Alexander Hamilton and the first contested election

[previously posted on a now defunct blog – 30 August, 2016]

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.

Hamilton Letter

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. However, should there ever be a tie, or if no candidate receives the requisite majority of Electoral Votes, the vote for president 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’m 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.

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector , Dark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His work, “Numbers Don’t Lie” also recently appeared in the 2020 short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2, and his short story “Ultimatum Games” will appear in Rock and a Hard Place this fall. His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.


A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

This post is from a previous (now defunct) blog, originally published 30 August, 2016

Political institutions are the problem, but it’s institutions that will save us.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what Adam McKay would say about institutions (the law, courts, norms, democratic rule) but I would nevertheless love for him to read and respond to my Faithless Elector thriller series. Because as gratifying as it’s been for the books to find readers who see the political moment reflected in the pages of my books, the larger narrative sometimes gets lost; that the present moment has been a long time coming. And the moment isn’t over.

Speaking to David Marchese in the NY Times magazine, McKay talks about what “hooked” him in Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (which he produced for the screen). Reading the book in one night, he says that “[Lewis] does two things. Number 1, we all love the taste of making a lot of money. The other thing we all love is knowing things that we’re not supposed to know. Lewis tells me things that most people don’t tell me…” He goes on to say that what he asks of a work is: “Is there a sincere attempt to understand the world, or is the action just one of manipulation and distraction?”

In the three books that make up the series—Faithless Elector, Dark Network and Emergency Powers—I’ve tried to do just that–to tell a story that tries to understand the world, one that doesn’t talk down to the reader, nor one that has an axe to grind. They’re about insider politics, and delve into things you thought you knew about in a new way: strong, character-driven stories set within a context of conflicted, dangerous politics. The conspirators exploit weaknesses in our legal/constitutional institutions to effect their power grab—motivated, as McKay discusses “by pure power and reactionary beliefs.” And if they can get hold of all the levers of power, they may very well succeed.

The “Faithless Elector” conspiracy, and the forces arrayed against America in my stories didn’t rise with Trump (he’s nowhere in their pages). Rather, it’s part of a much longer trajectory and deeper worry. And those forces haven’t gone away now that Trump’s making his noise offstage.

I would urge anyone thinking or writing about politics to give the interview a good read. It’s the kind of insightful, reasoned (yet still passionate and opinionated) discussion many of us lament as lacking these days. He also zeroes in on the dearth—in literature and in politics—of working people’s voices. Which, again, my work strives to bring into the conversation. Meetings between the FBI and “regular” folk aren’t caricatures, but are meant to be rounded people, to add nuance and complexity to the plot—and the stakes—as the story unfolds.

Later in the interview, McKay makes an interesting claim about center-left and center-right politics, putting himself in the CL corner, and Aaron Sorkin’s work on the CR. It’s Sorkin’s faith in institutions (again, the law, courts, norms) that pushes him rightward in McKay’s view. (McKay is careful not to claim that Sorkin is a right-winger). McKay’s observations and phrasing are in keeping with a balanced, long-view perspective. By McKay’s rendering, I guess I’d end up CR, too. Which is an uncomfortable feeling…

But insofar as my work enlightens, as it is a sincere attempt to understand the world, I’ll accept it.

Far from contributing to the politics of distraction and outrage porn, the Faithless Elector series reads, in the words of one reviewer, like an “insider’s view” of power politics. The conspirators manipulate the Electoral College, the congress and the bureaucracy from the inside–and for their own ends–with the future of the nation in the balance. It is characters in and out of government who risk their lives to right the ship of state. What my characters oppose is not bureaucracy, or legal authority, but the perversion of those institutions.

There’s a quote posted above my home computer, from Professor Emilios Christodoulidis at the University of Glasgow School of Law:
“Any separation between legal and political power is purely conceptual…there can be no real legal authority without some political power…[and] there is rarely political power without some legal authority.”
(from Jurisprudence: Themes and Concepts )

As the tagline for Dark Network notes: “Without law, there’s only power.” To which, perhaps I should add, And what about when law protects and abets the powerful?

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!
All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland, w/t Bastard Verdict.
A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. James is a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Faith among the Faithless

I suppose this is sort of Christmas-y: In my most recent post, “Blunt Tools,” about the obstacles in the way to legitimating a presidential election—Electoral College vote, Congressional certification, potential contingency vote—I found that the word “faith” cropped up again and again: faith in the rule of law, faith in the system(s), faith in our officials, in our democracy. Faith and hope.

Besides being a messy work-in-progress, democracy feels like a spiritual undertaking. Like prayers, where God sometimes answers, No, election outcomes are seldom all that you could have hoped. It’s not the hope that’s spiritual, however. It’s faith in the process, that the result was arrived at fairly; that voting is the best way to achieve our ends, to hold officials accountable.

But it isn’t mere faith that gets us across the ever-moving line. There must be trust in the systems, in people and institutions. Transparency. Faith surmises that tangible evidence doesn’t exist; whereas trust is based largely on evidence that is real according to the senses and to human reason. It’s the institutions, the procedures, and the repetition of sound outcomes (fairly arrived at) that bolsters faith and inculcates trust.

Consider banking, a messy, craven business, ripe for (and often rife with) corruption and collusion. But the teller doesn’t pocket your paycheck, the bank doesn’t steal it. Indeed, banks take steps to ensure that there’s a trail of evidence should something go awry. And they make sure that no one else steals it. (They may snatch at part of it through fees, etc., but that’s a separate discussion.) Your savings are secure, as are your investments, if you’re fortunate enough to have any. I don’t mean to suggest that some mere squishy feeling can bring about the change we want to see all by itself, but without it, we’re lost.

It is trust—repeated, faithful (that word again) repetition of processes and procedures combined with legitimate outcomes. Say what you will about the Electoral College (and I’ve said and written plenty); say what you will about the conduct and byzantine rules within banks (see my example above), but at their most basic, they are open, verifiable activities.

Given the multiple lawsuits and demonstrations—distinct from required/permitted challenges and recounts—I can only surmise that Trump and his enablers have a different aim: to erode trust by striking at our faith in democracy, by tarring institutions and officials with their own foul brush. They certainly have no love for democracy, which at its core is an act of faith that self-governance is the optimal system. The Big Lie works, breeds doubt, will give people pause. The Big Lie in this case is that the vote was stolen. And that lie lingers, festers, strikes at faith.

A recent WA Post editorial points out that, for weeks, Republicans and “Donald Trump [have] told the public that the presidential election was riddled with fraud. And now, in an immaculate act of self-confirmation, Republicans are pointing to the public’s doubts about the election as evidence that something fraudulent must have taken place…” The accusations have been rebuked at every point, by sound, faithful reporting (and recording) of sound certification practices and procedures.

The Big Lie—and it feels like the past four years have been nothing but lies—reminds me of a pool shark, who not only makes the shot, but “leaves” the cueball either in a good place to make his next shot, or in such a way as to thwart his opponent, and leave him behind the eight-ball.

Ours is a postlapsarian world, to be sure. It has been for quite some time. What came before it was hardly perfect, and certainly it wasn’t paradise. But it was (and is) verifiable. Something we can have faith in.

Perhaps a worldly and political update of 1 Corinthians 13:13 is in order: “And now abideth faith, trust, certify, these three; but the greatest of these is certify.”

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge.
The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!
All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland.
A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children.
James is a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Supreme Court to hear #FaithlessElector arguments this month

SOCTUS-BldgThe Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments on May 13 about the constitutionality of Faithless Elector laws established by the states, and it will deliver an opinion this summer.

At stake is whether Electors are independent actors, or are bound by the laws of their respective states.

Until very recently, most scholars seemed to agree that if the question came before the Court, the Court would rule that Electors were free to choose according to their individual consciences, which is what the Electoral College was intended for. Indeed, the schism between what has come to seem customary and how things actually work was the dramatic–and dire!–premise of my 2016 thriller, Faithless Elector. Now it seems less clear. And even when viewed through a so-called States Rights lens (which this court might tend to favor), the potential gains are actually muddled.

Those who seek to preserve the Electoral College–in which the people of the United States do not vote directly for the president or vice-president–want to preserve an institution that has twice since the turn of the century delivered Republican candidates who lost in the popular vote–Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016. But such people should be careful what they wish for.

If the states prevail and the Court finds that Electors may be bound, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPV) will have more teeth in it. The core of the NPV is that states can direct their Electors to vote for whomever the national vote winner is, irrespective of the result in the state. States could also argue, as the plaintiffs before the Court do, that states would also be free to direct Electors not to vote for anyone who had, say, failed to provide his tax returns. Or not for one who was divorced, or an adulterer. We’re talking about state legislatures making these rules, after all.

The high court has never weighed in before because until the 2016 election no Elector had been penalized for voting against his/her pledge. No one had “standing” to bring a claim. Now they do. The Court is taking this case ahead of the upcoming election because adjudicating it in the heat of an election (or after the fact!) would be disastrous for the nation.

As I’ve pointed out on this blog elsewhere, the Electoral College was a compromise, one that most assumed would be ironed out in the fullness of time.

I fear that the Court’s decision won’t provide clarity, but will solidify an archaic system and add to the bitter acrimony already festering.

The Faithless Elector Argument Preview, posted on the SCOTUS-Blog is informative, and not over-burdened with legalese.

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The Imogen Trager #NoirPolitik Thrillers at a glance:

Faithless Elector – Everyone thinks the election is over, but six weeks is a long time in politics. An idealistic, young researcher stumbles onto a plot to steal the presidency, with deadly consequences.

Dark Network – Without law, there’s only power. FBI Agent Imogen Trager is alone and in grave danger from a conspiracy she failed to destroy. She’ll have to fight against time, a sinister network, and even her own colleagues to defeat it.

Emergency Powers (Oct. 1) – No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The investigation that was FBI Agent Imogen Trager’s undoing may be the key to stopping a brutal, false flag terrorist attack meant to tighten a puppet president’s grip on power.

trilogy-draft

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers  Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge.

NetGalley-EmgPwrs

The third book, Emergency Powers, is coming October 1st, and he’s at work on a fourth book called Bastard Verdict (w/t) . You can check out Emergency Powers for free on NetGalley.

 

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Find them all through BookShop.org.  They are also  available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, you can pick up your copies at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:  JamesMcCrone.com