The annual Annandale Campus Lyceum Series Constitution Day Lecture was presented on September 20 in the Ernst Center Forum by one of NOVA’s own Dr. Nathaniel Green, associate professor of history. Green spoke about “Fake News and the Origins of the Electoral College.”
Fake news is not only a topical issue today. Green said that it was a big issue during the deliberations of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787 as the view of the majority of delegates at the convention was that ordinary people were susceptible to misinformation from what was considered a partisan press.
Most newspapers at that time were published by those who represented one faction or another and articles were often written with opinion and exaggeration substituting for factual information. Delegates to the convention were worried that the “masses” were susceptible to the views of “partisans.”
“Delegates assumed elites like themselves were better able to judge virtue dispassionately,” Green stated, “without self-interest or local attachments clouding their judgment.”
Therefore, the convention delegates were split between having state legislatures, composed of such elites, or the people choose the president of the United States. In fact, the convention delegates used the “Virginia Plan” as the basis for discussions, which called for the Congress to elect the president. To resolve this dispute and others, a committee was appointed.
The committee’s recommendation was an indirect election of the president and a newly created office of vice president whereby the voters in each state elect a slate of “electors” chosen by each state “in such manner as its Legislature may direct.” This was approved by the convention, and it is how the president is still chosen.
The Constitution Day Lecture was presented to a packed house of faculty and students, who asked many questions after the presentation. In answer to a question about how the news of the day was transmitted from one state to another, Green replied that it was “as fast as your horse could ride.” He added that plagiarism was widespread in the press then as an editor in one part of the country would often reprint an editorial from another part of the country without attributing the source.
Green teaches U.S. history on the Annandale Campus and online through the Extended Learning Institute. A specialist in early United States politics, he received his B.A. from the University of Northern Iowa, his master’s degree from the College of William & Mary, and his Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis. Green is currently working on a project on the Electoral College with two of his NOVA colleagues, Associate History Professor John Schmitz and Associate Political Scientist Professor Jennifer Sayasithsena.