What Is the History of Recall Elections?

History Q & A

Mr. Spivak is an attorney in New York, and received a Master's in History from Brooklyn College. His Master's thesis explored the history of the recall.

Even though 26 states authorize the recall in some form, Gray Davis is only the second governor in U.S. history to face a recall vote. Despite its infrequently usage, the recall has a long, if spotty, history in America.

The recall has always been at the forefront of a fundamental question about the role of an elected officials, namely whether the official should act as a trustee and vote his own opinion or perform as a delegate and vote according to the wishes of his constituency. This long running debate continues to this day with criticism of poll-driven politicians. This clash of ideologies was much in evidence during the debate about the recall's place in the new U.S. Constitution.

The actual origins of the recall is shrouded in conjecture. Its modern day creator, Dr. John Randolph Haynes, claimed that it was "derived historically from Greek and Latin sources...." However, the authors of many of the works on the practice cite Haynes as expropriating the idea from the Swiss.

While the first instance of the recall can be found in the laws of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1631, and again in the Massachusetts Charter of 1691, the recall gained a firm footing in American politics with the democratic ideals that burst forth from the American Revolution. After declaring their independence, 11 of the 13 colonies wrote new constitutions, and many of these documents showed the new spirit of democracy. They specifically spelled out the laws in their constitution, which was a sharp departure from the unwritten British constitution. Most lessened the power of the executive and strengthened the legislature. Some opened up the right to vote to a larger portion of the population. And a few states wrote the recall into law as a method of controlling their elected representatives.

The states which adopted the recall were mainly concerned with the power of the representatives who served the states in the national government's congress. Unlike its modern day counterpart, the seventeenth and eighteenth century versions of the recall involved the removal of an official by another elected body, such as a state legislature recalling its United States senator. While this form provides a different relationship between the elected official and the general population the principles and the debates that engulfed the issue had not substantially changed.

The Revolution's success led the states to form a government under the Articles of Confederation, which were finally ratified in 1781. The government under the Articles was weak and at the mercy of the individual states. Unsurprisingly, the recall was included in the Articles of Confederation. According to recall proponent and New York delegate John Lansing, the recall was never exercised by any of the states throughout the brief history of the Confederation.

As the Articles of Confederation government proved a failure in leading the new country, some of the brightest lights in America met in Philadelphia in 1787 and drafted the new Constitution. There is a plethora of materials on the Constitutional Convention, the debates surrounding its adoption, and its eventual impact. However, the issue of the recall has been mostly ignored, despite the fact that the idea was discussed. It was proposed by Edmund Randolph in his presentation of the Virginia Plan on May 29. The plan would have allowed the recall of the members of the first house of the legislature, who were directly elected by the people. On June 12, the convention passed Charles Pickney's motion to strike out the recall. The only other mention of the procedure in Madison's notes on the convention was a speech by future Vice President Elbridge Gerry exploring how the convention exceeded its mandate.

The argument for the recall was a strong component of the anti-federalist attack. The American Revolution was in many ways an attack on the existing power structure, or as Carl Becker said it was not just about home rule, but who rules at home. The new Constitution, in the view of many leading anti-federalists, was a conservative reaction to the American Revolution. One of the major opponents of the Constitution, Luther Martin, stressed the absence of a recall for senators, and the freedom from popular control that this absence represented, as a reason to reject the document. Martin was opposed to granting senators, who were elected by the state legislators and were seen as representing the more traditional aristocratic population, a large degree of freedom. He feared that senators would disregard their position as delegates of the people, and be free to work against the interests of their own states. Martin said: "Thus, sir, for six years, the senators are rendered totally and absolutely independent of their states, of whom they ought to be the representatives, without any bond or tie between them."

The idea of tightly binding the senators to their states was strongly opposed by the Federalists, most notably Alexander Hamilton. The topic gained new life when the Constitution was sent to the states to ratify. Each state elected a ratifying convention to approve or disapprove of the Constitution. Nine of the thirteen states votes were required for ratification. The topic took up several days of debate in the New York Ratifying Convention and was also proposed in the Massachusetts Convention. Using arguments that opponents of the recall would still be making more than a century later, Hamilton feared, that the recall "will render the senator a slave to all the capricious humors among the people."

In New York's Ratifying Convention on June 24, 1788, Gilbert Livingston introduced a measure calling for the recall of senators by state legislatures. Livingston was concerned that states would have "little or no check" on senators who have a six year term of office. John Lansing, an opponent of the new Constitution, said in words that echoed more than a century later, "they (the Senators) will lose their respect for the power from whom they receive their existence, and consequently disregard the great object for which they are instituted."

Hamilton denied the premise that the state legislatures would be more in tune with the will of the people, and argued that the recall would prevent the senators from being able to make difficult decisions. Hamilton said "… in whatever body the power of recall is vested, the senator will perpetually feel himself in such a state of vassalage and dependence, that he never can posses that firmness which is necessary to the discharge of his great duty to the Union."

By the time the New York Convention finally ratified the Constitution, enough states had ratified to form the government. However, there were still attempts to bring up various amendments to the new Constitution. Rhode Island, the last state to ratify in 1790, proposed 21 amendments, including granting state legislatures the power to recall their federal senators. However, the recall did not have the backing to continue as a major topic of debate after the failure of the anti-federalists. The recall of senators came up twice more, as the legislature in Virginia attempted to bring the topic up as a constitutional amendment in 1803 and 1808. The 1808 amendment was met by resolutions of disapproval from six states.

The recall received a considerable degree of support in America's early years. However, its proposed use as a weapon against the power of federal government officers failed to generate sufficient excitement to push its way through to adoption. With the Federalists' victory, the recall went into hibernation. It was not until the early part of the twentieth century, when the country was faced with a very different set of circumstances, that the recall reemerged as a viable political option. By that time, the field of debate had shifted to the state level, with the people themselves possessing the power of the recall. But the focus of the debates and the nature of the arguments had remained the same.

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More Comments:

Eric D Frank - 2/2/2007

Do you by any chance know which of the 13 colonies actually wrote a recall provision in to their original constitutions?

JOHN - 1/18/2004


Rod Farmer - 10/30/2003

I enjoyed your web site. In case you are interested, I wrote the following article:

Farmer, Rod. "Power to the People: The Progressive Movement for the Recall, 1890s-1920," The New England Journal of History,
Winter, 2001, Vol. 57, No. 2, pp. 59-83.

bob adams - 10/8/2003

Which states have this provision? Does it apply
uniformly to all elected officials?

G Bozeman - 10/7/2003

The Iroquois praciced a form of the recall in the Iroquois Confederacy and the Six Nations. Traditionally, the women of each clan selected a male member of the clan as a representative. If this representative failed to perform his job to the benefit of his clan, he was "fired" by the women of the clan and another man was selected to replace him.
I find it interesting that, here in the most successful democracy in the world, the act of recalling an errant elected official has been practiced so few times. As a Political Science Teacher, I feel it is imperative that I stress the mechanisims by which "We The People" must maintain our authority over our government.

Joshua Spivak - 10/5/2003

In 1921, Lynn Frazier, the Governor of North Dakota was successfully recalled, along with the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Agriculture and Labor. It didn't hurt Frazier's career that much: He was elected to the U.S. Senate 2 years later.

In addition, the Governor of Arizona, Evan Mecham, was about to face a recall election in 1988, but he was impeached before the vote took place.

D. R. Taylor - 10/5/2003

I have read and heard several times that only one other governor in US history has faced a recall election. But none of the news clips or articles has stated who the governor was or when the event occurred.

Who was the first US governor to face a recall election?

Joshua Spivak - 10/3/2003

I'm not that well informed on the Omaha platform or on the Populist Party. However, I do know that the Socialist Labor and the Populist Party included the "Imperative Mandate," which was an earlier version of the recall, in their party platforms in the 1890s. Before John Randolph Haynes successful championing of the recall, many of the direct legislationists did not want to include on the same level as the intiative and referendum. They felt that it would be construed as a personal attack on an elected official.

John King - 10/3/2003

Is there any evidence that the recall was debated or considered as part of the drafting of the Omaha Platform which did endorse the referendum and the right of petition, as well as direct election of US Senators?

K. G. Schneider - 9/30/2003

Very interesting, useful article. Could you please tweak the following sentence: "Despite its infrequently usage, the recall has a long, if spotty, history in America..." We would like to feature this article in our database this Thursday, and that typo sticks out like a sore loser--I mean, thumb.

K. G. Schneider
Director, Librarians' Index to the Internet

Joshua Spivak - 9/16/2003

I agree. I appreciate you bringing the subject to my attention. I intend to mention it in any future writing I do on this subject.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/15/2003

Thank you for the links.

I had understood the distinction. It simply struck me that the similarity was revealing.

Joshua Spivak - 9/7/2003

I should explain that the reason Instructions were not the equivalent to the recall is that Senators were under no legal obligation to either follow the instructions or resign. This is in marked contrast to the recall, which would cause the removal of a Senator from office by force of law.
Below are the links to two websites that discuss the use of Instructions in the 18th and 19th Century Senate.

Joshua Spivak - 9/5/2003

I've heard of such behavior, but I don't know that I would consider that a recall. I do remember a similar situation in 1880, when New York Senators Roscoe Conkling and Thomas Platt resigned over a disagreement with President Garfield regarding presidential appointments. They expected the NY State legislature to reappoint them in a show of force, but their gambit failed.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/4/2003

In at least some states in the antebellum period, there was a tradition that a Senator would resign if he felt he could not follow the instructions of the legislature.

I know I have seen such a debate in Michigan, when one of its senators used the threat of retiring as a way of avoiding instructions being passed. (If memory serves, this occurred in the debate leading up to the Compromise of 1850).

I would be curious if anyone knows of other examples.