Winner by a Nose and a Prayer

Steven Van Rensselaer was a go-getter by anyone’s definition. Elected to the New York legislature at the tender age of 25, he was upwardly mobile, it seemed, from the womb. He served in his state’s legislature, then the senate, then as Lieutenant Governor, and finally the U.S. House of Representatives. A military man, an entrepreneur, a politician and statesman, Rensselaer was a decisive man who used his influence to virtually will the Erie Canal into existence. That accomplished, he set about founding the school in Troy, New York that still bears his name, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technical university in the New World. But after three years serving in the U.S. Congress, Steven was stumped. He was sitting squarely on the fence, both feet planted firmly in midair, not knowing how to vote. The issue at hand had been debated for months, and the normally decisive Rensselaer just couldn’t make up his mind. And wouldn’t you know it? His was the deciding vote. The House of Representatives was dead even, every vote cast and counted, but his. The heat was on, the lobbying relentless from all sides. You see, there were five different ways he could vote. Such a momentous decision, such a difficult choice, and Rensselaer had no idea what to do. And so, he prayed. “Dear God, please.” That’s all he said, for in the very act of bowing his head he glimpsed a dirty, torn, discarded ballot on the floor, one already filled out but never cast. Taking this as the answer to his prayer, he picked it up and cast it as his own. And thus, with the popular vote of the entire country yielding no clear winner, and the decision therefore falling constitutionally upon the House of Representatives, Steven Van Rensselaer sent John Quincy Adams to the White House and to the Presidency.