Sunday, July 6, 2008

Party Like It's 1832!

Is this the last of my "party" puns? Who knows? Maybe.

The Democratic Party first held a national convention to nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates on May 21-23, 1832, in Baltimore. They nominated Andrew Jackson for a second term as president, and Martin Van Buren for vice president.

Two other parties, the National Republicans, a precursor of the Whigs, and the Anti-Masonic Party, also held conventions to nominate candidates for 1832. Those conventions preceded the Democrats', and were held during 1831.

Given that presidents had been elected under the Constitution since 1789, and those elections had been competitive partisan elections since 1796, an obvious question arises: how did the parties nominate their candidates before the 1832 election, without holding national conventions?

For the first few competitive presidential elections, candidates were nominated by caucuses among the parties' members of Congress. This system had broken down by the 1820s. As with so much of the early machinery of constitutional government, the caucus system was vulnerable to charges of elitism, especially as the country grew, and expanded westward, in the 19th century. Increasing involvement by state legislators, and by party committees at the state level, developed into the system that has continued, albeit in substantially altered form, to the present day, whereby the state parties select delegates to attend national party conventions.

One aspect of nomination by conventions is that a plurality of the delegate votes is insufficient to win a nomination. If, when the convention takes a ballot, no candidate receives a majority, the delegates continue balloting until a majority is achieved. Not only that but, in the Democratic Party from its first convention in 1832 through its convention of 1932, a two-thirds majority was necessary. Later on, I will discuss the effect of that rule on the length of certain Democratic conventions.

The parties then settled into a routine of holding conventions every four years. By 1860, the modern Republican Party had entered into the practice. But its rival party had a more complicated year in 1860.

The Democrats convened at Charleston, South Carolina on April 23, 1860. While northern Democrats were not in line with Republicans on the issue of slavery, they could not reach agreement with southern Democrats on either a platform or a candidate, due to disagreements over slavery. (A platform is a written statement of a party's position on issues, adopted by majority vote of the party's convention.) The Democrats reconvened in Baltimore on June 18, but ended up nominating two separate candidates at two separate meetings in that city. John Breckenridge of Kentucky was the candidate of the southern wing. Stephen Douglas of Illinois was nominated by the main convention, dominated by northern Democrats. John Bell was also on the general election ballot as candidate of the Constitutional Union Party, which was centered around southern Whigs who had not joined either of the two main remaining parties after the Whig Party broke up during the 1850s. Against such split opposition, the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won a landslide victory, and the rest (and this cliche is perhaps rarely as appropriate as here) is history.

The normal routine of party conventions resumed after the Civil War. There were many long battles over nominations, especially among Democrats, who retained their two-thirds rule. I plan to write more about that in some follow-up posts later this week.

Image: Library of Congress

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