Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Alexander Hamilton & The First Contested Election

Hamilton Letter
It was clear that the compromise rules governing the Electoral College could not even stand up to the first contested election in 1800.  The original writing had the candidate with the most Electoral College ballots becoming president; the second place candidate would be vice-president.  Those at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention had not even conceived of there being political parties.

In 1800, there was a tie between Jefferson and Burr; and even had there not been, two candidates from different parties would have been president and vice-president.  The deadlock in the House in 1800 was broken on the 36th ballot, but only after Federalist Party leader Alexander Hamilton made known his preference for Jefferson, in words that ring eerily salient today: “In a choice of Evils let them take the least – Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”

EXCERPT of the letter:   "Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government – Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement – and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands – No compact, that he should make with any other passion in his own breast except his Ambition, could be relied upon by himself – How then should we be able to rely upon any agreement with him? Mr. Jefferson, I suspect will not dare much; Mr. Burr will dare every thing in the sanguine hope of effecting every thing."
[Letter to Harrison Gray Otis, a Massachusetts Congressman, from Alexander Hamilton]

Responding to the problems from those first elections, the Congress proposed the Twelfth Amendment in 1803—prescribing that electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president, and replacing the system outlined in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3. By June 1804, the states had ratified the amendment in time for the 1804 election.  Keep in mind, however, that should there ever be a tie, or if no candidate receives the requisite majority of Electoral Votes, the vote will go to the House and Senate, who will vote separately on president and vice-president.

Initially, the Electoral College provisions conceived a set of knowledgeable persons, gentlemanly statesman of the political class who would put nation above self-interest. We have only to look at the 1800 election, where it is clear those involved were motivated more by what would be better for their state and their party than with the concerns of the nation to see how hollow that conception was. I am not casting aspersions on those Representatives, the 1800 election was a political struggle, with the clamor and rancor we would recognize today between contending visions of what is best for the nation. But it was hardly statesman-like.

When people defend the Electoral College as a way of putting country over the self-interest of the popular will, they are hearkening to a pre-political time that never existed, or more cynically, they are defending and advocating the ability of a small group to impose their self-interest on the majority. For all the criticism political parties routinely get, they are the only way non-political people (the majority) can have influence. The enduring recession has exposed how easily moneyed interests can manipulate rules at the heart of the Constitution itself.

The novel, Faithless Elector, shines light on the weakness of the system as well as the opportunity for narrow, special interests to exploit that weakness and thwart the will of the majority. 

Publishers Weekly says Faithless Elector is a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.”

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.

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