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It Happens Every Four Years
The political convention was devised to meet an unforeseen need, and now and then it has an unexpected result
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
The national political convention is a device not provided for by the nation’s founding fathers. It came into being only after a number of presidential elections had been held, it was originally an occasional convenience rather than an established habit, and it became an essential part of political life only after the electoral machinery had developed ominous creakings. The truth of the matter seems to be that the founding fathers, who had foreseen much, had not precisely foreseen the rise of political parties.
Nowadays, attention is usually attracted to the great political conventions because each one is a gaudy and fascinating show. There are flags to bedeck the meeting place, there are parades of delegates, carrying state banners and yelling and whooping it up to create enthusiasm (or at least the appearance of enthusiasm), there are crowded hotel lobbies where delegates, hangers-on, reporters, and the general public meet before and after the formal sessions to talk things over and try to detect how the political currents are running. There is newspaper, radio, and television coverage, so that the entire country may be kept informed. And, finally, there is the formal presentation of the candidates, a great burst of oratory, and a driving, headlined start for the regular campaign.
But the fact remains that the convention itself was developed more by force of circumstance than by design. Furthermore, it is not always quite the device that it seems to be. A political instrument, it is at times more responsive to the needs of the politicians than to the needs of the country. It occasionally has some highly unexpected results. If the founding fathers would be surprised by the institution of the convention, the men who run conventions are sometimes surprised by some of the results.
The founding fathers had not believed that political parties would be necessary to a proper operation of the American government. Nevertheless, the new republic had not been functioning very long before the parties appeared—a useful and apparently an inescapable political development.
Federalist and Republican parties came on the scene almost immediately after the government was established, and their advent quickly outmoded the procedure which the Constitution laid down for the electoral college. This procedure, devised in the innocent belief that there would he no political parties, simply provided that the man who got a majority of the electoral votes would become President and that the runner-up would become Vice President—which, in practice, quickly meant that President and Vice President were virtually certain to be members of opposite parties.
In 1803 Congress felt obliged to submit to the states the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, which did away with the original one-two system and called on the electors to vote, specifically, for a President and then for a Vice President. The amendment was ratified a year later and things improved: but there still was no machinery by which a candidate could be placed in nomination.
For this purpose, the congressional members of the two parties for a time formed caucuses and made designations. The number of Federalists in Congress, however, was so small as to be negligible, and in 1808 and 1812 the party held two nominating conventions of a rather embryonic sort. The Federalist party itself, however, was rapidly passing out of the picture, and after the War of 1812 it ceased to be a factor.
In reaching out for the device of a convention, the early politicians had Anglo-American tradition to guide them. In the confused situation in England following the retirement in 1859 of Richard Cromwell, son of the great Oliver, as lord protector of England, it had been necessary to set up a new Parliament to establish Charles II on the throne. Since a regular Parliament could not be summoned without the issuance of a writ by the king, and since there was no king to issue such a writ, the authorities called for the election of a “convention” parliament—by definition, merely a “coming together” of citizens. The same device was used later—at the climax of the Glorious Revolution of 1688—and a convention came to be recognized as a convenient political device to do things that were not constitutionally provided for.
During the period of the American Revolution, the convention was a handy mechanism for colonists groping their way toward independence: it was used so often, indeed, from 1783 to 1789 that the United States may be said to have been born in convention. And although there is little obvious resemblance between the grave assemblages of patriots in buckled shoes and knee breeches which came together in those days and the crowded hotels and convention halls full of political leaders, followers, and hangers-on which make up modern nominating conventions, the line of descent is clear. When unforeseen difficulties in connection with choosing American Presidents arose, the convention was a logical, time-tested bit of apparatus ready for use.