The history of political conventions in America is so long and steeped in lore that it's easy to overlook the fact that it took a few decades for nominating conventions to become part of presidential politics.
In the early years of the United States, presidential candidates were usually nominated by a caucus of members of Congress. By the 1820s, that idea was falling out of favor, helped along by the rise of Andrew Jackson and his appeal to the common man. The election of 1824, which was denounced as "The Corrupt Bargain," also energized Americans to find a better way to select candidates and presidents.
After Jackson's election in 1828, party structures strengthened, and the idea of national political conventions began to make sense. At that time there had been party conventions held at the state level, but no national conventions.
The Anti-Masonic Party Held the First National Political Convention in September 1831
The first national political convention was held by a long-forgotten and extinct political party, the Anti-Masonic Party. The party, as the name indicates, was opposed to the masonic order and its presumed influence in American politics.
The Anti-Masonic Party, which began in upstate New York but gained adherents around the country, convened in Philadelphia in 1830, and agreed to have a nominating convention the following year. The various state organizations chose delegates to send to the national convention, which set a precedent for all later political conventions.
The Anti-Masonic Convention was held in Baltimore, Maryland on September 26, 1831, and was attended by 96 delegates from ten states. The party nominated William Wirt of Maryland as their candidate for president. He was an peculiar choice, as it came out that Wirt had once been a mason.
The National Republican Party Held a Convention in December 1831
A political faction calling itself the National Republican Party had supported John Quincy Adams in his unsuccessful bid for reelection in 1828. When Andrew Jackson became president, the National Republicans became a devoted anti-Jackson party.
Planning to take the White House from Jackson in 1832, the National Republicans planned their own national convention. As the party was essentially run by Henry Clay, it was a foregone conclusion that Clay would be their nominee.
The National Republicans held their convention in Baltimore on December 12, 1831. Due to bad weather and poor traveling conditions, only 135 delegates were able to attend.
As everyone knew the outcome ahead of time, the real purpose of the convention was to intensify anti-Jackson fervor. One noteworthy aspect of the first National Republican Convention is that James Barbour of Virginia delivered an address that was the first keynote speech of a political convention.
The First Democratic National Convention Was Held in May 1832
Baltimore was also chosen to be the site of the first Democratic Convention, which began on May 21, 1832. A total of 334 delegates assembled from every state except Missouri, whose delegation never arrived in Baltimore.
The Democratic Party at the time was headed by Andrew Jackson, and it was obvious that Jackson would be running for a second term. So there was no need to nominate a candidate for president.
The ostensible purpose of the first Democratic National Convention was to nominate someone to run for vice president. Martin Van Buren of New York was nominated, and received the sufficient number of votes on the first ballot.
The first Democratic National Convention instituted a number of rules which essentially created the framework for political conventions down to the present day. So in that sense the convention was the prototype for modern political conventions.
The Democrats gathered in Baltimore also agreed to meet again every four years, which began the tradition of Democratic National Conventions that extends to the present day.
Baltimore Was the Site of Many Early Political Conventions
The city of Baltimore was the location of all three political conventions prior to the 1832 election. The reason is fairly obvious: it was the major city closest to Washington, DC, so it was convenient for those serving in the government. And with the nation still mostly positioned along the east coast, Baltimore was centrally located and could be reached by road or even by boat.
The Democrats in 1832 did not formally agree to hold all their future conventions in Baltimore, but it worked out that way for years. The Democratic National Conventions were held in Baltimore in 1836, 1840, 1844, 1848, and 1852. The convention was held in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1856, and the tradition developed of moving the convention to different locations.
The Election of 1832
In the election of 1832, Andrew Jackson won easily, garnering about 54 percent of the popular vote and crushing his opponents in the electoral vote.
The National Republican candidate, Henry Clay, took about 37 percent of the popular vote. And William Wirt, running on the Anti-Masonic ticket, won about 8 percent of the popular vote, though he carried a state, Vermont, in the electoral college.
The National Republican Party and Anti-Masonic Party joined the list of extinct political parties after the 1832 election. Members of both parties gravitated toward the Whig Party, which formed in the mid-1830s.
Andrew Jackson was a popular figure in America and always stood a very good chance of winning his bid for reelection. So while the election of 1832 was never really in doubt, that election cycle did make a major contribution to political history, as it instituted the concept of national political conventions.
Acknowledgment: gratitude is extended to the New York Public Library Digital Collections for use of the portrait of William Wirt, the first candidate to be nominated for president at a national political convention.