Electoral College Ancestors: Their Votes for President

Election Day is a “high holy day” in my home. In presidential election years, I only partake in two activities: voting and watching election returns. What initially spawned my interest in the quadrennial campaign, however, was neither a specific candidate nor any issue. My ‘un’healthy obsession with American politics began with the electoral map (not to the surprise of friends and family given my affinity for cartography). Adding another layer of interest was the uniquely American Electoral College system, our strange way of electing a president. For your sake, I will fight my inclination to go on a romanticized rant about the Constitution and the virtues of voting as an Elector.

Americans tend to forget a subtle national quirk. In this republic, citizens on Election Day have never once voted directly for their presidential choice. From the election of General Washington to the re-election of President Obama, every person whom has ever voted for president at the neighborhood ballot box has voted for a slate of electors to vote for a candidate on his or her behalf (or some derivation thereof if the legislature didn’t pick the electors for them). Fifty-seven elections later, the system still stands. Only twice have the electors not decided who held the office of president but they have always voted. For president, the only votes that matter are the 538 (today’s count) that are cast across the nation on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December of that election year.

Today, few people can name any elector from any election, certain infamous faithless electors being exceptions. Once an elector’s vote is cast in his or her respective state capital and the election is certified by the appropriate authority, the duty of an elector essentially ends. The votes of these mostly forgotten men and women are counted without fanfare at a joint session of Congress. Two electors, relevant to my genealogical research, had the honor of casting ballots for President of the United States: William Nimmo of Princess Anne, Virginia and Edward Leverich of Queens, New York.

William Nimmo, Virginia Elector for Thomas Jefferson – 1796 Election

Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States

George Washington, who was twice unanimously chosen by the Electoral College, decided to set a precedent by not seeking a third term. Vice President John Adams of Massachusetts stood for the Federalists and his once good friend, former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, ran as the Republican candidate (Adams and Jefferson would reconcile years later). Without Washington standing for re-election, it would prove that the country’s party divisions were real and permanent. Because of that, the election was bitterly fought and exceptionally close.

The original Constitution and the Twelfth Amendment allow each state to decide how its electors are chosen. In the beginning, states differed on how (unlike today where 48 states and DC use a winner-take-all system). For the elections of 1789, 1792 and 1796, Virginia created electoral districts with an elector chosen by popular vote in each. Relevant here is Virginia’s Electoral District One, incorporating Accomac, Northampton and Princess Anne counties. Representing John Adams was a man named John Eyre. And as it would appear, Mr. Eyre’s selection was all but certain until Election Day when Princess Anne unexpectedly swung the balance to Thomas Jefferson’s elector, my fifth great grandfather, William Nimmo.

So close was the 1796 election that every electoral vote was crucial to both camps. Federalist John Marshall (future Chief Justice of the United States) wrote to fellow Federalist from North Carolina, Associate Supreme Court Justice James Iredell (who himself received 3 votes from his home state) about his distraught feelings on the recent election. In his letter to Iredell, Marshall assumes the worst for John Adams and the country, expressing shock that one Virginia district did not vote as expected:

Richmond, Dec. 15th, ’96.
Dear Sir:
I had not the pleasure of receiving till yesterday your favor of the 3d instant. Since then, I have seen the votes of North Carolina, and you, I presume, those of Virginia. Mr. Adams would have received one other vote had Mr. Eyre really been elected, but he was left out by accident. There on the eastern shore, did not vote at all, and in the other a very few assembled. On the day of election the people of Princess Ann, whose Court day it happened to be, assembled in numbers, and elected Mr. [Nimmo], who voted for Mr. Jefferson. From that gentleman you will have heard there were twenty votes for Mr. Samuel Adams, fifteen for Mr. Clinton, three for Burr, Gen. Washington one, Mr. Pinckney one, and Mr. John Adams one. I received a letter from Philadelphia, stating that five votes south of the Potomac would be necessary to secure the election of Mr. Adams. It is then certain that he cannot be elected. Our assembly, which you know is in session, displays its former hostility to federalism. They have once more denied wisdom to the administration of the President, and have gone so far as to say in argument, that we ought not by any declarations to commit ourselves, so as to be bound to support his measures as they respect France. To what has America fallen! Is it to be hoped that North Carolina will, in this particular, rather adopt such measures as have been pursued by other States, than tread the crooked paths of Virginia? I have received a letter from Mr. Dallas, and will furnish him with my argument in the case of the British debts. I expect to be under the necessity of getting the opinions of the Judges, except yours, from Mr. Dallas, whose report of the case will be published before mine. With very much respect and esteem, I am, dear sir,
Your Obed’t J. Marshall.

(John Marshall erred in his vote tally, probably omitting Jefferson accidentally, attributing the most votes to Samuel Adams and giving each subsequent name the wrong tally. The actual vote total was Jefferson 20; Samuel Adams 15; Clinton 3; John Adams, Burr, Pinckney and Washington, 1 each.)

My ancestor, Mr. Nimmo, was a Virginia House delegate and his family was a well-known quantity in Princess Anne. William’s father was the sheriff of Princess Anne and served on the county’s Committee of Safety during the Revolution with William’s father-in-law, Dr. Christopher Wright. James Nimmo, William’s grandfather, was an attorney, representing the provincial government.

As for the letter, I question Marshall’s insistence that Eyre’s loss was accidental. Marshall’s swallowing a bitter pill unnecessarily. He explicitly states that the eastern shore (Accomac and Northampton) did not vote in great numbers while Princess Anne actually did cast ballots. Who’s fault is that, Chief Justice Marshall? Despite Marshall’s steadfast belief that Adams needed “five votes south of the Potomac,” the Vice President secured only two and narrowly defeated Jefferson. Even 200 years ago, turnout in a close election was critical. If Jefferson swept the South, winning the two votes Adams had won, he would’ve been America’s second president.

Now, before the 1800 election exposed the fatal flaw in the original Constitution’s electoral system that necessitated the Twelfth Amendment, each elector cast two votes for president. Of Virginia’s 21 electoral districts in 1796, 20 electors used one of their votes for Jefferson. Elector Benjamin Temple was the sole Virginia vote for Adams. Unbelievably, no record exists as to the second vote other than the final tally.

Edward Leverich, New York Elector for James Monroe – 1820 Election

Col Edward Leverich

Col. Edward Leverich of Newtown

James Monroe’s re-election in 1820 was completely unlike 1796. The United States, “victors” in the War of 1812, experienced a era of political unity and fervent nationalism. The Federalist Party was essentially dead while the Democratic-Republicans had held the White House since Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration. Monroe’s grand scheme was to end party politics and prevent sectional rivalry. During his administration, discord was muted. However, his unity government masked the divisions slowly developing at the federal level and between the North and South.

Despite the Panic of 1819 and the Missouri Compromise situation, James Monroe ran uncontested for re-election. The election, a foregone conclusion, went as expected. President Monroe received every electoral vote except that of William Plumer of New Hampshire (allowing Washington to remain the only unanimously elected president, not that it was necessarily Plumer’s intent).

Since the first election in 1789, New York’s slate of electors was decided by the legislature. 1820 was no different. At noon on 9 November 1820, the New York Assembly voted. On an Assembly vote of 70-55 (and 19-11 in the Senate), the following men were appointed, as reported by the Schenectady Cabinet:

William Floyd, Henry Rutgers, Abel Huntington, Edward Leverich, Isaac Lawrence, John Targee, Jacob Odell, Peter Waring, Edward P. Livingston, Peter Millikin, David Hammond, Mark Spencer. Benjamin Knower, Gilbert Eddy, Howell Gardner, John Baker, John Walworth, Daniel McDougall, Seth Wetmore, Latham A. Burrows, Farrand Stranaham, Henry Wager, Elisha Farnharn, Jonathan Collins, Samuel Nelson, William B. Rochester, Charles Thompson, Philelus Swift, James Brisban.

While Col. Rutgers was selected as president of the Electors caucus and Mr. Rochester its secretary, the honor of carrying the votes to the capital was given to Col. Edward Leverich, my fourth great grandfather. In December 1820, the Albany Gazette reported the gathering of New York’s electors, two elector replacements (one being future President Van Buren) and Col. Leverich’s charge to deliver New York’s vote to Washington:

Electoral College. — On calling over the names of the Electors, at their meeting on Tuesday, it appeared that all gentlemen were present; except Gen. Floyd, of Oneida, whose great age and bodily infirmities, prevented his attendance; and Seth Wetmore, Esq. of Montgomery, who holds the office of postmaster, and was therefore ineligible as an Elector. The Hon. Martin Van Buren, Esq; of this city, was chosen to supply the place of Gen. Floyd, by an unanimous vote; and William I. Dodge, Esq. of Johnstown, was chosen in the place of Mr. Wetmore, by the votes of all the members, excepting four, who voted for Col. Pawling of Troy.
Col. Henry Rutgers, of New York, was appointed President of the Electoral College; and Col. William B. Rochester, of Bath, Secretary.
On Wednesday, at half past 12 o’clock, the Electors again met, and gave in their votes for a President and Vice President of the United States — which, we understand, were unanimous for JAMES MONROE, for President, & DANIEL D. TOMPKINS, for Vice-President.
Edward Leverich, Esq. Elector of Suffolk [Queens] county, was appointed a special messenger to carry a certificate of the votes to Washington; and the Electors, in a body, went to the post office, and deposited a duplicate of their votes in that office, to be transmitted to the seat of the government, by mail.

Not many men were able to cast direct ballots for Founding Fathers. William Nimmo would not repeat his electoral duties when Jefferson won in 1800. Nimmo died in 1799. Col. Leverich’s, a War of 1812 veteran, remained active in Democratic politics until his death in 1835.

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