An Irishwoman's Diary


Melosina Lenox-Conyngham
published in the Irish Times 13/12/2004


George W. Bush may have settled back cosily into the White House, rearranged the family photos and gilded the coronet above his bed, but he has not yet been elected President of the United States. All that kerfuffle on November 2nd was to elect electors to the Electoral College who today will cast their votes for the president and vice-president.


Each state is represented by a number of electors based on the population of the state and whichever presidential ticket gets the most votes wins the electoral votes of that state. One anomaly is that the electors of 21 states do not have to vote in line with the way they have been elected, so we could yet be in for a surprise. Since 1804, there have been 156 "faithless" electors who have not kept their pledge to vote for the wishes of the majority in their state. Not one of these has yet affected the election of a president or vice-president.

The Electoral College was established by the "founding fathers" - one of whom was Pierce Butler, the delegate from South Carolina. He was born in 1744 at Ballintemple, where the Butlers still live, on the banks of the Slaney in Co Carlow. As the third son of Sir Richard Butler, MP, he had no hope of inheriting any of the family fortune so he joined the army and was sent to Nova Scotia.

Soon after his arrival, Pierce took long leave to visit Charleston in South Carolina. Perhaps not altogether by luck, he met there and married a wealthy and well-connected young lady. This allowed him to leave the army and settle down to manage her plantations. With the money he received from the sale of his commission, he bought an island in the Altamaha River in Georgia, where he grew cotton and rice.

When the American Revolution broke out, Pierce Butler took the side of the Americans, but was tepid when it came to fighting his former comrades, blaming poor health for his lack of fervour. When his own plantations were threatened, however, he helped to impede the British advance on Charlestown and participated in the doomed attempt to recapture Savannah.

After the war, Pierce returned to Europe, bringing his son and his eldest daughter. He spent 10 days visiting his mother at Ballintemple, but the main object of the tour was to borrow capital to finance his estates, which he succeeded in obtaining in Holland from Dutch bankers.

When he returned to the States, he left his seven-year-old son at a school in London run by another Butler, who was no relation but was the ancestor of the English politician, Rab Butler.

Pierce was a most devoted parent. His letters to his little boy are full of instructions about paying attention to learning Latin syntax and handwriting. In a note to his son he wrote: "My hopes and views centre in seeing you an ornament of literature and an honour to your country. You must therefore think of nothing but improving your mind."

In America, Pierce had been elected a delegate for South Carolina to the federal convention where the constitution of the new nation was being devised. He attended sessions in a coat decorated with gold lace, a handsome stock and a powdered wig. A fellow delegate said sourly: "Major Butler has no pretensions to being an orator or a politician, but that does not keep him from speaking. He has words at will and he scatters them at random."

"The election of an American President," wrote Butler in 1788 to Weedon Butler, his son's schoolmaster in London, "The mode of which [ the Electoral College] I had the honour of proposing, in my weak judgement, precludes corruption and tumult."

The convention debated how a state should be represented in an election and it was agreed that it should be according to population. Pierce Butler insisted that the labour of a slave was equal to the value of a free man in Massachusetts and therefore should have representation. This caused the delegate from Massachusetts to say: "Blacks are property, and are used in the South as horses and cattle are in the North. Why should not horses and cattle have the right of representation in the North?" In the end it was agreed, for the purpose of a state census, to relegate the slaves to the official status of three-fifths of a human being. This had nothing to do with the slaves having enfranchisement; it was to give more political power to the southern states.

In 1803, Butler returned to the Senate in time for the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, which is specifically on the mode of the election of the president and vice-president and he warned the small states to beware of the great states snatching power.

Today the electors will cast their votes, one for the president and one for the vice-president. There is, of course, little doubt about the outcome.What Pierce Butler would have made of the voters' and the electors' choice is anyone's guess.

Melosina Lenox-Conyngham is the secretary of the Butler Society.



© The Irish Times