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Editor's Note: The attached essay on the historical background to the Congressional Caucus is by Thomas Coens, a senior history major at Yale University. I asked him to prepare it for the Nominating Seminar after reading his excellent senior essay on the presidential election of 1824. I think it addresses quite authoritatively many of the issues we have been discussing recently. References are gathered at the end of the essay; they have not yet been hyperlinked to each other. --Robert P. Forbes, H-Pol Coeditor
The caucus system describes an instrument of political management in which members of a legislative body meet and nominate candidates for political office. Historians disagree as to the origins of the Caucus, one estimating its arrival during the first quarter of the eighteenth century.(1) Caucuses that met for the purposes of making nominations were quite often officially announced by their organizers beforehand and were held open to the public eye. The first official instance of a caucus nomination in the United States following the adoption of the federal constitution occurred in the State of Rhode Island, where, in 1790, the state legislature nominated candidates for the offices of governor and lieutenant-governor. The system soon gained in popularity, with Pennsylvania and New York following suit. By 1796 the caucus system was in use in every state of the Union.(2) In addition to nominating candidates for state offices, legislative caucuses soon undertook the additional responsibility of nominating electoral tickets in those states where presidential electors were chosen by the public.
During the presidential elections of 1796 and 1800, members of the national Congress met unofficially in caucus in order to solidify support for candidates for the Presidential office. In 1804, the Democratic-Republican congressmen openly met in caucus in order to nominate Thomas Jefferson for a second term as President. This practice--which acquired the appellation of "King Caucus"--received the sanction of tradition and was subsequently used to nominate both James Madison and James Monroe.
Though the caucus system of nomination gained wide acceptance and use as a mechanism of election management and "party" regularity, it certainly was not without its critics. When, in 1796, congressional Federalists secretly met in caucus to promote the candidacy of John Adams for President, a Boston Anti-Federalist paper denounced the "arrogance of a number of the Congress to assemble in an electioneering caucus to control the citizens in their constitutional rights."(3) Conservatives such as Nathaniel Macon shared such reservations as to the constitutionality of the caucus and made it a point of honor to never attend a caucus. In 1816 the caucus nominated James Monroe by a thin margin only after the defeat of several bills aimed at prevented the caucus from voting. In 1820, as a result of a combination of bad weather, hostility to the caucus, and political maneuvering, King Caucus adjourned without having nominated Monroe for a second term.
It was during the presidential election of 1824 that King Caucus would receive its death blow. As a result of William Crawford's popularity among members of Congress, it was fully expected that Crawford would receive the nomination of the Congressional caucus. For this reason, and for reasons of principle, considerable opposition to the Congressional caucus had formed by 1823.
Each of the candidates for the presidency--with the understandable exception of William Crawford--expressed their discontent with the Congressional caucus. John Quincy Adams refused to accept a nomination from the Congressional caucus, explaining in his diary that "I was satisfied there was at this time a majority of the whole people of the United States, utterly adverse to a nomination by Congressional caucus, thinking it adverse to the spirit of the Constitution, and tending to corruption. I thought it so myself, and therefore would not now accept a Congressional caucus nomination."(4) Henry Clay had for some time remained publicly silent on the propriety of the Congressional caucus issue largely because he was rumored to have a chance at receiving its nomination. By the beginning of 1824, however, it was clear Crawford would be the caucus nominee; Clay then, William Plumer Jr. reports, openly "declared against a Caucus." John C. Calhoun saw the Congressional caucus as "the agency of a few intriguing politicians" and vehemently denounced its existence.(5)
The attack on the caucus, however, proceeded not so much from the mouths of the candidates themselves as from their supporters within the individual states. In 1823 the so-called Grundy resolutions were passed in the state legislature of Tennessee, which had already nominated Andrew Jackson for the presidency. According to these anti-caucus resolutions, the Congressional caucus "is against the spirit of the constitution" and tended to "endanger the liberties of the American people."(6) The resolutions instructed the Tennessee's congressional delegation not to attend any upcoming Congressional caucus, and strongly urged other states to adopt similar measures. The Maryland State legislature followed suit in 1823 when it officially condemned the caucus and requested that its Congressional delegation not attend.(7) In January of 1824, Thomas H. Blake, a state congressman in the Indiana House of Representatives submitted a resolution that declared the Congressional caucus "un-American, tyrannical, and dangerous to our government," and warned that if it was not stopped "will ultimately undermine the sacred rights, the prosperity and happiness of the American people."(8)
Despite widespread opposition to the Congressional caucus throughout the nation, it convened nevertheless in February of 1824 and proceeded to nominate William Crawford for the Presidency and Andrew Gallatin for the Vice-Presidency. The Congressional caucus that nominated Crawford, though, consisted of only sixty-six out of a possible two hundred and sixty one Congressmen; consequently, Crawford's nomination stood as more of a liability than an honor, suggesting--as Crawford's opponents were quick to point out--that Crawford was the candidate, not of the entire nation, but of a few conniving politicians. Even after the Congressional caucus met, it continued to serve as an important campaign issue. Crawford's Congressional caucus nomination sparked even more intense anti-caucus sentiment. Only a few weeks after Crawford's nomination the New England Galaxy reported that "the exultation which the seer of old witnessed, in apocalyptic vision, over the fall of Babylon the great, the mother of harlots, was not more intense and vehement, than that which is manifested in certain papers, since the congressional caucus of the 14th inst."(9)
Anti-caucus sentiment was directed not only at King Caucus, but at state and local caucuses as well. As Rufus King observed, "the formidable central power" that King Caucus represented was "systematically combined with affiliated bodies at the seats of government of the great states."(10) The legislatures of most states in the Union held caucuses for the purposes of nominating presidential candidates and appointing electoral tickets. In those states which held caucuses, the supporters of those candidates who did not receive that state's nomination both created and seized upon anti-caucus sentiment as a means of attacking their opponents. As William Crawford was the nominee of the Congressional caucus, his campaign bore the brunt of most anti-caucus sentiment. Yet, several of the other candidates were the victims of anti-caucus agitation as a result of nominations that they had received from state caucuses. In Ohio, for example, Henry Clay's supporters were derided as a "caucus junto" by Clay's opponents as a result of the state caucus nomination that he had received.(11)
To the attackers of the caucus system, more was at stake in the repudiation of the caucus system than unconstitutional political machinery. According to the North Carolina paper, the Western Carolinian the caucus issue was at its heart an issue of whether "the PEOPLE shall rule."(12) To many of its opponents, the existence of caucuses threatened the notion that the sovereign people were incapable of self-governance: "The people will not give up their rights to a 'cabal' or a 'combination,'" The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote, "they will not be dictated to by 'King Caucus'...The Omnipotent hath given them a right to think and act for themselves, and in spite of management and the devil himself, they will do so."(13).
It would be naive, though, to suppose that opposition to the Congressional caucus arose solely from constitutional scruples or from a vigilant regard for popular sovereignty. Clearly, King Caucus was denounced for reasons having as much--if not more--to do with political expediency and opportunism as with ideology. Senator Samuel Smith of Maryland suggested that attacks leveled the Congressional caucus arose from political opportunism rather than from principle. "There are certainly some who think the [caucus] system wrong on principle," Smith observed, "but their numbers, among politicians, are few. May we not, without offense, believe that men are much governed by the consideration of whether the caucus will or not support their favorite candidate?"(14) Indeed, each and every candidate whose supporters attacked the caucus on the basis of political principle did not hesitate to accept nominations from the caucuses of state legislatures. Henry Clay received state caucus nominations in Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and Louisiana; John C. Calhoun, in South Carolina; Andrew Jackson in Tennessee; and, finally, John Quincy Adams in most of the New England states.
Considering that all candidates for the presidency willingly accepted state caucus nominations, it seems clear that the attack of the Congressional system was used--more often than not--as a means to inflict political damage on the campaign of William Crawford. One Calhoun sup porter frankly admitted as much: "the friends of Calhoun, Clay, Jackson & Adams, have a perfect understanding and are united in the determination to give the Caucus a death blow. The explosion will blow up all Mr. Crawford's machinery & put an end to his hopes forever."(15)
Just as important for American political development as the death of King Caucus was the emergence during the election of 1824 of the innovative methods of election management that replaced it. By 1823 it was more and more thought by the supporters of Clay, Adams, Calhoun, and Jackson that public meetings and popular conventions were the most proper--being the most democratic--means of nominating candidates for the presidency. The New Haven Pilot noted "the impropriety of legislative nomination," and argued that nominations "ought to be made by Conventions of the people, chosen by the people."(16) Countless newspapers throughout the nation called on the people to arrange public meetings and popular conventions in order to promote the interests of the candidate they supported. "Let us, therefore, hold meetings in our counties, our townships, and our districts," the Cincinnati Enquirer announced, "let us appoint and instruct our delegates to be sent to some central place of meeting there to express our wishes."(17) Throughout the presidential campaign of 1824, candidates were nominated and promoted through public meetings and popular conventions. These conventions and meeting usurped not only the nominating function of the caucus, but soon began drafting electoral tickets as well.
In the decades before the election of 1824, caucuses had almost everywhere been relied upon by the Democratic-Republican party as a method of election management and as an agent of "party" regularity. Following the election of 1824, conventions and meetings based on popular participation would replace the caucus in the exercise of such functions. Ultimately, the death of the caucus system and emergence of the convention system resulted from two distinct factors: first, an increasing popular resentment of elitist control of government; and, second, and perhaps more important, the exigencies of national politics. The election of 1824 witnessed a pronounced and widespread outpouring of popular hostility towards elite governance. The caucus, regardless of the real dangers it may or may not have posed to popular sovereignty, was a visible and a vulnerable target for those unsatisfied with the political status quo. And second, the death of King Caucus coincided with the death of one-party government in the United States. With the retirement of the Virginia dynasty and the emergence of sectional issues such as slavery expansion, internal improvements and the tariff, the "era of good feelings"--if it ever existed in the first place--was decidedly over by 1824. Understandably, the Congressional caucus--which had attempted for decades with only moderate success to ensure Democratic-Republican regularity--could not have survived the splintering of the Democratic-Republican party that occurred during the election of 1824.