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A Constitutional History of the United States
Chapter XXXI - The Party System and Party Machinery. The Death of King Caucus
by McLaughlin, Andrew C.


At the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century the American people were in certain respects a very different people from what they were forty years before. They had become democratic; the nation was a democratic nation. The word "democracy" has too many connotations to be used lightly; but plainly, as shown by the changes in the state constitutions, the people-at-large were entitled to take a much larger share than were the men of the earlier generation in the management of their own political affairs. Self-confidence in the wisdom and capacity of the common run of men was manifest — especially of course in the west — , and we may remind ourselves again that a democracy distrusting itself is not a democracy justifying the trust of others, if indeed it be a democracy at all. If the individualism of Jeffersonian democracy was not plainly manifest in all respects, the average person had nevertheless no difficulty in assuming his own worth and preparing to act upon it. To maintain and manage democratic institutional forms, a nation must be democratic-minded; forms are not of so very much consequence in and of themselves; the development, therefore, of this spirit and sense of popular power and of popular competence is of more real significance even for the constitutional historian than are the formalities of the law — of more real significance because the most important constitutional question in the history of a free, self-governing nation is whether it can be really free, actually self-governing, capable of living.

This spirit of self-confidence was sufficiently present by 1824 to resent the prevailing system of nominating candidates for public office. In a number of the states, the method of the earlier days had already been abandoned; the representative convention — or a convention ostensibly representative — had taken the place of the legislative caucus for the selection of leading state officials. This change means simply that the people were not content with voting for candidates selected by an inner circle of politicians and chiefly office-holders. In 1824, the dissatisfaction was extended to national politics. This leads us to an examination of the party system as it had developed up to that time. And we are also called upon to examine for a moment the character of the party as an instrument of government. This cannot be done without a general description of the party system as it has developed during the last century and more; and we may, therefore, well begin with commenting briefly on the nature and effect of this institution which has played such an important role in American political life.

The political party is essentially an instrument of government. It is one of the methods whereby men in the popular state manage their political affairs; it is an institution through which they seek to control the formal, legal government and to direct the workings of the constitutional system. We might even call it a constitutional institution, if we look at the Constitution not as a formal document but as the combination of institutional forms, practices, and principles which constitute the structure and the actual political activities of the state. The very fact that the people are divided into two great armies, each with its officers, history, traditions, esprit de corps, character, treasure, and power, is in itself of significance. In any study of the party, we should see that the important thing is not its principles, but the fact that it exists at all and that it is used as a means of conducting public affairs, of doing — or failing to do — the tremendously difficult job of carrying on popular government. The political party, as we now see it, is an essentially modern thing; and in some ways we obscure its character if we use the word "party" indiscriminately to describe old-time factions, hostile groups, or social cliques which had their many exits and entrances in the long drama of history before the rise of the modern popular state. Certainly what we now call a "party" was begotten by the duties and the opportunities of democracy; it came into being as the result of an attempt to actualize popular government.

In America, the party has for the historian particular interest because the constitutional system, at the beginning at least, appeared peculiarly ill-adapted to the party system. The clashing factions of the Revolutionary period and of the years immediately following bore some resemblance, it is true, to the modern party; but when the Constitutional Convention met, the fathers had no knowledge of parties as we now know them; a party appeared to be a quarreling faction, endangering the stability of the government. They had little or no conception of a party as a means whereby issues could be discussed, the people could decide on questions of policy, men could be chosen for office according to popular desire, and unity in governmental plans and procedure could in a measure be secured. And thus, when the Constitution was signed and adopted and the document was safely locked away, there remained still unprovided for the two supreme jobs of democracy — the placing in office of the men whom the people wish to have in office and the transferring of the people's desires into legislation and administration. Representation and elections were, it is true, recognized and provided for in general terms; but, as we now know, these are not enough if the people are to have institutional forms and practices for actually carrying on popular government.

And so, after the new government was established, parties arose and assumed the new duties and responsibilities of making democracy real. This does not mean that men were quite conscious of the significance of what they were doing; but it can hardly be denied that the party as an institution took upon itself the two duties already referred to; the extent to which it performed those duties and the extent to which it proved unfaithful are a long and wearying story, an important, indeed the central, theme in the confusing and distracting history of a nation which has prided itself on being democratic but has often questioned whether its democracy was real or pretended. Certain it is, when once parties and the government of parties were established and operative, the job of the people, desiring to be their own governors, was to control this new institution which, like all living institutions, sought to develop and strengthen its own life; the job within each party, if men could only see it, was the job of making the government of the party — the machine — subject to the will of the party as a whole. Thus in the course of the passing decades emerged the new task — to control the government that would control the government, actually to use the party and the government of the party as means of putting into office men whom the people wish to put into office and as means of insuring reality to the popular state.

It is often difficult to distinguish cause from effect. One may hesitate to say whether essential national unity, that is to say, a degree of harmony on fundamental matters and a nation-wide readiness to co÷perate, made the party or the party made the nation. Certainly the party organization gave expression to common interests and created ties holding together men of various sections; it held them by a loyalty to a national, not to a sectional interest; it made for co÷peration; it tended to subject local interests to a wider and more comprehensive system. In the course of time, party loyalty appeared to be stronger than any other influence in the actual maintenance of the union; the time came when the dissolution of the Democratic party implied the dissolution of the union itself. Even on the slavery question, for more than a decade before the Civil War, opinions and irritations were held in check by the unceasing pressure of party. Thus as a general rule — for we can and must admit exceptions — , the party has reacted against sectionalism and has aided the process of adjustment or compromise which must always be conspicuous in the tasks of a people occupying half a continent.

Did democracy make the party or did the party make democracy? Democracy, unless we insist on mere individualism, connotes solidarity; a people divided into cliques and factions, separated into groups, each sharking for its own booty, each unconscious of community of interest, each unwilling to yield its own pet opinions, cannot function as a democracy. Willingness to work and act together for a common end is the heart and center of the democratic spirit, and without the spirit the body has no life. If you answer to this that there were two parties and they were often at daggers drawn, nevertheless it must be admitted that each held its own adherents; and moreover, whenever a party seeks popular support and wishes to place its own men in office, it reaches out after the "vote"; it must accommodate its action and propensities to a fairly general desire or inclination. Seldom, if ever, has a party openly and in its own consciousness, sought to banish public good and attain only selfish ends; such a tendency is characteristic of a faction rather than of a party. Furthermore, the eagerness to win and the struggle for votes make ostensible class-selfishness a practical menace to party success and reasonable longevity.

If these reflections appear to be fanciful, the reader will surely confess that party machinery has furnished means for popular action. If we have outgrown all this, if the whole system of committees and leaders and managers and all the intricate mechanism appear now antiquated and more than humanly vulgar, the historian nevertheless finds in the earlier days the development of a system which helped to make the people articulate. If in reality the directive force was at the top, if it did not spring from the people-at-large, if orders, though carefully concealed, went out from a centralized bureau of astute politicians, yet on the whole, without mechanism, nothing would have been left but confusion or at least nothing but incoherence. And if this statement meets with objection because it has lost its force in these days of the radio, and the telegraph, and a public press hungry for readers, it stands true of the earlier days when the party mechanism linked the people together and gave them a method of expressing an opinion which they thought was their own.

No one can discuss the party without falling into contradictions or paradoxes; no one can doubt, for instance, that the mechanism of the party and the passions of party loyalty have often distorted public purposes or at least inhibited popular desires; and furthermore, great changes in legislation and even in the written Constitution itself have come about, not through the agitation of parties or the use of party machinery, but by the development of popular sentiment created and expressed in the countless ways familiar to us whereby sentiment and purpose are impressed on the public mind.[1]

The party has made inroads upon the very structure of federalism. In principle, a federal state is characterized by the distribution of powers among governments. But the unremitting influence of national parties has tended to obscure the states and to rob them of their significance. State issues have been subordinated to the needs of national parties. Governors and legislators and road commissioners have been chosen, not because of their attitude toward state problems, but because of their affiliation with the national party. Nationalism in the very real sense has been created by the development of communication, by the actual interdependence of states and sections. But we cannot disregard the integrating effect of the party system which has been national, not federal; the incongruity of national organizations' managing or trying to manage a federal state is evident. Moreover, all the elaborate system of checks and balances so dear to the heart of John Adams has been affected though not destroyed by the party system; for the party is not troubled by self-imposed inhibitions set up for the express purpose of preventing effective action.

The choosing of men for office is the most important activity of the popular state. If the people, through majority decision, can place in office the men they want in office, they have in one main respect succeeded in the task of democracy. If they cannot, "popular government" is a misnomer. All the methods, therefore, used for the selection of candidates and for choosing between them are of prime significance in the history of a people who would be, and thought they were, self-governing. And this leads us to see the importance in the would-be popular state of the methods and the mechanism of election. But the most difficult and perplexing problem has been that of finding methods of nominating rather than of electing. In the very early days, state officers of higher rank were nominated by caucuses of the party men in the state legislatures. For the presidential election there was no formal method of nomination, but by 1800 processes were beginning to appear. In that year the Republicans held two caucuses made up of party adherents in Congress; one selected Jefferson as candidate for the presidency and the other added the name of Burr.[2] In the same year, the Federalists followed the caucus method of nomination for the first and last time. For the next twenty-four years the party caucus at Washington exercised the privilege and the responsibility of naming the Republican candidates.[3] The system, as we have already said, had been disappearing in the states; a representative convention took its place and before 1824 it was a fairly well-recognized method of nominating state officers. The change was due in part doubtless to the improvement of roads, which made it easier for delegates to come together; it was due also to the development of the party and to the growing sense of power in the common people. The time was passing when the voter, if interested in politics at all, was willing to acquiesce in the decisions of a group of legislators at the state capital.[4] By 1824 men were prepared to ask, why should congressmen in solemn conclave choose the person to be voted for by the people? Were not the people capable of nominating the candidate for the presidency as well as casting their final ballots? Did they need somebody to guide their faltering steps?

Had there been two or more competing parties in 1824, the old practice might have continued untouched for a time. In that year, however, there were many favorites, all Republicans; if the nominee of the congressional caucus were to be accepted, and if he were to be considered the regular candidate for the presidency, nomination was equivalent to election. William H. Crawford was named by the congressional caucus, and the friends of Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams, were not inclined mildly to acquiesce. The battle was on; "king caucus" no longer held the scepter. Tennessee had already through her legislature named Jackson, and in due course the other aspirants for the presidency were formally or informally listed and their claims defended.

No one of these men received the majority of electoral votes. Jackson received ninety-nine votes, Adams, eighty-four, Crawford, forty-one, and Clay, thirty-seven. The election devolved upon the House, the choice to be made "from the persons having the highest numbers, not exceeding three, on the list of those voted for as President...."[5] The House voting by states elected Adams. At that time, in six of the states the legislature appointed the electors, and therefore it is practically impossible to get anything like a definite idea of the desires of the people-at-large. No one can say, or could have said, with certainty what the result would have been, had Adams and Jackson been the only candidates. Of course the action of the House was entirely constitutional. The Constitution-makers of 1787 had no intention of giving the main body of voters the right of choice; and if the electors did not give a majority of their votes to any one man, the right to choose was left to the untrammeled decision of the House.

The heavens rang with declamation against this desecration of what Benton called the "Demos Krateo" spirit; the will of the people had been violated; the fundamentals of popular rule had been profaned. The old activities of "king caucus" had been attacked and scorned, but here, forsooth, the House had elected the President and acted with unbecoming independence! Adams's presidency was sure to be strewn with difficulties. There was a widespread determination to give the voice of the "people" its full effect. Here, then, is a fact of profound importance: the "people" have appeared upon the scene; they are (or think they are) the real rulers. It is impossible to put down in words the exact significance of the word "people" as it came to be used and as we still use it. Certainly we should err, if we intimated that before the second quarter of the century the wishes of the people-at-large had not been considered; but certainly also there had been a rise of self-consciousness in the masses of men, a growing belief in their own capacity; there was a very real though intangible power, the will of the people — not the will to be expressed by ballots alone, but nevertheless real and always to be obeyed. And this marks, not so much in technical law as in deeper reality, the fuller emergence of the popular state. Democracy, though still subject to the freaks and follies of adolescence, was coming of age.

In 1828, the names of Jackson and Adams were put forward in various ways, but for the next presidential election the representative convention was used for nominations.[6] This gathering, taken in connection with the disappearance of "king caucus", must be looked upon as an effort in the main body of the voters to select their own candidates, an effort to reach out and to control the mechanism of selection. The presidential convention has lasted until the present day, modified in some degree by the use of the presidential preference primary which was established in some of the states early in the twentieth century. It still stands, though the states have commonly established, for the nomination of candidates for state and local office, the direct primary, the product of a popular revolt against the corruption or the inadequacy of the convention system.

But it is needless to tell the reader that the dethronement of "king caucus" did not mean that the people had actually succeeded in wresting the power from the party operatives; they had not succeeded in reaching the throne themselves. Popular government is not so easily obtained, or, if obtained in a momentary fit of enthusiasm, it is not easily made permanent and secure. Under the worst conditions, the convention was held safely within the hands of the machine; it was not infrequently manipulated by political traders and those ready to indulge in corruption; at its best, the whole system was managed by the professional politician, who, however skillful and unvenal, was not the pliant servant of his constituents. And there, as a living thing, stood the party, holding men by ties of tradition and loyalty; it held within its ranks thousands and, in later years, millions of men; it was by its inner instincts prompted to perpetuate and strengthen itself. Constitutional problems and even sectional interests must not be allowed to endanger party stability or to sap its vigor. Is it necessary to say again that if the people cannot place in office men of their own choice, they are not living in a democracy?


[1] I have in mind all the amendments to the Constitution that have been added since 1870. I mean also the mass of national and state legislation, some of which is of immense consequence, such as workingmen's compensation acts and a vast amount of welfare legislation.

[2] Whether Burr was proposed distinctly as candidate for the vice-presidency is not entirely plain. It is said that Burr insisted on receiving equal support with Jefferson. But the fact, if it be a fact, is not of supreme importance in this connection.

[3] It appears that in 1820 the caucus was called but found it unnecessary to make a choice. See J. B. McMaster, A History of the People of the United States, IV, pp. 515-516.

[4] One writer has wisely said: "The nominating convention is an incident in the effort of the masses to pull down authority from the top and place it on the ground — an instrument by which they try to get vital control of the business of governing." Carl Becker, "Nominations in Colonial New York," Am. Hist. Rev., VI, pp. 270-271. This article deals with revolutionary activities and methods and treats of tendencies which I have had to ignore in the condensed treatment of the text. But it is well to notice Professor Becker's clear statement of the connection between the rise of democracy and "the transition from absolutist or autocratic methods of nomination to democratic methods."

[5] Constitution, amendment XII.

[6] The Anti-Mason party held a nominating convention in 1831.

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