The Carlow Man Who Founded America’s Electoral College

By Sean Ryan

Over the last few months, we have been immersed in American politics and the American electoral system. Indeed, the intricacies of the famous electoral college system in US politics have been engrained in our minds as we watched almost 150 million American voters cast their votes almost evenly for Biden and Trump, in one of the most talked about Presidential elections in recent US history.

What one forgets amid all the madness, however, is that America’s electoral college system was designed by an Irishman. Pierce Butler from Garyhundon, County Carlow was one of America’s founding fathers and is credited with the creation of the electoral college. Butler pushed for the electoral college system to protect the election of a President from corruption and foreign influence, as well as acting as a compromise between those who wanted to vote for the President and those who preferred a citizen’s vote.

Born in Ballintemple House on July 11th, 1744, Butler represented South Carolina in the Continental Congress, the 1787 Constitutional Convention and the US Senate. The third son of MP Sir Richard Butler, his mother was Henrietta Percy, daughter of the Mayor of Dublin; Anthony Percy also came from a privileged background.

He had little chance of inheriting the family fortune and joined the British Army at a very young age. Butler received a commission at the age of 11, and by 14 he was a full lieutenant commanding troops against the French in North America. He fought and was wounded during the pivotal Siege of Louisbourg in 1758.

Following the war – and some time spent garrisoning Nova Scotia – he made his way to the warmer climes of South Carolina. Recalled to his regiment in Boston in 1769, he was witness to the infamous Boston Massacre perpetuated by his own regiment, the 29th. By 1771 he had returned to South Carolina and wed his wealthy heiress, Mary Middleton. Her family controlled plantations right across the state, and her father had been one of the region’s largest slave dealers. By right of marriage, Pierce now held thousands of acres of prime land, and even imprinted himself on the local landscape; he gave his name to an island in the Altamaha River.

This allowed him to leave the army and settle down to manage her plantations. He soon sold his commission in the British Army and sided with colonists when the War of Independence broke out in 1775. The following year he was elected to the South Carolina legislature. On September 17th, 1787, Carlow-born Pierce Butler, alongside three other Irish immigrants, assembled at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to lend his signature to the Constitution of the United States of America, one of only 40 men to do so.

Under the Constitution the United States Electoral College was formed. It is the group of presidential electors required by the Constitution to form every four years for the sole purpose of electing the President and Vice President. Each state appoints electors according to its legislature, equal in number to its congressional delegation but federal office holders cannot be electors. Of the current 538 electors, an absolute majority of 270 or more electoral votes is required to elect the president and vice president. If no candidate achieves an absolute majority there, a contingent election is held by the US Congress to elect the president and vice president.

Currently, the states and the District of Columbia use a statewide popular vote on Election Day in November to choose electors based upon how they have pledged to vote for the President and Vice President, with some state laws against faithless electors. All jurisdictions use a winner-take-all method to choose their electors, except for Maine and Nebraska. They choose one elector per district and two electors for the ticket with the highest statewide vote.

Pierce Butler was to go on and have an illustrious career in US politics. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1789 for the term ending March 3, 1793; re-elected December 5, 1792, and served from March 4, 1789, to October 25, 1796, when he resigned; again elected to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of John Ewing Colhoun and served from November 4, 1802, until his resignation November 21, 1804.

In his later years he moved to Philadelphia, apparently to be near a daughter who had married a local physician. By the time of his death on February 15th, 1822, at the age of 77, Butler had become one of the nation’s wealthiest individuals, and was considered one of the new republic’s Founding Fathers. He is buried in Christ Churchyard, Philadelphia.