The Birth of Party Conventions: the Anti-Masonic Party (1831)
- How the congressional caucus system for nominating presidential candidates came to be replaced by political party conventions.
- How the Anti-Masonic Party emerged within a context of expanding suffrage and increasingly participatory democracy.
- How the Anti-Masonic Party was a manifestation of anti-establishment and populist trends that continue to affect American politics.
- Civics & Government
- U.S. History
- 19th Century
- Cultural and Social Change
- Political Parties
- Campaigns and Elections
Presidential nominating conventions are so much a part of today’s political landscape, it’s hard to believe they resulted from a 19th Century populist movement obsessed with conspiracy.
The Anti-Masonic Party rose in the late 1820s to oppose what it believed to be the control of the American political process by the Freemasons, a secret fraternal organization that numbered among its members many prominent politicians and statesmen, including George Washington.
The party was formed in New York after William Morgan’s mysterious disappearance in 1826. Morgan, who lived in Batavia, was a fierce critic of the Masons, and promised to write a book exposing their inner workings. He even secured a publisher. But then he vanished.
Many believed the Masons had kidnapped and murdered Morgan to keep him quiet. And the public outrage against Masonry that followed soon built into a national political force.
As part of its anti-establishment profile, the Anti-Masonic Party rejected the traditional means of nominating a presidential candidate through the congressional nominating caucus.
Instead, it held in Baltimore in 1831 the first party nominating convention in American history. The 111 delegates from 13 states nominated William Wirt, who, ironically, was a Mason. He was trounced by President Andrew Jackson (also a Mason) in the 1832 election.
The Anti-Masonic Party collapsed before the 1830s were over, but the idea of nominating conventions took hold, and was adopted by all major parties.
- Why did some Americans think the Freemasons were a threat to democracy? Why were some people frightened of them?
- Prior to political party conventions, how did the parties select their presidential candidates? Why was this system unpopular?
- Why did the Anti-Masonic Party create a convention to choose its candidate?
- Who did the Anti-Masonic Party nominate for president in 1832? What did their candidate think of the Freemasons?
- Why do you think the congressional nominating caucus had become unpopular by the early 1830s? What were the weaknesses and limitations of this system?
- The political system created by the Founders contained numerous mechanisms designed to limit democracy in favor of republicanism. Is it possible to have “too much” democracy? What aspects of democracy do you think the Founders were afraid of? Do you think the Anti-Masonic Party itself was the kind of democracy the Founders were seeking to avoid?
- Are there any institutions in America’s modern political system that you think should be replaced with systems that are more participatory or more consistent with direct democracy?
- American government hasn’t always used conventions to nominate presidential candidates. Do you think we will always have them? Or will they be replaced by a different system? What would that alternative system consist of?
- Apart from the actual selection of a presidential candidate, what are the other functions of a political party convention? Why have they proven to be such a resilient feature of American politics? What purposes do they serve?
Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.
Skill 1.E: Explain how political processes apply to different scenarios in context.