American Revolution For Dummies
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One of the remarkable aspects of the American Revolution is the staying power of the basic structure of government the founding fathers laid down. That doesn’t mean, however, that the structure was either simple or perfect.

To help you understand a bit more about the complexities — and flaws — in the governmental building blocks they used, here are “backgrounders” on three of those blocks: the Electoral College, reapportionment (gerrymandering), and amending the U.S. Constitution.

Just for fun, check out the mini-biographies on two interesting Americans from the period, Noah Webster and John Jacob Astor, and enjoy some non-government trivia you can use to amuse your admirers and annoy your enemies.

All you need to know about the Electoral College

It may not have a very good football team, but the Electoral College is a pretty important part of the way America picks its presidents. Here are some facts about the institution and the procedure it follows:

  • The system is the offspring of compromise. When drafting the U.S. Constitution, big states favored choosing presidents via direct popular vote, which smaller states naturally opposed. Another proposal, to let Congress name the chief executive, threatened to upset the system of checks and balances among the three branches of government. So they came up with the Electoral College (although they didn’t call it that, the name came along later.)
  • There are 538 electors, and it takes votes from 270 of them to be elected. Each state gets one elector for each member it has in Congress. The 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1961, gave three electors to the District of Columbia. The most populous state, California, has 55 electors, followed by Texas with 38, and New York with 29. Seven states — Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Delaware — have three each.
  • Electors are nominated in each state by political parties, either at conventions or by central committees. When you vote for president, you’re actually voting for nominees to the Electoral College. Qualifications to be an elector vary by state, but the Constitution bans federal officeholders from being electors.
  • In all states but two, it’s a winner-take-all system: The candidate who wins the popular vote gets all the state’s electors. The two oddballs are Maine and Nebraska. In those states, the overall winner gets two electoral votes, while the rest are split according to who wins each congressional district. Electors for each state meet in their states after the general election and record their votes. The results are then sent to Congress, which tallies the score.
  • There is no constitutional prohibition against an elector deciding to vote for someone other than the candidate he or she was elected to support. Some states have laws against “faithless electors,” but it happens anyway, and no one has ever been prosecuted for it. The last time it occurred was in 2016, when ten electors chose not to follow the voters’ will. The defection of faithless electors has never affected the outcome of an election.
  • The best showing in the Electoral College by a “third-party” presidential candidate came in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt, running as the Bull Moose Party nominee, garnered 88 votes. That was well short of the 266 needed at the time to win.
  • As of 2019, five presidents had won the office by getting a majority of the electoral votes while losing the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824; Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876; Benjamin Harrison in 1888; George W. Bush in 2000; and Donald J. Trump in 2016.
  • Public opinion polls have routinely reported most Americans favor abolishing the Electoral College in favor of a direct popular vote for president. More than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress over the decades to change the system, which would require amending the Constitution.
  • As of spring 2019, 14 states and the District of Columbia, representing 189 electoral votes, had signed a National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Under the compact, the signed-up states would agree to cast all their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote, no matter how he or she fared in the individual state. The compact would not take effect until states representing 270 electoral votes had joined.

What is Gerrymandering and Why Should You Care?

Gerrymandering is a time-tested technique employed by political parties to squeeze as much mileage out of the voters they rely on as possible.

Boston Centinel, March 1812

Sure, this image could be something out of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, but this cartoon is actually an 1812 newspaper cartoonist’s satirical representation of a portion of Massachusetts around Essex County — and an example of gerrymandering. The creature’s namesake is Elbridge Gerry — Founding Father, U.S. diplomat, U.S. vice president — and an irascible and generally unlikeable politician if there ever was one.

As governor of Massachusetts, Gerry signed a bill that created a state Senate district designed to consolidate enough Democratic-Republican voters so that the party would be almost assured to win the seat. Someone decided the district’s outline resembled a salamander, combined it with the governor’s surname, and voilà! — the term stuck.

Sometimes gerrymandering involves contorting districts to encompass as many friendly voters as possible. Sometimes it involves cracking, a tactic in which district lines are drawn to scatter the opposition’s support as thinly as possible over multiple districts. Sometimes it centers on packing, where the opposition’s voters are crammed together, thus confining their clout into just one or two districts.

Gerrymandering has been as tough to kill off as an ornery dragon. In most states, legislatures and governors hammer out district lines for state and federal offices and naturally look for every political advantage. (As of 2019, nine states had independent commissions do it.) In spring 2019, two gerrymander cases were pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. In earlier decisions, the court sidestepped ruling on the constitutionality of the practice.

Amending the U.S. Constitution

During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, one of the delegates remarked that it was good thing the document they were drafting could be amended, because it was going to need it. He was right, but maybe not as much as he thought. As of 2019 — 232 years later — the document had been amended only 27 times. The first ten came as the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, and the last in 1992. Here’s a bit about the process and peculiarities of changing America’s basic laws:

  • Under Article 5 of the Constitution, an amendment can be put forward for ratification in one of two ways: By two-thirds majority votes in both houses of Congress or by a constitutional convention called by the legislatures of two-thirds of the states. As of 2019, there had never been a state-called constitutional convention. There is some debate among academics as to whether the Constitution could be amended through some kind of direct popular vote.
  • A proposed amendment becomes ratified when three-fourths of the states (38 in 2019) have approved it. Congress can decide whether states must ratify through their legislatures, or through ratifying conventions. Only one amendment — the 21st, which repealed Prohibition — has been added through state-ratifying conventions.
  • Since 1917, Congress has had the power to decide how long a proposed amendment can float around waiting to be ratified. Prior to that, there was no time limit. Thus the 27th amendment — which prevents changes in congressional salaries taking effect until the next congressional session — took more than 202 years to be ratified: It was proposed as one of the original amendments in 1789 and wasn’t ratified until 1992.
  • As of 2019, only six amendments had been proposed by Congress and not ratified. Their subjects included fixing a minimum number of members in the House of Representatives; stripping Americans of their citizenship if they accepted titles of nobility from foreign countries; prohibiting Congress from interfering with slavery; giving Congress the power to regulate labor conditions for those under the age of 18; guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens regardless of sex; and giving the District of Columbia full voting rights in Congress while stripping it of its three members of the Electoral College.
  • Scores of proposed amendments have never made it out of Congress. They include banning from federal office anyone who was ever involved in a duel; abolition of the U.S. Senate; setting a limit on personal wealth of $1 million; requiring the federal budget be balanced; making it a federal crime to burn an American flag; allowing prayer in public schools; prohibiting abortions in most cases; and limiting marriage to mixed-sex couples only.

Major events during the American Revolution era

March 4, 1634: Boston’s first tavern is opened by a man named Samuel Cole. It’s unknown whether his first customer was named Norm.

Sept. 4, 1634: The Massachusetts General Court bans the drinking of toasts.

March 3, 1639: A three-year-old college on the banks of Boston’s Charles River is renamed Harvard, after John Harvard, a minister who left the school half his fortune and his library.

1664: Horse racing becomes the first established sport in America with the opening of a track on Long Island in New York.

1680: Facing starvation, Maryland settlers are forced to eat oysters from Chesapeake Bay.

1721: Boston Dr. Zabdiel Boylston inoculates 243 people during a smallpox epidemic. All but six survive. Other doctors dismiss it as coincidence.

1741: America’s first magazine, called American Magazine, is published in Boston.

1755: British Army surgeon Richard Schuckburg sets a satirical set of lyrics portraying Americans as country bumpkins to a popular tune of the time, and calls it “Yankee Doodle.”

1766: A stagecoach called Flying Machine travels the 90 miles from Camden New Jersey to Jersey City in a record-breaking two days.

May 4, 1780: The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is founded in Boston.

May 30 1783: The Pennsylvania Evening Post becomes America’s first daily newspaper.

Jan. 26, 1784: Benjamin Franklin announces his opposition to the bald eagle as America’s national symbol, asserting that “the turkey is a much more respectable bird.”

May 17, 1792: A group of 24 merchants and bankers start a stock exchange in New York City. They do most of their business under a tree outside the building at 68 Wall Street.

June 26, 1797: New Jersey inventor Charles Newbold patents a cast-iron plow. American farmers are afraid the iron will poison the soil, and sales flop.

1800: Philadelphia cobbler William Young designs shoes specifically for left and right feet.

Mini-bios of two notable American Revolutionaries

These two gentlemen might not be as well known as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, but they both contributed to events during the American Revolution. Noah Webster (recognize that last name) helped to create the American lexicon, and John Jacob Astor became one of America’s first millionaires and helped finance the American war efforts.

Noah Webster

While others were creating governments and political parties, Noah Webster was helping to create something just as vital: the American language. Born in 1758 in Connecticut, Webster graduated from Yale and became a schoolteacher. Webster saw a need for a commonality of language for the new country. He put together a grammar book, a reader, and a spelling primer. The speller became a bestseller for decades and helped standardize spelling and pronunciation in America. Webster was also a successful lecturer and writer on subjects from politics to meteorology and published a pro-Federalist party magazine.

But his name became synonymous with a different kind of reading material. Webster published his first dictionary in 1806, containing new words such as “caucus,” “belittle,” and “sot.” It was followed by a massive two-volume version in 1828 and a third in 1840 — with 12,000 words and 38,000 definitions that had never appeared in an English-language dictionary before.

“America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics,” Webster wrote, “as famous for arts as for arms.”

John Jacob Astor

John Jacob Astor was the founder of America’s first great fortune, and he did it the old-fashioned way: with brains, hard work, and political string-pulling.

Astor was born in Germany and came to New York at the age of 20. He parlayed a music store business into real estate, and after 1800 got into fur trading and importing goods from China. When U.S. companies were banned from foreign trade in 1807, Astor had a clerk pretend to be a Chinese VIP who wanted to go home for his grandfather’s funeral. The trip was approved, and naturally the ship came back with a fortune in Chinese goods.

During the War of 1812, Astor lost his trading post in Oregon — the first U.S. post on the Pacific coast – to the British. But after helping to finance the American war effort, Astor got Congress to pass a law banning “foreigners” from the U.S. fur trade. That allowed him to buy out his Canadian partners cheaply and establish a lucrative monopoly in the Pacific Northwest.

By the time he died in 1848, Astor had amassed a $30 million fortune (about $877 million in 2019 dollars), some of which went to establish the New York Public Library. Astor became synonymous with wealth in America. Oh, the name of that Oregon trading post Astor briefly lost to the British? Astoria, of course.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Steve Wiegand is an award-winning political journalist and history writer. Over a 35-year career, he worked as a reporter and columnist at the San Diego Evening Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sacramento Bee. He is the author or coauthor of seven books dealing with various aspects of U.S. and world history.

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