Crowded Out: American Political Conventions: Part One

By Davies, Philip John | Contemporary Review, January 2000 | Go to article overview

Crowded Out: American Political Conventions: Part One


Davies, Philip John, Contemporary Review


AMONG the most colourful events of the year now opening will be the conventions of the two major political parties. Every four years delegates assemble from all over America to select candidates for President and Vice-President, as well as to write the party 'platform'. Much attention has been given to party leaders and the delegates, but few historians have looked at the role of the crowd at these conventions.

While composing the Constitution of the United States of America the Founding Fathers had examples to hand that may have made them wary of the actions of crowds. Edward Countryman goes so far as to call crowd action 'The cardinal fact in the popular politics of the decade from the Stamp Act to Independence', and points out that, 'between 1765 and 1775 crowds nullified the Stamp Act, frustrated the American Customs Commissioners, brawled with redcoats, and dumped tea into more than one harbor. They closed courts and tore down elegant houses. They broke jails open and stopped surveying parties and disrupted concerts.' In the wake of independence the Articles of Confederation had proved an inadequate form of central government, but the men meeting in Philadelphia to consider alternatives were worried that neither leaders nor crowds might be virtuous enough to maintain the republic against the natural degradation of political institutions.

Although a foundation of popular sovereignty was generally accepted as a necessary principle of the American polity, there remained an elite suspicion of the potential excesses of democracy. Experiences in the early years of state government had not allayed this suspicion, and on the eve of the Philadelphia meeting Shays' Rebellion concentrated their minds further. The farmers of western Massachusetts rose in revolt against harsh taxation policies in times of agricultural hardship. When two thousand 'Shaysites' attempted to take the federal arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts, the state militia killed three rebels and the disturbances broke up. Punishments were lenient, but the rebellion was a shock. George Washington commented, 'What a triumph for the advocates of despotism, to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty, are merely ideal and fallacious. Would to God that wise measures may be taken in time to avert the consequences we have but too much reason to apprehend.' Gouvernor Morris sounded more suspicious of the mob, 'Poor reptiles!... They bask in the sun and ere noon they will bite, depend upon it.'

The 1787 Constitutional Convention responded with a blueprint that checked and balanced the branches and levels of government against each other in a complex system of mutual restraint. Direct public choice of the national government was restricted to the election of the House of Representatives. The method of choice of Senators was left to the state legislatures. The selection of the President was debated repeatedly, with the Philadelphia Convention eventually opting for an Electoral College system. The Electoral College allowed state legislatures to choose Electors, who would themselves choose the President, unless they failed to give one candidate an absolute majority, in which case the state delegations in the House of Representatives took over the responsibility for choosing. The general electorate was to be kept at arm's length.

Popular involvement was impossible to limit indefinitely. Some states moved quickly to the public election of Electoral College members. Religious and property limitations gradually disappeared. Political difference emerged, and acquired regional and party political elements. By 1824 enough states had opened the presidential election process to popular vote that there could be a visible measure of the public's opinion. The elite presidential selection process showed its strains as four main candidates competed for the nation's highest office. Andrew Jackson gained the most Electoral College votes nationwide, and the most popular votes in those states that had opened up the election process. …

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Crowded Out: American Political Conventions: Part One
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