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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
These difficulties became especially pressing by the 1820’s. New generations were coming up in politics. The nation had grown; not only had it doubled in size, through the Louisiana Purchase, but its population was constantly increasing, and it was spread out over a wide territory. There were more voters to be appealed to and convinced, and a much greater variety of localities and special interests to be taken into consideration.
As the election of 1824 approached it was clear that—as far as national politics was concerned—the rudimentary two-party system which had functioned earlier in the century had disappeared. There were plenty of men who wanted to run for the presidency. The younger generation, in particular, in various parts of the country was producing candidates: but the problem of winning a majority of electoral votes for any one of them was baffling. The Republicans in Congress had tried the old maneuver of caucusing to name a candidate, but their efforts had been disregarded. In Virginia and in Pennsylvania there were calls for a general national convention to make nominations, but nothing came of them.
In the separate states, to be sure, there were legislative caucuses or conventions to advance the names of favorite sons—most notably John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay. and Andrew Jackson. Supporters of these men in the various states would assemble to choose states of electors pledged to vote for the favored candidate, and from the states thus chosen the voters chose state delegations to the electoral college. But when the electors finally cast their ballots it developed that none of the candidates had won the required majority. Under the Constitution it was thus necessary for the House of Representatives to choose a President. The House named John Quincy Adams, passing over Jackson, who was probably the popular choice.
Because Jackson did have so much popular backing, it was obvious that in 1828 the contest would be between him and Adams. The legislature of Tennessee put Jackson in nomination not long after Adams was inaugurated. Legislatures and mass meetings of a different frame of mind, in other states, countered by proposing Adams. By such haphazard and varied procedures, Jackson and Adams came to oppose each other in 1828. But it was clear that a complete overhaul of this impromptu and somewhat helter-skelter system was badly needed, and it was undertaken as the election of 1832 approached.
The area within which politics was operating had greatly broadened. Manhood suffrage and the rapid growth of the population had so enlarged the number of voters that it was necessary for a political party to have a much better organization, participated in by all sections of the country. Bit by bit, such organizations came into being; among them the short-lived Anti-Masonic party.
One of the riddles of American political history is the extent to which the Masonic lodges played a significant part in the early days of our government’s operation. They must have had a good deal of importance, or the Anti-Masonic party would never have appeared. It had obscure beginnings in northern New York—sparked, originally, by a scandal arising from the mysterious disappearance of a character who had set out to expose the secrets of Masonry—and it quickly broadened its scope and became a stout champion of internal improvements and the protective tariff, gathering into its ranks a considerable number of ambitious and unattached politicians and the usual quota of restless amateurs.
It was emerging, in 1832, as a more or less national party. But it could not put forth a candidate and a platform through the old device of a party caucus in Washington, because there were no Anti-Masonic members of Congress. Accordingly, an organizing convention had been planned and held in 1830, and a second convention later on nominated William Wirt for the presidency.
This was not the only new party on the horizon. The main body of the opponents of Andrew Jackson was in the field as well. These men realized that he was extraordinarily popular with the voters, and that beating him would be a hard job demanding a national organization: consequently, they steered away from the congressional caucus as being too limited in scope and appeal, and—encouraged, probably, by the benevolent interest of the United States Bank—they organized a convention in Baltimore, on December 12, 1831, which included representatives from seventeen states. This convention formally organized the National Republican party and nominated Henry Clay for President.
With all of this going on, Jackson’s own party—now usually known as the Democrats—likewise found itself in a position where a national convention would be useful. Jackson had a party revolt to deal with, and his managers wanted to meet with the state organizations and line the party up against John C. Calhoun, the southern radical. They did this, finally, so successfully that they continued to control the party in 1836 and 1840, when the assembled delegates dutifully endorsed Martin Van Buren as Jackson’s political heir.