Conventions are Born

Jeff Alworth

From 1836 through 1968, conventions were not mere celebrations to welcome the already-elected nominee.  They were nominating conventions; when delegates gathered, no one knew who the nominee would be.  Although some states held caucuses and primaries before the convention, delegates felt not the slightest compunction to follow voters’ will (or even the wishes of stalwart rank-and-file members back home).  Instead, conventions became the quintessential “smoke-filled rooms” as party bosses and up-and-comers and dissenters and regional power-players all battled to get their candidate nominated.  Sometimes the battles lasted through dozens of votes, running on into the wee hours—or sometimes for days.  Conventioneers also decided on the vice-presidential selection; often this was the candidate who finished second--his elevation to the ticket designed to placate the losing minority (something voters in the year of Obama v. Clinton can instinctively understand.)

1832 and 1836 – Conventions are Born
The first national party conventions were held in 1832.  The very first US party convention was actually held by Anti-Masonic Party (remember them?), whose members were opposed to everything Freemasonic.  They nominated William Wirt to lead their charge (remember him?), and were followed by the National Republicans (the GOP)The Democratic Republicans (Dems) met third, like the earlier two, in Baltimore.  For the Democrats, the convention wasn’t much more than the formality it is today—sitting president Andrew Jackson had already been nominated by many state legislatures, so at the convention, delegates merely concurred.  The only interest was when delegates made Martin Van Buren the VP nominee.

The convention in 1832 was the first real convention for the Democratic Party.  Outgoing president Andrew Jackson, the man who reconstituted the party, wanted his vice president, New York’s Martin Van Buren.  More controversially, he wanted Kentucky’s Richard Johnson to be the VP candidate—even though Johnson’s common-law wife was a former slave and mother to his two children.  At the convention, again in Baltimore, the entire Virginia delegation walked out when it became clear Van Buren would carry the day.  He did, on the first ballot, and promptly selected Johnson as his running mate.  Already, the tensions that mounted into a civil war and the schism in the Democratic Party were starting to appear.

I'll pick that up later in the week as I give a historical context for the convention we're now covering.

  • (Show?)

    First post from the Big Tent! Great work, Jeff.

  • (Show?)

    Hey look, it's Kos! There's Atrios! Whoo, big tent.

  • backbeat (unverified)

    Look for MS Bellows of He lives in Tigard and here is his old blog (see photo) I forwarded the Bus Project invite to him.

  • John Skelter (unverified)

    If conventions are "born" then some should be aborted at some point.

    "convention opens with prayer"?

    since when do the majority of democrats believe in God?.. the only time democrats try to find religion is during an election...


  • (Show?)

    There are plenty of Democrats that believe in God. I'm sure there are plenty of them at whatever church you attend. I know there have been plenty at the churches I've attended - and they're Southern Baptist churches.

  • llywrch (unverified)

    Didn't you mean to start the third paragraph, "The convention in 1836 was the first real convention for the Democratic Party"? Otherwise, you discuss the 1832 convention twice: the first time as an exercise in political opera, the second as "the first real convention".


  • matt (unverified)

    Thus far this convention, via TV has been...well...the worst production the Obama Campaign has ever put on before.

    I hope this gets better at one point or another.

  • JohnH (unverified)

    At first, I thought you mispelled your headline and meant to say, "Conventions are boring." Maybe you'll explain what made them that way in subsequent posts...

  • (Show?)

    Be nice to hear about the speeches from someone other than a CNN reporter or NPR. Anyone from Blueoregon NOT at a party right now?

  • Greg (unverified)

    People should be watching the Democratic Convention on C-SPAN. No spin by psuedo-journalists. The C-SPAN broadcast showed a evening of good party politics, warm comments, and positive speeches. Too bad for journalists trying to expose fictions that aren't there and that the American people, in the long run, don't care about. Left and right news commentators both love hearing their own voices.

  • edison (unverified)

    Greg nailed it. Turn off CNN, etc. C-SPAN is the only sane way to watch.

    Hey Jeff: Any good beers there? :-)

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)

    Actually, the last interesting convention was in 1976, not 1968.

    1972's Democratic convention was interesting too as the delegates defeated an attempt by Hubert Humphrey to change the rules re: California's "winner take all" results and steer the nomination away from George McGovern. There were also some vicious platform fights at that convention.

    But the 1976 Republican convention saw Ronald Reagan make a last-ditch effort to get the nomination by announcing that Richard Schweiker, a liberal Pennsylvania Senator, was going to be his running mate. It didn't work, but Gerald Ford's forces had to do some major battling.

    <h2>Ever since then, the party's conventions have been tedious pablum.</h2>

connect with blueoregon