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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 managers got their control by putting through the subsequently famous two-thirds rule--the rule that a candidate could be nominated only by a two-thirds vote rather than by a simple majority. They went for this rule because politics in the 1830’s was just as involved and had just as many angles as it has today.
Specifically, the Democrats could rarely carry the Old Federalist phalanx of New England states plus Maryland and Delaware, but those states were represented in the convention; their strength was less than a third of the total number of delegates, but if they should combine with an independent faction—the Calhounites, for instance—they might well be able, under a simple majority rule, to nominate a candidate whom the Jacksonians did not want. The two-thirds rule would remove any such possibility.
Actually, the convention system as the Democrats first operated it was less a device to pick a candidate than a means to perfect the party organization. But with the opposition the case was different. They not only had to build an organization; they also had to find some candidate who would have a chance to destroy the Andrew Jackson hero myth. The Democratic victory in 1832 was a crusher, and the opposition did not rally in 1836; not until after the panic of 1837 had created a different political atmosphere was the time ripe for another try at setting up a national organization.
During the interim, various anti-Jackson parties in a number of states had come into being under the magic name of Whig—the name hallowed during the Revolution as symbol of patriotic resistance to tyranny. In 1839 these state organizations arranged a national convention to prepare for 1840. When the convention met—bringing together various incongruous elements, united only by their opposition to Jacksonianism—the delegates conferred, schemed, and bargained, and came up at last with a military hero whom the Whigs could balance against the shade of Old Hickory—General William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe. The Whigs did not bother to present a platform, and Harrison did no campaigning to speak of; the log cabin, the keg of hard cider, and the glib slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” touched some sort of popular chord; the Whigs elected a President, and the Democrats retired to their tents.
Thus, by 1840, two-party operation had at last been completed, and the convention system of making nominations had become firmly established. From that time down to the present day the national convention has been the accepted mechanism of selecting and presenting a party’s candidate.
This has had unexpected consequences. The conventions, by and large, have been attended and dominated by professional politicians—the men who operate the political machinery, which over the years has become more and more complex. The conventions, as a result, are usually preoccupied with the interest of the operators. Control of the machinery has often been of more concern than the problems of government.
For the professional politician’s first concern is to perfect his organization, to operate it successfully, and to see to it that the men nominated are in sympathy with the party’s methods of operation. Automatically, this has tended to remove political conventions from the most acute responsiveness to public opinion. It is the politicians’ opinion that is apt to count most.
Some of the results of this type of operation may be seen by an examination of the nominees. The first seven Presidents of the United States were of the statesmen’s school. Washington and Jackson were natural leaders, men of heroic achievement. The two Adamses, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were men of dignity chosen for their part in the statesmanship of the building of the new republic. But there that strain ended, in large part not so much because of the coming of the convention system as because the initial task was done. The nation was well established abroad and also, it appeared, at home. Statesmen no longer seemed so necessary.
With the coming of the convention came a new type of candidate. The first to profit by it was a man of different stature, Martin Van Buren, who had organized a political machine in New York State and was now building one on a national scale. Then followed—for the Democrats—James K. Polk, Lewis Cass, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. These represented men who lived by politics, who aroused no sense of contrast in the minds of those who chose them. They were of the political crowd.
Their opponents, with only one backward deviation to statemanship in the choice of Clay in 1844, used another technique, the technique of those out of power, those uncertain of their fortunes. Instinctively or otherwise they realized they could not elect any of their own—they must choose someone with glamour, a glamour undimmed by any political activity. So the candidates they nominated were all military—William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, and John C. Frémont.