U.S. Political Conventions Have Been Weird From The Start

William Wirt was a noted trial lawyer, a bestselling author, and the nominee of the nation’s first political convention, in 1831. And then the story gets really strange.

Georgios Kollidas/Alamy

Nearly 185 years ago, the first national nominating party convention selected an unconventional nominee. Not only did he not belong to the party that chose him, he had contravened their defining political principle—rooted in a paranoid political panic as absurd as today’s Birther blather. He had lost the O.J. Simpson-like trial of his day. And he had no interest in being president. “Now I hate politics, and can never be a party man much less a party leader for I trust I have a good conscience, and in these times I doubt the practicability of a politician possessing such a blessing,” he told a friend. “Besides, I have not the nerve to bear the vulgar abuse which is the politician’s standing dish.”

Nevertheless, the Anti-Masonic party convention, which assembled on September 26, 1831, in Baltimore, nominated William Wirt. The 59-year-old Maryland native, born to Swiss and German immigrants, was a best-selling author, oft-quoted orator, a superlawyer despite failing to convict former Vice President Aaron Burr of treason, a former attorney general, and former Mason. Politicians back then ritualistically professed disinterest in politics, awaiting the people’s call. Henry Clay would say in 1844, “I’d rather be right than president.” Wirt meant it. He was a transition figure between his mentor Thomas Jefferson’s republican elitism and his opponent “Andy” Jackson’s vulgar populism.

Wirt attended the convention reluctantly, hoping to unite the squabbling anti-Jackson factions behind Henry Clay. But the anti-Masons hated Clay, who had been a more enthusiastic Mason than Wirt. Given four hours to decide, Wirt accepted the nomination as his patriotic duty, writing, “Not only have I never sought the office, but I have long since looked at it with more of dread, than of desire.”

Our party conventions, then, originated amid great political ambivalence and in the Anti-Masons’ wacky fight against the fraternal order of Masonry. These conspiracy theorists believed that Masons killed William Morgan, a former New York Freemason who disappeared in 1826. Morgan had threatened to spill the secrets of this elite fraternal order, which originated in the stonemasons’ 14th century guilds. Amid the chaos of industrializing and democratizing New York, Morgan’s disappearance gave the disgruntled anti-Masons scapegoats to blame for the uproar of the industrial revolution: the secretive, selective Freemasons.

By 1828, the Anti-Masonic Party had formed in upstate New York, centered around the religiously inflamed, revivalist “burnt-over” districts. As the populist Andrew Jackson expanded presidential power to democratize America, he made many enemies, including the Anti-Masons. Seeking to go national, and prove their popularity, the Anti-Masons democratized the presidential nominating process for 1832.

Initially, state legislatures nominated presidential candidates. By the 1820s, a more nationalistic congressional caucus usually selected a party’s nominee. In 1822, two battling Jacksonians, New York’s Martin Van Buren and South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, considered a national nominating convention to unite Democrats, but it never happened. On the state level, which piloted many democratic innovations, disenfranchised outsiders often called conventions to circumvent boss-dominated caucuses.

On September 11, 1830, 96 delegates gathered in Philadelphia for the first Anti-Masonic convention. They realized they should seek delegates from every state to nominate a presidential candidate. They hoped the “delay of a year will enable the people throughout the United States to form an opinion, whether those who may be candidates are firm and decided anti-masons.”

A year later, the convention settled on William Wirt, as essentially America’s first third party candidate, who in his acceptance letter admitted to having joined a Masonic Lodge three decades earlier. He claimed his nomination showed that this party would not seek “an automaton President” deploying “powers to the vindictive purposes of party proscription and persecution.” He “continually regarded Masonry as nothing more than a social and charitable club.”

Wirt was a safe choice with a towering reputation. He made the attorney general’s office formidable during a still-unmatched 12-year stint. His 1803 Letters of the British Spy was a sensation, evoking the world of the Revolution. His 1817 Patrick Henry biography reconstructed—and probably embellished—the immortal “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. And his 1826 eulogy of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson before Congress celebrated their reconciliation in their retirement as “a lesson of wisdom on the bitterness of party spirit.”

Wirt argued his era’s most consequential cases, spearheading the fight to recognize the Cherokee Nation as sovereign. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, in 1831, Wirt challenged the justices, asking, “What is the value of that government in which the decrees of its court can be mocked at and defied with impunity?” A year later, in Worcester v. Georgia, the Court followed Wirt’s wisdom.

As a candidate, Wirt failed to unite the anti-Jackson forces or ignite the now-somewhat-defused Anti-Masonic movement. But today’s democratic innovation is tomorrow’s hoary tradition: this first nominating convention begat others to demonstrate their responsiveness. On December 12, 1831, 156 National Republican delegates from 17 states gathered to nominate Henry Clay. They produced an angry, anti-Jackson “Address to the People,” foreshadowing the tradition of party platforms.

These two conventions forced the Jacksonian Democrats to convene to compete on March 21, 1832. A combination of legislative caucuses, statewide conventions, county meetings, and congressional-district conventions selected 320 delegates. This convention started the traditions of determining the size of the state delegation by the state’s electoral votes, with voting culminating in that colorful roll call of states “from the Great State of Loueeeziana … and Kentuck-ee” and on and on. New Hampshire’s Frederick A. Sumner opened the convention by articulating the hope with which all conventions begin but not all end: that this gathering of “representatives of the people from the extremity of the union, would have a tendency to soothe, if not to unite, the jarring interests … ”

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Jackson and his Democrats triumphed. Wirt won 8 percent of the popular vote and Vermont’s seven Electoral votes. Wirt wrote what could be his epitaph. “I am perfectly aware,” he wrote a friend, “that I have none of the captivating arts and manners of professional seekers of popularity. I do not desire them. I shall not change my manners; they are a part of my nature. If the people choose to take me as I am—well. If not, they will only leave me where I have always preferred to be, enjoying the independence of private life.” Then as now, Americans love to yearn for such modesty—but rarely reward it, especially because combative and colorful conventions—and candidates—are more fun.