second highest number of electoral votes and thus being elected Vice President. Jefferson was a political opponent of Adams, and actually encouraged opposition to the Adams Administration. At times, Jefferson even secretly undermined the Administration, such as when he surreptitiously authored the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, arguing that the states can judge the constitutionality of acts of Congress and the President, and that each individual state has the power to declare federal laws null and void.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The 1800 election was even more problematic. After 35 votes, neither Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson nor Federalist Aaron Burr had a majority. After much intrigue and arguing, Alexander Hamilton, who despised Burr, convinced a few Federalists who had supported Burr in the balloting to turn in blank ballots rather than vote for either Republican candidate. This move gave the victory to Jefferson. Unfortunately for Hamilton, Jefferson was an even more devious enemy than Burr, although it was Burr who ended up killing Hamilton in a duel several years later.

Aaron Burr

In any event, it was becoming increasingly clear that the system originally defined by the Constitution was not workable. By having the Presidential and Vice Presidential elected on a party ticket, the problems would be minimized, and so there was widespread support for the Twelfth Amendment.

There is some controversy over the date this Amendment became law. On June 15, 1804, the legislature of the thirteenth state (New Hampshire) approved the amendment. But the Governor of New Hampshire vetoed this act of the legislature on June 20th, and the act failed to pass again by two-thirds vote then required by the New Hampshire state constitution.

Article 5 of the Federal Constitution specifies that amendments shall become effective “when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States or by conventions in three-fourths thereof,” so it has been generally believed that an approval or veto by a governor is irrelevant. But if the ratification by New Hampshire was deemed countermanded, then the amendment became operative by Tennessee’s ratification on July 27, 1804.

On September 25, 1804, in a circular letter to the Governors of the several States, Secretary of State James Madison declared the amendment ratified by three-fourths of the states.

James Madison

James Madison

You can read the text of the Twelfth Amendment here.

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