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It Happens Every Four Years

May 2024
15min read

The political convention was devised to meet an unforeseen need, and now and then it has an unexpected result

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.

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.

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.

While these nominees were fighting it out each succeeding leap year, a dangerous sectionalism was developing which in the end was almost to destroy the republic. As this crisis came to a climax in 1860, it finally appeared that the nominating convention, instead of being a convenient mechanism to unify and promote harmony, might be an instrument of confusion and danger.

Since the beginning of the republic, political leadership had been largely southern. That stable, slow-growing section kept its representatives longer in power and gave them seniority. But this leadership was conservative and it refused the legislation to aid internal development which northern interests wanted. The resulting feeling of frustration was bound to make an outburst inevitable. When the voting superiority of the faster growing North had been achieved by the great increase in population, the ambitious, the resourceful, and the discontented joined to form the new Republican party in 1856 on a northern platform of free soil and subsidy, and they nearly won the election.

This immediately cut the ground out from under the accustomed type of “national” political campaign, which had been devoted largely to shadow-boxing--professional politician running against unsullied military hero. The new Republicans, operating with a frankly anti-southern platform, were within a few electoral votes of victory, and the Democrats were in an exceedingly difficult position.

The Democratic problem now was how to adjust to this new attack. How could they develop a candidate, a platform, and a campaign which would keep them and their southern leadership in power? They felt themselves to be a national party, but they were really southern in their policy and their motivation; they refused to approve the development programs demanded by growing northern interests—protective tariffs, railroad subsidies, land distribution and the like. Some sort of adjustment obviously was called for if the party was to win in 1860; but specifically what should it be, and how should it be brought about?

This was the key question which the 1860 convention of the Democratic party was called upon to answer. What would the nature of the Democratic adjustment be? Would the party bring forward some aggressive leader with a program which could actively compete for northern votes, or would it merely choose a neutral candidate and take a position of defending the rights of the South and appealing to the northern sense of fair play?

Dominant southern leadership was demanding the latter tactic; and no political convention before this one ever faced such a dilemma. Fate seemed determined to make the solution of this problem even more difficult than it would normally have been.

Previously, conventions had always been held in what was more or less neutral territory—usually in Baltimore, which was of easy access to all shades of political opinion and which was not too much dominated by any single group or faction. But in 1860, by some strange chance, the Democrats were to meet in Charleston, South Carolina, than which there was no community more wholly and more uncompromisingly southern.

In Charleston the gallery and “society” itself were southern to the core—and militantly so. Also, although the convention was to be held in April, the weather was unbearably hot. Hotel accommodations were both scarce and expensive. The hall in which the convention was held was inconvenient and very noisy, so that debate was carried on with extreme difficulty. Every circumstance seemed to conspire to make the position of delegates from the northern free states most disadvantageous.

These northern Democrats were laboring against heavy psychological odds. Their party was in grave danger. The advance of the Republicans had already cost the Democrats most of the northern free states in the local elections, and the Democratic delegates from these states were desperate. They argued that the southern wing of the party was reasonably safe in the slave labor states; therefore (they said) every effort ought to be made to enable the northern wing to regain enough lost ground to win the coming election. They demanded the nomination of their most dynamic vote-getter, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

Douglas was a realist who had adopted the simple principle that the existence of slavery depended ultimately on local tolerance of the institution. He applied this idea to the new communities developing in the West. He was prepared to make a vigorous campaign on this democratic principle of local self-government. His followers in the northern wing of the Democratic party believed almost fanatically that he was the only Democratic nominee who could hope to win the election.

The southern leaders of the party had no candidate, but they did have a platform and they insisted that it must be adopted. Bluntly, they demanded federal protection of their property rights—i.e., of slavery—in the developing territories of the West. Today this concept looks unrealistic, because it is now impossible to see how the federal government could have forced a hostile frontier community to accept slavery. But the southern leaders in that romantic age had little sense of realism. They were faced with the loss of power which they feared might mean the destruction of their social system through some statutory effort to free their slaves. They also had a strong sense of their rights, and under the prevailing code felt themselves honor bound to demand their protection and to rally to their defense. Finally, they feared that their opponents at home would seize any chance to make capital out of a charge that they were yielding to northern demands.


The key to the situation was the fact of the two-thirds rule, that unique characteristic of the Democratic procedure. Douglas had a majority of the convention but lacked the two-thirds. The southerners, led by a group of senators, conscious of their apparent veto power, hoped to block Douglas and then to negotiate for some more neutral candidate.

The Douglas managers decided on bold tactics. As they had a majority, they would reject the southern platform and force through their own. If this angered certain of the hotheaded southern delegates to the point of causing them to leave the convention, well and good. It would be easier for Douglas to get two-thirds of those that remained. So they jammed through their platform.

Certain delegations from the lower South would not take this program and marched out, hoping to show Douglas’ followers their determination not to accept him and thus make negotiation necessary to reunite the party. It would not appear that many at this point really wanted the party to be destroyed. But the Douglas men would not negotiate. At length, after a six weeks’ recess failed to change the situation, a majority of the Democratic convention nominated Douglas and a minority put up a ticket led by Vice President John C. Breckinridge.

The breakup of the party did not disturb the southern leadership too much because some of them felt that the multiplicity of candidates would work to their advantage. As the old Whigs had come up with a Constitutional Union ticket, there were now four parties in the field, including the Republican and the two Democratic slates. This, it was argued, would mean that no one could secure a majority of the electors and that the election would thus be thrown into Congress. The House was so confused by faction that no one was expected to command a majority. The Senate, however, was safely southern and would not choose, as Vice President, a Republican who might succeed to the Presidency.

Thus a man sympathetic to the South would enter the White House. Why worry about the split? The chances of Republican success seemed remote.

This disruption seems in no small part due to the peculiar character which the national political convention had acquired. Its members, led by experienced veteran political operators, were primarily concerned with the problems of operation—who was to run what and with what. They were preoccupied with the problem of party control as well as party victory. They seemed to have little concern about the effect of their actions on the welfare of the nation.

Thus the new Republican party profited by this split in the ruling party and won the election. This victory set in motion a succession of political activities which resulted in secession and war. Speculation will never cease as to whether conflict could have been avoided had the Charleston convention been able to conclude its usual business in customary fashion. The failure of the convention had results far-reaching and calamitous. It was as though an important balance wheel in a complex machine had flown off its shaft. Fortunately, this calamity has never been repeated.

The conclusion of hostilities gave the new Republican party a hold on the presidency that was only relaxed twice in the remainder of the Nineteenth Century. During those decades, the conventions were very strictly in the hands of professional operators and the candidates continued to be drawn from the ranks of soldiers or fellow professionals. Grant and Hancock were soldiers; Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley were both soldiers and politicians; Seymour, Tilden, Cleveland, and Bryan were experienced office-holders and political operators. Only the latter—and the one exception during the period, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune --struck any strange notes in the symphony.

The Twentieth Century, however, introduced convention activities which were foreshadowed by the nomination of Bryan by the Democrats in 1896. There was to be a new struggle for power. Broadly speaking, it was the struggle of a new innovating generation fighting the “Old Guard.” It was the West against the entrenched East, and in the Democratic party the Solid South battling or being fought by the rest of the party.

Only twice, though, has this struggle taken on any resemblance to that in 1860. In 1912 the “Insurgent” opponents of the Old Guard in the Republican convention were defeated in their attempt to control it and to nominate Theodore Roosevelt for a third term. They walked out, charging defeat by fraud. Their secession was followed by the nomination of Taft by the Regulars and Roosevelt by the Seceders, which in turn opened the White House doors to Woodrow Wilson.

No other spectacular development occurred until 1948. Here the conservative elements concentrated in the South, rather than accept Harry S. Truman as the standard bearer of the Democrats, walked out, in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of 1860. Some of the marchers indeed were bearing Confederate flags. But despite the fact that they nominated a candidate, and that a fourth party under former Vice President Henry A. Wallace appeared, more radical than Truman, the latter was re-elected.

The political convention, obviously, is an occasionally unpredictable instrument. It has been an established feature of American life for well over a century now, and very often it is geared to the desires of the politicians rather than to the necessities of the general public. Occasionally, as in 1860, political wisdom and leadership are lacking in it, with deplorable results. Most of the time it works fairly smoothly. In any case, it is the machinery by which the Constitutional electoral setup is enabled to work.



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