In 1831-1832, a political innovation developed – a string of national conventions took place, democratizing the presidential nomination process.
By 1831, the tide of democracy in America was rising. State by state, property restrictions in voting were relaxed, allowing more white males to participate in politics. Also, the method of choosing a presidential nominee was changing. The congressional caucus, where a party or faction of politicians in Washington selected a candidate, sank in the democratic surge. What emerged was the national convention, where locally chosen delegates from across the nation gather to nominate a president and more.
The Anti-Masonic party have the distinction of holding the first national convention to nominate a president. This moralistic and populistic party was fueled by a disdain for freemasonry, which they believed was elitist and corruptive. Similarly, the Anti-Masons saw the National Republican party as “priviledged aristocrats” according to historian Michael Holt. The Democrats were also on the Anti-Mason’s bad side when, in the Senate, they blocked a petition demanding a halt to Sunday mail service.
After former Postmaster General John McLean turned down the presidential nomination offered by Anti-Masonic leaders, the party organized a national convention modeled on the conventions of benevolent and reform associations of the time. Meeting in Baltimore in late September 1831, 112 Anti-Mason delegates nominated William Wirt, after considering John Quincy Adams, for president, and Amos Ellmaker for vice president.
They also hammered out the first convention platform. One of the nineteen resolves approved was: “That the existence of secret and affiliated societies is hostile to one of the principal defences of liberty – free discussion – and can subserve no purpose of utility in a free government.” Overall, Historian Daniel Walker Howe states that the convention gave the Anti-Masons publicity and legitimacy.
If the Anti-Masons distrusted the elite, the National Republicans believed that educated gentlemen of proven ability and experience should govern. Despite their differences, National Republicans hoped that the Anti-Masons would eventually support them against their common enemy, President Andrew Jackson. National Republican leader Henry Clay judged that his party was stronger than the Anti-Masons and that “upon the laws of gravitation, we ought to draw them to us, instead of being drawn to them.”
Imitation may have been the sincerest form of flattery as the National Republicans took a cue from the Anti-Masons and held their own convention three months later in Baltimore on December 12. The 150 or so delegates unanimously nominated Clay for president. They also nominated John Sergeant, a lawyer for the Cherokee Nation, for vice president to attract the Anti-Masonic vote- both parties objected to President Jackson’s Indian Removal policy.
Also at this convention, the National Republicans issued a “statement of purpose” – it was a long diatribe against Jackson and his “deficiencies” of character and policy. Another convention, consisting of “young men of the republican party” was held on May 11, 1832 to expand on the party’s principles. It passed resolutions favoring protective tariffs and internal improvements, and against rotation in office (the spoils system).
Democratic Republicans (Democrats)
Four months before the Anti-Masonic convention, Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet” members William Lewis, Amos Kendall, and Isaac Hill were already maneuvering to get the New Hampshire legislature to call for a Democratic Republican national convention to choose a vice president for Jackson. After the call was made, the Washington Globe considered it “the best plan which can be adopted to produce entire unanimity in the Republican party.”
A year later, over 300 delegates gathered in Baltimore on May 21-23, 1832. First, two voting procedures for vice president were passed that would become a staple at Democratic conventions for a century. A two-thirds majority was needed for the nomination, and each states’ delegation would vote as a unit for one candidate- the unit rule. These rules were designed to show unanimity for Jackson’s preferred candidate, Martin Van Buren. The vote went as follows:
- Martin Van Buren, NY, 208 (73.5%)
- Philip Barbour, VA, 49
- Richard M. Johnson, KY, 26
In June, Barbour’s supporters held their own convention in Staunton, VA and nominated Barbour for vice president. Barbour later withdrew, but Jackson-Barbour ballots still appeared in some southern states. So it wasn’t quite unanimous for Van Buren.
In lieu of a party platform, the May convention resolved that each states’ delegation should prepare an address or report for its constituents. For example, the New York delegates’ address looked to history and favorably compared Jackson to Thomas Jefferson and his strict constructionist constitutional principles. They also refuted the opposition’s objections to Jackson’s Maysville Road veto, Indian Removal policy, removals from office, and stance against the Bank of the United States.
Besides the reelection of Andrew Jackson, a result of the 1832 presidential election was the development of the national convention in selecting a presidential ticket for a political party. It was an immediate hit, in that it could bring positive publicity, reasonable unity, and clarity of principles to a party.
- Chicago Daily News Company, Chicago Daily News Almanac and Yearbook, 1893.
- Democratic National Convention, Summary of the Proceedings of a Convention of Republican Delegates…, Packard and Van Benthuysen, 1832.
- Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T., Henry Clay: The Essential American, New York: Random House, 2010.
- Holt, Michael F., The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War, New York: Oxford Press, 1999.
- Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford: Oxford Press, 2007.
- Parton, James, Life of Andrew Jackson, Kessinger Publishing, 2006 (first published in 1860).
- RCCHonorsHistoryProject.Wordpress.com, Anti-Masonic Party Platform (1831), posted November 24, 2009.
- Wilentz, Sean, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, New York: Norton, 2005.