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THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE CONVENTION SYSTEM
AFTER the collapse of the Congressional Caucus in 1824 the political situation still presented a somewhat chaotic aspect: the old parties were broken up, the new ones were not yet in existence; the leadership was doomed; the extra-constitutional machinery of the legislative Caucus, which was the base of operations of the parties and the leaders, still worked after a fashion in a good many States; by force of habit people resorted to it automatically, but it had received its death-blow. All these elements were about to be renewed, but the mode of this renovation and the effects attending it will supply the subject of a thrilling drama which is still being enacted, down to the present day, on the political stage of the great American Republic.
The failure of the last Congressional Caucus had almost nullified the nomination of Crawford made by it, and instead of the usual recommendation of a single candidate, public manifestations occurred in various quarters in favour now of one and now of another of the four competitors. They proceeded alike from the State Legislatures, which we have seen formally intervening to recommend Jackson even before the last meeting of the Congressional Caucus, -- from semiofficial gatherings of the members of Legislatures meeting in caucus, from mixed caucuses, from State conventions composed solely of delegates, and finally from large meetings of citizens. Everywhere people expressed their opinions, declared their preferences, and they did so with a feverish eagerness, as if they wished to make up for the long abstention enforced upon them by the exclusive power which the Congressional Caucus had wielded. The grand jury and the petty jury proceeded in court, “in their private capacity,” to vote for a President; companies of militia did the same as soon as their drill was over; people attending public auctions, passengers on steamers, took advantage of being together to record a vote on the election, which absorbed the whole country more than any previous presidential election. But at the final vote in the College of Electors none of the candidates for the Presidency secured a majority, and, in accordance with the Constitution, the election passed to the House of Representatives. Of the three candidates who had obtained the most votes in the Electoral College, Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Crawford, it chose the second, a statesman of the highest eminence, of consummate experience, of an austerity of character approaching the virtue of antiquity.
Hardly had the new President entered on his duties when his less fortunate competitors and their followers in Congress began a pitiless war on his administration, a war prompted mainly by the spite and greed of factions leagued against a man whose fault was the possession of power. The arch-contriver of this coalition was the Senator of New York, Martin Van Buren, who has left a name in the history of the United States as one of the protagonists and forerunners of the great managers and crack wire-pullers. During the presidential campaign of 1824 he zealously supported Crawford's candidature in the Congressional Caucus. After Crawford's defeat, Van Buren discerned in his competitor Jackson the coming man, the winner at the next presidential election, joined him, and organized a great campaign on his behalf. Installed in the Senate, he attracted hungry people to his side, amalgamated, amid the ruins left by the old disjointed parties, factions and coteries which had no distinct bond of union in the way of common political aspirations or definite lines of conduct, and several members of which had often taken up diametrically opposite attitudes on the questions of the day. Van Buren began their training by accustoming them to offer a concerted resistance to all proposals of the Government tending to use the federal authority for the economical development of the country. Looking about for a pretext for this mechanical opposition conducted by him, and fully alive to the binding efficacy of principles so pathetically testified to by his fellowworker in the Congressional Caucus of 1824,1 Van Buren hit upon the idea of reviving the old cry of violated or threatened State rights, which the public conscience, however, did not believe to be in any way imperilled. The country, which was peacefully enjoying its growing prosperity, was unaware of the usurpation of the federal power which was being denounced to it. Besides, did not some of Jackson's followers, and Jackson himself when Senator, have occasion to vote in the direction of “ federal usurpation ” ? It was just the same with the question of customs duties, which did not furnish the elements of a hard-and-fast division of parties either.
1 Niles, Vol. XXVI, pp. 194, 221, 269, 332, 333.
Later on circumstances will turn these questions into a war-cry and provide Jackson's party, transformed into the “Democratic” party, with its platform, but in the meanwhile this party was simply a personal coalition, devoid of principles. Even if it were already “inclined to principles," as a recent enthusiastic biographer of Van Buren ? puts it ingeniously, it none the less presented, in American history, the first example of a national party created not to give shape to ideas, but to form a conquering army, that is to say, on an essentially mechanical basis. It had therefore to look for its main support to a powerful organization in the country. Van Buren set to work to provide for this want with an exceptional competence acquired by a long apprenticeship in his native State, which had early developed the arts of the politician.
The part played in this connection by the State of New York, and the precedents which it created, were of such importance as to deserve special mention. The motley mass of the cosmopolitan population of the great Atlantic city soon precluded the austere government of a ruling class such as obtained on the Puritan soil of New England, and its political life had long been an uninterrupted series of struggles of rival condottieri. These were supplied at one time by great families, the
1“Could we hit upon a few great principles," etc. See above, p. 26.
2 “Van Buren and his coadjutors, however, led a party as yet of inclination to principles, rather than of principles" (Martin Van Buren, by E. M. Shepard, 1888, p. 132).
Livingstons, the Clintons, the Schuylers, with a large plebeian following, like the optimates in Rome, at another by successful careers of parvenus, who generally allied themselves with the patricians. More intelligent than the Roman plebs, less wretched and above all more alive to their capacity of and citizens,” the people of New York required to be managed with skill, with science, to be drawn into either of the rival camps. Necessity produced the men and created the scientific modes of action. Among the first of these clever manipulators of the electoral material to which tradition goes back was Aaron Burr, the man who, after having attained the VicePresidency of the Republic, dragged out the long and miserable existence of a Cain, abhorred as the murderer of Hamilton and as a traitor to his country. With no private means, poorly connected, but full of resource and possessing considerable personal charm, Burr was able to gather round him, in the city of New York and in most of the counties of the State, men of a similar stamp, who combined great skill and activity with unbounded devotion to their chief. Over the whole area of the State they formed a sort of net, the meshes of which served for catching the voters. A born organizer of men, Burr had all the less scruple about managing them because his practical philosophy of politics was profoundly imbued with military conceptions. His principal maxim was that the citizens ought to be governed at elections by the same rules of discipline as the soldiers of an army, that a few leaders ought to think for the masses, and that the latter had only to render a blind obedience and march at the word of command.? The voters were indeed like pawns on a chess-board, set in motion by an elaborate strategy resting on a thorough knowledge of the various elements of the electorate and on a consummate skill in combination and negotiation, whether in the making up of the lists of the candidates, or in the distribution of rewards after the victory in the form of public offices and dignities. For principles and convictions nobody cared a rap ; they “had no need of this hypothesis," as the politicians of New York might have said, applying the celebrated remark on God to their own case.
Aaron Burr had a host of imitators. One of his leading disciples, the most eminent in fact, was Martin Van Buren. He absorbed the current practices with the air around him ; he assimilated them at an early stage ; he knew by personal experience the ups and downs of condottiere politics with its triumphs and its proscriptions. A marvellous cleverness which amounted to a genius for intrigue, without being iden'tical with it, seconded his talent and his intelligence. A fortunate temperament enabled him and inclined him to play the game in perfect style and with the easy bearing of a gentleman. He never ventured to breast the current; he did not defy events, he preferred to adapt himself to them. Not having been able to prevent the establishment of universal suffrage in the State of New York, on the occasion of the revision of the constitution of 1821, he at once set to work, with all the power of his methodical and organizing mind, to spread the net for the new voters. Election committees, which penetrated into the most remote localities of the State, enrolled the voters and, communicating with the capital, Albany, concentrated all the threads in the hands of Van Buren and a few associates, whom he formed into a junta which received the name of The Regency.
1 Cf. Hammond, Vol. I, pp. 136, 172, 203. 2 Statesman's Manual, Vol. II, p. 1139.
Beneath these head wire-pullers there grew up a large personnel engaged specially in politics, at New York in the first instance, and then in other places, attracted everywhere by a desire for public employment. From the very foundation of the United States, the advantages attaching to the management of public affairs had not only let loose ambitions but also, and in a still greater degree, cravings of a purely material kind. The lucrative posts, on a comparatively modest scale, which the federal service or that of the States could offer, were sought after with an eagerness such as one would have never expected from a democratic people with whom equality of station appeared to exclude a taste for official titles, and in a country absorbed in business where untold profits could be realized. However, so it was. But for a considerable time the office-seekers were stopped by the small number of places as well as by the existence of a ruling class, which had a prior claim on them, in the natural course of things. This competition had a good deal to do with the democratic ferment which set in during the first decades of the century. But in