Slavery And The Constitution Essay Contest

2017-2018 Prindle Institute High School Essay Competition

The submission deadline for the 2017-2018 essay competition has passed. Winners will be announced in the next two months. Please check back here in the fall of 2018 for a new essay prompt! The Prindle Institute for Ethics will award five prizes ($300 each) for the best essays written by high school students on an ethics-related topic.

This year’s topic focuses on the Electoral College. Any high school student of any grade level is encouraged to submit an essay. Read the guidelines below, and submit your essay via the form at the bottom of this page. The submission deadline was January 25, 2018. Submissions are currently closed. Winners will receive a $300 honorarium and may have their essays published on The Prindle Post. Winners will be announced in the early spring!

Submission instructions and guidelines

Deadline: January 25, 2018

Eligibility: Anyone currently enrolled in high school in the United States. You do not need to enroll at DePauw to receive the award. This contest is open to any high school student regardless of college choice and grade level.

Word Limit: 1000-2000 words

Guidelines:

  1. Before you begin writing, review the rubric. It will help you structure your essay.

  2. Read the case below about the Electoral College and answer the prompt: Should the United States abolish the Electoral College?

    1. You should present and critically discuss arguments for your position.

    2. Don’t merely summarize what others have said, we want you to weigh in with your opinion on the merits of the arguments you discuss.

    3. Cite your sources (any common citation style is acceptable).

  3. Remove any identifying information from the paper you submit, including your name, high school name, etc. This ensures that papers will be anonymous. Papers that include any identifying information will automatically be disqualified.

  4. Submit your essay using the form below.

  5. Have questions? Contact eleanorprice@depauw.edu for answers!

The Electoral College*

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Read through this case and answer the following question: Should the United States abolish the Electoral College? 

America's founding fathers adopted a system of choosing the president called the Electoral College (EC), in which each state chooses electors sent to a convention to elect the President on behalf of their state. The Constitution does not demand that the electors be designated as all or nothing based upon the popular vote within the state; however, this has traditionally been the manner in which electors are awarded when a state is "won" (though a minority of states do apportion their electors based upon the percent of the popular vote won by a candidate). The EC has been criticized by many in recent decades, especially after George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump won the presidency despite losing the popular vote. To understand why the EC was chosen, it is necessary to look to historical statements and context.

Alexander Hamilton, in the “Federalist Papers 68,” argued that the EC was necessary as a check against the uninformed votes of the masses, who might be swindled by a tyrant. Hamilton states:

“It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow- citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief.”

That mischief was generally considered to be the possibility of a demagogue swindling less educated voters who were insufficiently “judicious” or analytical to choose a President wisely. Additionally, the EC was implemented in order to ensure that the more populous cities and states did not exact tyranny over the less populous regions— the agrarian middle of America—which provided strong economic support and essential goods and services to the metropolises. In short, the EC was essentially enacted to avoid tyranny of the majority, and was a necessary concession at the Constitutional Convention made to the small states to secure the formation of the United States.

This standard account of the EC has been challenged by constitutional law scholar Akhil Amar, who has argued that slavery—not the avoidance of tyranny—was the raison d'être of the EC. Amar explains that because “the North would outnumber the South, whose many slaves (more than half a million in all) of course could not vote,” direct national presidential elections were deemed unacceptable by southerners. As the Virginian slaveholder and Founding Father James Madison put it, “[t]he right of suffrage was much more diffusive [i.e., extensive] in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.” By allowing the South to “count its slaves, albeit with a two-fifths discount,” states with a large slave population were allocated a significant number of electors—enough to allow the biggest slave state, Virginia, to supply the winning candidate for the presidency “[f]or 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years.”

Leaving aside the controversial historical origins of the EC, contemporary advocates of the EC, such as Richard Posner, the renowned American jurist and economist, note that the EC typically creates a stronger appearance of result than the popular vote, given the winner-take-all allocation of votes in most states. Moreover, the EC prevents the election of regional candidates who do not have broad appeal, thus leading to candidates who can create broader consensus. Finally, the EC places an emphasis on swing states and swing voters, whose awareness of their importance in the country's electoral decision should result, in theory, in the most educated and invested voters choosing the President.

Critics of the EC point out that the contemporary merits of the EC are unsubstantiated. For example, the claim that an election via the EC produces a president with a broad appeal and a strong mandate to govern glosses over the fact that President Trump has been called out by the media for “resurrect[ing] the divisive language of his campaign” since taking office. Also, ignoring the popular vote has “lead to backlash and resentment,” as the numerous anti-Trump protests since November 8 demonstrate. Opponents of the EC also argue that tyranny of the minority is now clearly a problem, instead of tyranny of the majority. For instance, a vote in Wyoming is worth 3.6 times more than a vote in California, which some argue violates the principle of equal protection under the law. Along the same lines, the EC is, at its foundation, undemocratic, insofar as it deprives each vote of equal voice—and is oligarchic. However, given that the rules for a Constitutional Amendment to replace the EC are only likely to change with the consent of the minority states that have a reason to want to maintain their electoral power, there are serious barriers to any change in the system.

*This case comes from the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) Regional Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl competition. If you’re interested in learning more about APPE and Ethics Bowl, click here.

The Rubric

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This essay is designed to see how you reason through a moral case, but it also gives you the opportunity to understand how a collegiate ethics bowl team would reason through a moral case. Use the rubric below to help structure your essay and guide your argument.

There are three main goals your essay should seek to accomplish. These goals (A, B, and C below) are the same as those a team at an ethics bowl competition are striving to present. The numbers indicate how many points a team would receive according to their presentation’s achievement of these goals. How does your essay fit into this rubric?

A) Did the essay clearly and systematically address the case’s question?
5 = Extremely clear essay that systematically addressed the key dimensions of the
      question.
4 = Reasonably clear essay that systematically addressed most key dimensions of the   
      question.
3 = Hard to follow the argument. Significant dimensions of the question missed (passable).
2 = Serious logical problems or underdeveloped argument (poor).
1 = Incoherent presentation.

B) Did the essay clearly identify and thoroughly discuss the central moral dimensions of the case?
5 = Clearly and precisely identified central moral dimensions, and discussed these
      dimensions thoroughly.
4 = Mostly identified central moral dimensions and discussed major issues.
3 = Adequately identified and discussed some central moral dimensions (passable).
2 = Misidentified some moral dimensions of the case and inadequately discussed (poor).
1 = Misidentified the central moral dimensions.  

C) Did the essay indicate both awareness and thoughtful consideration of different viewpoints, including especially those that would loom large in the reasoning of individuals who disagree with the essay’s position?  
5 = Insightful analysis and discussion of the most significant viewpoints, including full   
     and careful attention to opposing points of view.
4 = Solid analysis and discussion of some different viewpoints.
3 = Underdeveloped discussion of different viewpoints (passable).
2 = Minimal consideration of different viewpoints (poor).  
1 = Minimal awareness of different viewpoints.

Additional Ethics Resources:

Writing a Moral Problems Paper

The Prindle Institute for Ethics, located at DePauw University, also offers scholarships to attend DePauw. If you’re interested in learning more about Prindle's scholarships and applying to DePauw, click here. We'd welcome your application!

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Submission Form

If you're having trouble accessing or completing the submission form below, please contact eleanorprice@depauw.edu for a link to the form.


Table of Contents

On 13 April 1944, in his junior year at Atlanta's Booker T. Washington High School, King, Jr., won an oratorical contest sponsored by the black Elks. With the runner-up at Washington High, Hiram Kendall, he won the right to represent the school at the statewide contest held at First Baptist Church in Dublin, Georgia. Kendall was a runner-up at the state contest. The theme of both contests was "The Negro and the Constitution." According to later accounts, during the bus trip to the contest, King and his teacher, Sarah Grace Bradley, were told by the driver to surrender their seats to newly boarding white passengers. King resisted at first, but his teacher finally persuaded him to leave his seat. They stood for several hours during the bus ride to Atlanta.

King's oration was published in May 1944 at the end of his junior, and final, year at Washington High in the school annual, The Cornellian. More polished than other pieces that King wrote as a teenager, the essay probably benefited from adult editing and from King's awareness of similar orations. Citing the experiences of the black opera singer Marian Anderson as an example, the oration outlines the contradictions between the nation's biblical faith and constitutional values and the continuing problem of racial discrimination. But the conclusion is marked by a hopeful rhetorical flourish: "My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, [America] will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom," said the young King. "And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon--a Negro--and yet a man!"

Negroes were first brought to America in 1620 when England legalized slavery both in England and the colonies and America; the institution grew and thrived for about 150 years upon the backs of these black men. The empire of King Cotton was built and the southland maintained a status of life and hospitality distinctly its own and not anywhere else.

On January 1, 1863 the proclamation emancipating the slaves which had been decreed by President Lincoln in September took effect--millions of Negroes faced a rising sun of a new day begun. Did they have habits of thrift or principles of honesty and integrity? Only a few! For their teachings and duties had been but two activities--love of Master, right or wrong, good or bad, and loyalty to work. What was to be the place for such men in the reconstruction of the south?

America gave its full pledge of freedom seventy-five years ago. Slavery has been a strange paradox in a nation founded on the principles that all men are created free and equal. Finally after tumult and war, the nation in 1865 took a new stand--freedom for all people. The new order was backed by amendments to the national constitution making it the fundamental law that thenceforth there should be no discrimination anywhere in the "land of the free" on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.

Black America still wears chains. The finest Negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man. Even winners of our highest honors face the class color bar. Look at a few of the paradoxes that mark daily life in America. Marian Anderson was barred from singing in the Constitution Hall, ironically enough, by the professional daughters of the very men who founded this nation for liberty and equality. But this tale had a different ending. The nation rose in protest, and gave a stunning rebuke to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a tremendous ovation to the artist, Marian Anderson, who sang in Washington on Easter Sunday and fittingly, before the Lincoln Memorial. Ranking cabinet members and a justice of the supreme court were seated about her. Seventy-five thousand people stood patiently for hours to hear a great artist at a historic moment. She sang as never before with tears in her eyes. When the words of "America" and "Nobody Knows De Trouble I Seen" rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on thee sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America. Recently she was again signally honored by being given the Bok reward as the most distinguished resident of Philadelphia. Yet she cannot be served in many of the public restaurants of her home city, eveen after it has declared her to be its best citizen.

So, with their right hand they raise to high places the great who have dark skins, and with their left, they slap us down to keep us in "our places." "Yes, America you have stripped me of my garments, you have robbed me of my precious endowment."

We cannot have an enlightened democracy with one great group living in ignorance. We cannot have a healthy nation with one tenth of the people ill-nourished, sick, harboring germs of disease which recognize no color lines--obey no Jim Crow laws. We cannot have a nation orderly and sound with one group so ground down and thwarted that it is almost forced into unsocial attitudes and crime. We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flaunt the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule. We cannot come to full prosperity with one great group so ill-delayed that it cannot buy goods. So as we gird ourselves to defend democracy from foreign attack, let us see to it that increasingly at home we give fair play and free opportunity for all people.

Today thirteen million black sons and daughters of our forefathers continue the fight for the translation of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments from writing on the printed page to an actuality. We believe with them that "if freedom is good for any it is good for all," that we may conquer southern armies by the sword, but it is another thing to conquer southern hate, that if the franchise is given to Negroes, they will be vigilant and defend even with their arms, the ark of federal liberty from treason and destruction by her enemies.
The spirit of Lincoln still lives; that spirit born of the teachings of the Nazarene, who promised mercy to the merciful, who lifted the lowly, strengthened the weak, ate with publicans, and made the captives free. In the light of this divine example, the doctrines of demagogues shiver in their chaff. Already closer understanding links Saxon and Freedman in mutual sympathy.

America experiences a new birth of freedom in her sons and daughters; she incarnates the spirit of her martyred chief. Their loyalty is repledged; their devotion renewed to the work He left unfinished. My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom. And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon--a Negro--and yet a man!

PD. EPH.

1. Atlanta Daily World, 16 April and 22 April 1944; Ted Poston, "Fighting Pastor: Martin Luther King," New York Post, 10 April 1957; Playboy interview with Martin Luther King, Jr., Playboy, January 1965.

2. Marian Anderson was barred from singing in Constitution Hall in 1939. She received the Bok Award on 18 March 1941. See her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning (New York: Viking, 1956), pp. 184-192, 274-275.

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