As Decided In Philadelphia

Well, my absentee ballot has arrived here in Britain. The election is almost upon us. I vote in New York state, in the 19th congressional district, which is located upstate partly in the Catskills where our house is:

New York State absentee presidential ballot. [Photo by me, 2016.]
New York State absentee presidential ballot. [Photo by me, 2016.]

Let me offer a quick explanation of that ballot because this fact might baffle some people. The United States does not have a presidential election as such. It has essentially 51 presidential elections simultaneously – separate elections in all 50 states and the District of Columbia (meaning Washington city, which is not in any state but is the national capital named after, OF COURSE, HIM!).

As I vote in New York State, I vote for electors – locals whose names one rarely knows – who gather at Albany in early December. They are pledged to cast THEIR ballots formally for the pair of candidates who had received the most votes back on November’s Election Day.

…Please, stay with me a moment. 😉

Those electors are New York’s contributor to the Electoral College. (There are currently 29 of them because New York currently has 29 electoral votes out of the country’s 538 as a whole.) The same process as in New York is repeated in every other state (and DC) at the same time. In the end, after all 50 states and the DC electors have gathered and voted, whichever pair of presidential/vice presidential candidates have the majority of votes in that Electoral College are OFFICIALLY elected president and vice president. (If somehow no one does, the U.S. House of Representatives elects the president and vice president.)

It is in the Constitution (although the exact words “Electoral College” are not used) so the method cannot be changed without amendment, which is why the Electoral College isn’t going away anytime soon.

In some respects, the Electoral College is now something of an American “constitutional monarch.” Most of the time, its outcome coincides exactly with the “popular vote,” so its existence is now mostly a formality and a nod to the “old days.” (MOST of the time. In 2000, it infamously didn’t; but under the Constitution, that fact did not matter. The Electoral College elects the president, not the “popular vote.”)

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Hope you’re still there? 😉 Because now it gets interesting!

One of the major authors of the U.S. Constitution that was drafted in Philadelphia in 1787 and created the presidency (and the Electoral College) is little-known New York-born Gouverneur Morris. After his part in the framing of the Constitution was completed, in 1789 he sailed to Europe on business. He lived there until 1799.

A fascinating figure, during that time he was briefly U.S. Minister to France from 1792-1794. And what a time he had in France. Very “human” as we read him from 2016, he possessed a cutting and wicked sense of humor. (Most of the other “founding fathers” weren’t exactly laugh riots.) In his diary, he also wrote about…uh, sex, and seemed to have quite a lot of it. Usually he had it in an “uncommitted” manner with bored, married women. Although he did fall for one Frenchwoman in particular… but she was MARRIED.

His “flexible morals” may be one reason historians have generally stayed away from him until recently. (He is finally getting well-deserved new coverage in the last few years, possibly because “flexible morals” no longer “bother” us among the founders as they perhaps once did.) He was also a brilliant, capable diplomat. Long before the telephone made it possible for diplomats to be instantaneously “instructed” by their superiors at home, he represented the U.S. magnificently (in my humble opinion) in France during extraordinary and terrible times there.

He is one of the historical figures I am slipping into Conventions. It is exceedingly difficult crafting something like this: I have been taking various actual language he used, and certain of his experiences, and his historical persona, and carefully weaving them into the story as background for fictional characters. A sample: I wrote much of this yesterday (amusing given my presidential ballot had come through the letterbox downstairs while I was): it includes fictional “Robert” and a reference to fictional “Henry”:

Sneak Peek from "Conventions." Click to expand.
Sneak Peek from “Conventions.” Click to expand.

A reference in that sample is also made to another American – and a similarly little-known – historical figure who appears: Jefferson aide, William Short. The former politics lecturer in me is having a great ol’ time with this. I really hope that sort of thing will make the novel even better – give it more resonance, and more bite, than an entirely fictional tale.

For example, Thomas Jefferson got on Morris’s very real-life nerves. Morris may have been the first to label Jefferson as a head in the clouds, out of touch “visionary.” Morris also called the French revolutionary leaders “damned rascals” – among other things.

But what a battle writing this is. Penning entirely fictional people and settings is one thing. However, fictionalizing formerly living people in scenes with fictional characters and trying to stay within the historical record and overall reality of the times is a challenge. But I think it’ll be more than worth it in the end.

Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂