To the members of the United States Electoral College:
Under so-called “faithless elector” laws, the rights of electors to use their judgment in selecting the President of the United States are abridged. These debatably unconstitutional laws—all passed by states long after the formation of the Electoral College itself—call an elector who votes according to his or her conscience faithless.
This is a misnomer, however, as to “vote your conscience” is, in fact, to be faithful. It means to be faithful to our most fundamental moral sense, and it means to be faithful to our democracy. It means this today just as it did to the authors of our Constitution.
But what do we mean when we speak of the conscience? We too easily take this concept for granted.
As many of us may sense, it seems innate. It comes from within rather than without. It’s subjective, value-neutral, and pluralistic: it allows for varieties of—and even conflicting—judgments. My conscience may well guide me differently than yours may you.
Thomas Jefferson once articulated the individual and innate qualities of the conscience: in a 1787 letter, he wrote that man “was endowed with a sense of right and wrong,” which “is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling.” He goes so far as to call it “the true foundation of morality” and “as much a part of man, as his leg or arm.”
Conscience is a term that has a deep history both in America and in England. It was central to the missions of early colonists and, later, to the vision of our founding fathers. It’s been part of the discourse of peace and justice movements since the early nineteenth century. Its meaning has evolved with time and, today, we can see a long national legacy of independence and individualism in its use.
Puritan migrants from England sought “liberty of conscience” when they made their treacherous journeys across the Atlantic. They came from a society where one might be jailed for one’s beliefs and where religious dissenters were denied political rights. New England Puritans hoped to found communities in which they could freely practice their vision of a stricter, simpler Protestantism.
In its earliest English language use, conscience protected the authority of one’s faith. Treatises and tracts arguing for rights of conscience abounded in this period, and they promoted the individual right to follow one’s inner sense of higher belief. Thomas Paine believed that the conscience derived directly from God himself. These arguments gave the ultimate power to the individual, rather than to the church or state, in matters of mind and morality.
From there, Roger Williams in Rhode Island, William Penn in Pennsylvania, and James Madison in Virginia all enshrined freedom of conscience in their states’ founding documents. In the process, a belief in “liberty of conscience” laid the foundation for many of our other civil liberties. Jefferson tied it directly to more general freedom of thought, writing, “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests,” again giving moral power to the individual over external sources such as “kings” or “priests.”
Conscience may, in fact, be our most fundamental civil right, as the belief in individual moral autonomy paved the way for other types of individual freedoms. In the first draft of the Bill of Rights, James Madison highlighted the primacy of conscience by opening the first Amendment with a call for its protection: “…nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed,” he proclaimed.
Since then, the meaning of conscience has broadened to include not just belief, but thought and action as well. Arguments for conscience have been central to struggles for social change and have buttressed acts of civil disobedience—most notably pacifism and abolitionism. Frederick Douglass called the conscience “to the individual soul, and to society, what the law of gravitation is to the universe.” He and other antislavery activists fought to overturn the egregiously unjust, but deeply entrenched, system of slavery—and, eventually, those voices of conscience won.
You all must know deeply the arguments of Alexander Hamilton for the electoral college in Federalist Paper #68. He makes it clear that the electoral college is not simply a rubber stamp; rather, its members are meant to be well-endowed with careful judgment. “The immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station,” he writes; those who “will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.” He imagines a substantive, even deliberative role for the body, when he claims they should “[act] under under circumstances favorable to deliberation.”
Though he admits “the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent,” because “the process of election affords a moral certainty.” The electoral college, to Hamilton, is an effective tool of a democratic republic because moral choices ultimately reside with individuals. Similar calculations are made in our legal system, when the moral verdict of the judge and jury—an elite individual in combination with a democratic pool of peers—are the best available arbiters of an accused’s fate.
Even before its founding, our nation relied on the individual conscience as a corrective against injustices ranging from religious persecution to chattel slavery. Our country would not be what it is today without voices of conscience. The authors of our Constitution believed deeply in the rights of conscience, and helped to protect its autonomy. They believed in individual moral choice, and the creation of the electoral college was an outgrowth of this belief.
Please be faithful to their intention, and to the dictates of your own conscience, on December 19th.
With sincerest regards,
New York University
Sara Partridge is a doctoral candidate at New York University studying ethics and religion in American literature.