Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

THE `electoral college' system by which the Americans elect (or not) a president was invented by the Romans. The Americans intelligently adopted Roman principles in full.

All Roman citizens were born into a 'tribe', of which there were 35. These were of equal size, and, for the purposes of agreeing legislation and electing certain executives, each 'tribe' had one vote. All very fair. But the system was different for electing the top executive positions (e.g. consuls). Here the rich kept a firm grip on power.

For appointing consuls, the Roman people were divided into 193 'colleges' by wealth. Each college had one vote. But the colleges were then put into bands (classic, whence 'class') and this is where the tricky business started: the bands of the very rich controlled a vast number of votes. Thus 18 colleges made up the top band, the very richest Romans, and 70 colleges the next band, rich Romans. So these two bands, in a blatant minority of the total citizenry, controlled 88 out of the 193 votes.

There were four more bands of property-owners. Then came the bottom band, which consisted of those who registered no property at all. …

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