The Demise of the American Convention System, 1880-1911

The Demise of the American Convention System, 1880-1911

by John F. Reynolds

During the nineteenth century American political parties selected their candidates for elective offices in conventions. Around 1910 most states established a system of direct primaries whereby the voters selected their parties' nominees for public office. This book, first published in 2006, examines the transition from the indirect to the direct primary, as well as…  See more details below


During the nineteenth century American political parties selected their candidates for elective offices in conventions. Around 1910 most states established a system of direct primaries whereby the voters selected their parties' nominees for public office. This book, first published in 2006, examines the transition from the indirect to the direct primary, as well as its implications for American politics. It offers a systematic analysis of the convention system in four states (New Jersey, Michigan, Colorado and California) and the legislative history of the regulation of political parties during the Progressive Era. It argues that the major political parties themselves were chiefly responsible for doing away with the nominating convention. Candidates played a pivotal role in inaugurating the new nominating system as they became more open and aggressive in pursuit of their parties' nominations. The convention system was never designed to withstand the pressures exerted on it by a more competitive nominating process.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Impressively researched, analytically sophisticated, persuasively argued, this book revises much of what scholars have believed about American political parties and political reform around the turn of the twentieth century. By carefully examining the interaction between party structures and political candidates, John Reynolds clarifies the evolution of nominating practices from the convention system to the direct primary and more broadly illuminates the disputed relationship between behavioral and institutional changes in American politics. Both historians and political scientists will welcome this fresh and provocative work.” Peter H. Argersinger, Southern Illinois University

“John Reynolds's book is of central importance for all political scientists and historians who are interested in party development. A richly detailed study of how the nomination process was transformed at the state level in the late 19th century, it shows that the origins of a candidate-centered style of politics in America are much older than many scholars have believed them to be. It is a book that should be read widely and it will deserve all the praise that will surely come its way.” Alan Ware, Oxford University

"A most informative political and historical analysis." - Choice

"An important study that adds considerably to our knowledge of party practices and party organization between 1880 and 1911."
R. Hal Williams, The Journal of American History

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Cambridge University Press
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The demise of the American convention system, 1880-1911
Cambridge University Press
0521859638 - The demise of the American convention system, 1880-1911 - by John F. Reynolds



The hundred or so delegates arriving at California’s state capitol in July 1865 for the Union Party’s county convention came prepared for trouble. For weeks past, up and down the state, Republicans (who had temporarily taken up the “Union” label) had watched their local primaries and county conventions thrown into turmoil. Sacramento’s primaries had been more disorderly than most, marred by charges of “ruffianism,” bribery, and assorted frauds. Many blamed the bruising contest on a headstrong governor determined to land himself in the U.S. Senate. The so-called Short Hair faction championed his cause, meeting stiff resistance from a clique dubbed the “Long Hairs.” Now, the two factions glared at one another from opposite sides of the Assembly Chamber.1 The chair of the county committee called the delegates to order and brought up the first order of business, the selection of a temporary secretary. Each side of the room had a candidate for the post. Following a voice vote, the presiding officer announced that the position had gone to the choice of the Long Hairs. The proceedings immediately erupted into cacophonous bedlam. Short Hair delegates screamed for “fair play” and a formal ballot to decide the issue. They bombarded the chair with questions andmotions. A few minutes later, when the chair’s choice for secretary advanced toward the podium, a phalanx of Short Hairs blocked his path. Verbal ripostes gave way to shoving, pushing turned to punching, fisticuffs escalated to hickory canes. A reporter from the Sacramento Union looked on as the battle was joined. “Spittoons flew from side to side like bomb shells....Inkstands took the place of solid shot. Pistols were drawn and used as substitutes for clubs.”2 Those who had come unarmed grabbed the cane-bottomed armchairs and broke them over the heads of their antagonists. After five minutes of combat the Long Hairs retreated, some by way of the window, while others carried their bruised or unconscious comrades from the building. Each faction, whatever was left of it, organized a separate county convention and appointed competing sets of delegates to go to the state convention, appealing to the latter to sort things out.

Figure 1.1. Denver’s Republican primaries in 1890 resulted in a bitter fight between two factions dubbed the “Gang” and the “Smashers.” The county convention included about 117 delegates elected on the Gang slate and 74 for the Smashers; 62 seats were claimed by both sides. Nothing approximating the violence depicted here occurred at the county convention, but the temporary chair’s rulings on behalf of the Smashers did prompt the Gang to walk out and organize a separate Republican county convention. (RMN, Sept. 11, 1890, p. 1.)

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   The violence that marred the Sacramento County Convention was shocking even by California standards, but it was the aftermath of the political pandemonium that commands attention. Within a year, the same legislative chamber that had been the scene of battle (its chairs now bolted to the floor) witnessed the passage of the nation’s first law to regulate the nominating process. Republican legislators – over the opposition of Democrats – pressed for state oversight of their party’s often tumultuous proceedings. The “Porter Law” did not require much change in how political parties did business,3 but it did mark a significant point of departure in the nation’s political development. Political parties, the bane of the nation’s first generation of politicians, had won recognition in the eyes of the state. In time, other states followed California’s lead. Laws appeared around the nation in the 1880s outlawing fraud in primaries and conventions. Subsequent legislation converted party primaries into official elections and in doing so converted the Republican and Democratic organizations from private associations into semipublic agencies. Eventually the states replaced the party convention with what the political scientist Austin Ranney has dubbed “the most radical of all party reforms adopted in the whole course of American history.”4 The direct primary pushed party leaders aside and allowed the voters to designate their parties’ candidates for elective office. The new system of direct nominations allegedly gave rise to the candidate-centered version of electioneering that would characterize American politics over the century that followed. The relationship between party nominating procedures and elective office-seeking strategies during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era constitutes the core of the study that follows. Numerous scholars have argued that American politics at the turn of the twentieth century experienced a profound transformation in its processes and purposes. This work seeks to understand how much of that change was foreshadowed by Sacramento’s belligerent Republican delegates.

   The nominating convention served as an important bulwark to Democratic, Whig, and Republican Party supremacy during the “party period” spanning the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century.5 The caucus and the convention predated the U.S. Constitution,6 but became important to the nominating process only during the Jacksonian Era. Politicians integrated local party meetings with county, state, and national nominating bodies into a “convention system.” The organizational structure first took shape in the closely contested Middle Atlantic region. It advanced state by state during the 1820s and 1830s as electoral competition took hold around the nation. The convention system’s appeal rested on the democratic principle of taking the nominating power away from cliques of political insiders and investing it in “the people.” Voters empowered delegates to designate their parties’ nominees for elective office in county or legislative conventions, or to select other delegates to attend congressional, state, or national nominating bodies. Political parties came to dominate American politics during the nineteenth century in part because the convention system bestowed legitimacy on their deliberations and imposed some order and discipline in a highly decentralized electoral environment. The convention system maximized a party’s vote by ensuring but one party choice for every elective position. In addition, the partisan bodies called into being at various stages of the process provided opportunities for organization and publicity. The earliest nominating conventions were not so much decision-making bodies as they were public relations exercises designed to embellish a candidacy with the stamp of public approbation. “The convention owed its ascendancy to its superior ability to meet the theoretical and practical requirements of democratic politics: candidates nominated by conventions, wrapped in the mantle of popular sovereignty and backed by an organization no independent could equal, were likely to be elected.”7 The convention system brought structure to political parties and linked the parties more securely to the electorate.

   The waning of the party period not coincidentally brought an end to the nominating convention in most states. Between 1900 and 1915, the shortcomings of the nomination process occupied the attention of many prominent scholars, crusading journalists, and several eminently practical politicians. The list of prominent academics who interested themselves in the subject included the historians Carl Becker and Charles A. Beard, the economist John R. Commons, and the founder of modern-day political science, Charles Edward Merriam.8 They placed their faith in a system of direct primaries, investing the electorate with the final authority in designating a party’s choice of nominees. Arguments over the merits of direct nominations filled up many pages of the popular and scholarly press. Direct primaries were widely prescribed as an antidote to boss rule during the Progressive Era. Supporters of the reform insisted that they had to battle entrenched party interests to put the new nominating procedures in place. “It is well known history,” testified the author of Colorado’s direct primary law in 1923, “that these changes in our election laws were secured against the bitterest opposition of old-time politicians who were unwilling to surrender their long enjoyed privileges, including their power to manipulate conventions, nominate officials, and control legislation for the benefit of themselves and of the special interests they served.”9 All but a handful of states had abolished the convention system by World War I.

   As it was the reformers who seemingly emerged victorious in the contest over nominating procedures, it was their version of events that initially found its way into the history books. Alan Ware has aptly titled these early works documenting the origins of the direct primary as “heroic.” They portray progressive reformers bringing democracy to a corrupt and boss-ridden political system that mostly served powerful, corporate interests.10 The exposés of muckraking journalists combined with the political leadership of Wisconsin’s governor Robert M. La Follette to galvanize public opinion and force legislatures to take action. These narratives fit neatly into an interpretive framework that viewed the progressive movement as a revolt by middle-class citizens who felt threatened by mammoth corporations and political machines answerable to no one. The direct primary stood out as one of many reforms of the era “awakening the people to a widespread interest in participation in political affairs.”11 The direct election of U.S. senators, the secret and official ballot, voter registration laws, women’s suffrage, and limitations on corporate campaign contributions all helped wrest power from the hands of venal, political manipulators.

   Scholarly interest and support for the direct primary cooled in the years following its implementation. Inevitably perhaps, the new electoral device did not live up to expectations. Voter turnout in primaries often proved anemic. The costs of running for office skyrocketed, and it was hard to make the case that the voters had selected a better class of elected officials.12 By midcentury, the direct primary’s reputation suffered further as it became associated with perceived deficiencies in the American political system. In the wake of the New Deal, scholars had come to harbor a renewed respect for the Democratic and Republican organizations. “Political parties created democracy,” affirmed the political scientist E. E. Schattschneider, “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.”13 They connected the voters to their elected officials and held the latter accountable for their actions, thereby making government more responsive to public opinion. Yet, scholars drew sharp contrasts between the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States and their European counterparts. Whereas elections in other Western democracies were fought over issues dividing the parties, those in the United States revolved instead around the personal qualities of the candidates. The relatively weak and “irresponsible” political parties in the United States did not offer the electorate meaningful choices or seek to implement a partisan agenda once in power. The American Political Science Association’s “Committee on Political Parties” issued a much-heralded report in 1950 detailing many of these deficiencies in the party system. It traced the problem back to the nation’s unique political institutions and practices, most notably the direct primary. “[T]he inability of party organizations in the United States to control the party in government...begins with the failure to control the nominations.”14 “The direct primary has been the most potent in a complex of forces pushing toward the disintegration of the party,” complained one scholar.15 Since the APSA’s report in 1950, the candidate-centered character of electoral politics in the United States has become ever more apparent.16 Television, electioneering consultants, and campaign finance laws have all greatly exacerbated a condition many trace back to the direct primary. A call for a revival of the political convention (sometimes tinged with nostalgia) appeared in the scholarly literature and popular press.17

   Whether they endorsed or deplored the direct primary, much of the past literature has understood reform as something imposed on political parties from without.18 In more recent years, however, historians and political scientists have paid closer attention to the ways the major parties used reform to protect their own interests. V. O. Key, Jr., and others have argued that direct nominations served as a mechanism to ensure one-party rule. Parties that enjoyed majority status in a state made the direct primary the main arena of political contests, rendering all other parties and the general election almost irrelevant. Key’s insight certainly seemed applicable to the Democratic monopoly on power across the Solid South as well as to Republican rule in many northern states prior to the 1930s.19 Key’s work anticipated the “new institutionalism” that characterizes much current political history, especially as practiced by political scientists. This approach to American politics argues that political parties and the politicians who run them are fully capable of using reform to their advantage.20 The adoption of the official or secret ballot around 1890 is cited as one such episode. State regulation of the ballot became a means to inhibit maverick candidates, third parties, and independent action on the part of the electorate.21 Most recently, the political scientist Alan Ware has challenged the conventional account that credits reformers with forcing the direct primary on urban, party machines.22 Party regulars took up the measure to better administer an increasingly unwieldy nomination process, especially in the more densely populated cities.

   The present work elaborates on Ware’s argument with the insight of the new institutionalist framework. Attention focuses on the role of elective office seekers in the restructuring of the nomination process. It argues that past studies have put the cart before the horse by treating the origins of the candidate-centered campaign as an unintended consequence of direct nominations. A fundamental premise shaping the analysis that follows maintains that before one could implement or even imagine a direct primary, one first needed to have candidates. When the convention system was in its prime in the 1880s it compelled ambitious office seekers to maintain a low profile. The nominating process took hardly any official notice of candidates and deplored the very existence of “chronic office seekers.” Delegates assumed responsibility for recruiting the best candidates for each office following the oft-repeated dictate that “the office should seek the man.” Party leaders used these partisan conclaves to quietly negotiate a slate of nominees for an array of offices that would satisfy all the party’s factional elements. Almost no one considered it feasible to expect voters to choose candidates for major offices without knowing who the “available men” were.

   Of course, it was never quite so simple nor the candidates quite so passive as the partisan press would have it. Prospective nominees and their friends worked quietly behind the scenes, but found their scope of action bounded by party customs intended to promote harmony. Beginning at the local level, candidates mounted progressively more aggressive and disruptive campaigns to capture nominations for minor offices. Candidates for gubernatorial or congressional seats were more coy about making their ambitions known, but by 1900 even they had learned that it paid to be assertive in promoting one’s availability for party honors. The ap- pearance of “hustling candidates” contesting primaries and conventions coincides with new modes of electioneering introduced around this time; candidates and even parties toned down their strictly partisan appeals to capitalize on issues or personalities during the general election.23

   The appearance of a more visible and active body of elective office seekers posed a special problem for the convention system. Candidates recruited scores of paid and unpaid agents, traveled extensively to meet with local notables, took a more active part in conventions, and, most importantly, worked to elect delegates committed to their candidacy. Primaries became more popular and conventions more unruly as aspirants struggled for control. It became more difficult for parties to function in their accustomed manner – as was demonstrated in Sacramento as early as 1865 and less spectacularly elsewhere in the decades that followed. Although cities often served as the settings for ugly political brawls inflicting open wounds on the parties, this was not precisely a problem of adapting the nomination process to function in a more urbanized setting. The hustling candidates who dominated and manipulated primaries and conventions posed a bigger challenge for party managers. The rapid and relatively uncontroversial adoption of the direct primary represented an effort by officeholders and party officials to adapt the electoral system to an increasingly candidate-centered political culture. Legal and institutional changes did not give rise to the nation’s more candidate-centered electoral system; rather, candidate domination of the nominating process required a new set of rules encompassed by the direct primary and other reforms to follow.

   Any study of American politics, particularly one focusing on its electoral machinery, must take account of the federal governing structure and the decentralized and multilayered character of its political parties. Like most progressive measures, the direct primary was an issue for state governments, not the national one. The appropriate research strategy is an in-depth case study approach with the state as the unit of analysis. Putting the reform into context also requires understanding how the nomination process fared in the waning years of the convention system. The state nominating convention offers the best vantage point to examine changes in how candidates secured their party’s nomination. In theory, the state convention represented the final authority in Democratic and Republican party matters. Documenting the proceedings of the state convention as well as of the local caucuses and county conventions that preceded it reveals how it was that candidates, party officials, and voters became frustrated with the process. Ultimately, it was state legislators who enacted the direct primary, and roll call analysis can identify those most responsible for this and other statutes regulating the nominating process. The story opens when the state convention and the party period were in full flower during the 1880s. It concludes with the abolition of state nominating conventions around 1910.

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