I love The Federalist Papers. They are a like a particularly well-done brochure for a Las Vegas timeshare, written to sell more than to inform. Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay had one job: to ensure that the draft Constitution was ratified. The alternative, to these patriots, was disaster—the division of the new nation into hostile confederacies, and possibly the transformation of some or all of the states into clients of the European powers. There was no chance of a do-over; it was this Constitution or nothing. For this reason, The Federalist Papers insist that every word, every comma, of the Constitution added up to the best of all possible rules in the best of all possible worlds.

However, the authors knew the document’s flaws. When Madison sent a copy to Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson discreetly replied: “In some parts it is discoverable that the author means only to say what may be best said in defense of opinions in which he did not concur.”

As long as George Washington was on the ballot, the electoral system worked fine. But when Washington retired in 1796, it hobbled his successor, John Adams. The original Constitution made the electoral-vote runner-up the vice president—Adams’s defeated opponent, Thomas Jefferson. Poor, gallant Adams could have used a friend at No. 2 but instead got a cunning foe. In the next election, in 1800, the system turned on Jefferson; because he and his running mate, Aaron Burr, got the same number of electoral votes, the election went to the House of Representatives, leading to 35 ballots over seven days—and very nearly to civil violence by outraged Jefferson supporters.