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Presidential “patronage,” that is, the power of appointing to public offices, having become the life-blood of the organized parties, their main efforts were brought to bear on the national conventions in which the choice of the candidates for the Presidency was decided. The party staked its fortunes in them for the term of four years at least, and its managers were of opinion that the game could not be played with too much skill. They set to work so well that the history of the national conventions became a long record of tricks, of stratagems, of unscrupulous maneuvres, or sometimes even of scandalous acts. The Whig convention at Harrisburg gave a foretaste of this in 1839. The Democratic convention of 1844 continued it. The Democrats, put to rout by “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” had quickly recovered their ground in the congressional elections, and appeared to have all the more serious chances of success in the presidential election that the country had derived little benefit from the Whig administration. The general feeling in the Democratic party assigned the Presidency to Van Buren, who, in fact, had not deserved ill of his party and had fallen a victim to a situation created by other people. When the delegates to the Democratic national convention were appointed in the States, it was understood that they should vote for Van Buren. But in the meanwhile an event occurred which inspired the wire-pullers of the party with apprehensions about Van Buren. The question of slavery, which had for some time past been slowly agitating the country, became all of a sudden a burning one, in consequence of the plan formed by the slaveholders for extending the area of slavery by the annexation of the old Mexican province of Texas. The slaveholders of the South furnished the Democratic party with a very considerable number of its contingents. In the defence of their "domestic institution,” they took their stand on the sovereign rights of the States, of which the Democrats were the traditional champions. This point of contact soon brought about a close alliance between the two, the former, however, making the support which they gave the Democrats subordinate to their private interest. When the question of the annexation of Texas was distinctly raised, just before the presidential election of 1844, Van Buren pronounced, more or less clearly, against annexation. The Democrat managers considered that by making this declaration he had seriously impaired his chances of success in the South, and to avoid being wrecked with him they decided to throw their great leader overboard.
They accomplished their purpose at the national convention. The mercenary elements, the men who were bent solely on office, and who were ready to vote for any one who could get it for them, adventurers, speculators in land and scrip, who had cast a covetous glance on Texas, were, it would appear, largely represented in the convention. Most of the delegates had instructions to vote for Van Buren; the point was to provide them with a pretext for deserting him. For this recourse was had to a device of procedure, just as the Whigs had done to get rid of Clay. Without giving the delegates time to look round, the Democratic convention was persuaded into adopting the decision that the candidates for the Presidency and the Vice-Presidency must obtain a majority of two-thirds of the votes to be validly nominated. The same procedure had already been followed at the two first Democratic conventions, but as there was no difference of opinion then as to the persons to be nominated, it was not of any consequence. Now a onethird vote was enough to ensure Van Buren's defeat. At the first ballot 151 votes out of 266 were cast for him, but this absolute majority was no longer sufficient. At the second ballot he received still fewer votes, at each fresh ballot he lost some; after the seventh ballot Van Buren's friends withdrew his candidature. The minority then stepped in with a comparatively speaking obscure candidate, James K. Polk. He obtained only 44 votes; but his very mediocrity appeared to a good many delegates as a sort of guarantee of success; being little known in the country, he gave umbrage to no one, and he might, after all, they thought, ultimately secure a majority. The next ballot at once disclosed numerous adhesions to Polk, and then a wild stampede set in; delegations which had just cast their vote for other candidates recanted in headlong haste and went over to Polk, and when the balloting closed, it turned out that Polk had been nominated unanimously.
1 According to Benton's account, this convention presented a “motley assemblage, called democratic - many self-appointed, or appointed upon management or solicitation - many alternative substitutes – -many members of Congress, in violation of the principle which condemned the Congress presidential caucuses in 1824 — some nullifiers, and an immense outside concourse. Texas land and scrip speculators were largely in it, and more largely on the outside. A considerable number were in favour of no particular candidate, but in pursuit of office for themselves -- inflexible against any one from whom they thought they would not get it, and ready to go for any from whom they thought they could” (Thirty Years' View, Vol. II, p. 591).
Thus Martin Van Buren, the political legatee of Jackson, the tutelar genius and almost the creator of the Democratic Organization, was thrown over by it for a Polk. The indignation among Jackson's old set was great. They laid the blame on the "two-thirds rule,” which had done all the mischief. But it is only fair to add that they did not stop there. And just as several members of the congressional Caucus had declared in 1824 that they would no longer take part in a meeting which usurped the rights of the people, so Van Buren's friends could not find language strong enough to denounce the convention, which, according to them, was “the first instance of a body of men, unknown to the laws and the Constitution, assuming to treat the American Presidency as their private property, to be disposed of at their own will and pleasure; and, it may be added, for their own profit.” 1 In reality the convention simply followed the path marked out by the Jacksonians themselves. It was the formal application of the “demos krateo principle," which they so confidently set up against the Constitution itself, that invested “ men unknown to the Constitution" with the right of disposing of the Presidency, and made their decisions, whatever they might be, binding on the members of the party. The exercise of this right derived from a formal source, entailing no responsibility and productive of material gain, attracted above all the mercenary politicians, and they naturally, judging men and things by the standard of their own interests, of their proprieties of the moment, had no line of conduct to follow but the opportunist one, in the lowest sense of the word. It was no use for Van Buren being, next to Jackson, the sole, the real leader of the Democratic party; the members of the conventions held that the true leader is the one who provides the loaves and fishes. The best candidate for the Presidency was not the one with the most sterling qualities, but the one who was likely to win, who had the best chance of penetrating into the fortress and opening its gates to his followers. In this policy of results the sole criterion was that of suitableness, of "availability.” “He is not available,” was henceforth a candidate's death-sentence.
1 Thirty Years' View, Vol. II, p. 595.
The opportunism of the politicians of the conventions, which tended to keep the best men out of power, was reinforced by the opportunism of the eminent leaders themselves, which dealt the political leadership its death-blow. Here again it was the presidential campaign of 1844 which gave a melancholy exhibition of it, and especially in the Whig camp. The Whigs, repenting in a way the affront offered to their glorious leader, Henry Clay, at the preceding election, nominated him on this occasion for the Presidency by acclamation. The Whig national convention, when adopting his candidature, passed, for the first time, resolutions defining the principles of the party, its “platform” (following the Democratic party, which inaugurated this custom in 1840), but the burning question of Texas, behind which the slaveholders ensconced themselves, was passed over in silence to avoid giving offence to the southerners. Clay was not allowed to observe the same reticence; in the course of the election campaign he had to state his views, and at first he declared himself opposed to the annexation of Texas; but before long he whittled down his declaration more and more, in order not to estrange supporters in the South, and went so far as to say that he would be glad to see the country eventually form part of the United States. This rather too clever attitude cost Clay the votes of a good many strong opponents of slavery, who preferred to affirm their creed, without any chance of success, in the person of an independent candidate frankly hostile to the extension of slavery. This desertion caused the defeat of Clay, whose success appeared to be perfectly certain on this occasion. The disappointment was keenly felt throughout the Union by Clay's numerous admirers; men and women shed tears; many despaired of the future of the Republic and of democratic government on seeing a Polk preferred to Henry Clay, the great Clay.
Yet so far as his defeat and not Polk's success was con
cerned, it was due not so much to the failings of popular government as to those of leaders who, amid their faint-hearted calculations of votes to be won or lost, cannot or will not have the courage of their opinions, who keep back the plain unvarnished truth from the people. No doubt the confused mass of voters under a popular form of government, and the constant uncertainty as to what they think and what they want, demoralize public men who wish to win the multitude, to get as large a following as possible. But still more do the men who, in their efforts to thrust themselves on it, shirk responsibility, who, instead of walking straight before it, twist and turn from side to side, still more do these would-be leaders bewilder the electorate. And if the leadership has declined in democracies, it is because the prominent leaders who happened to be still left standing have preferred to lower themselves to the shifting and wavering caprices of the mob; helping to demolish the leadership, they were themselves buried in its ruins. Clay was a highly pathetic instance of this in the history of American democracy; he fell, never to rise again, and the leadership with him; he was the last great Whig chief, almost the last great party chief in the proper sense of the word. And it is only once, in exceptional circumstances, amid the storm and stress of civil war, that a man will again come forth from the ranks to lead the nation and save it by dint of courage and genius springing from his own uprightness.
The eminent statesmen who were not eliminated by the conventions retired from the field of their own accord. This course was taken by Calhoun, the great rival of the Van Burens and the Clays. On the eve of the election of 1844 his candidature for the Presidency was mooted for a moment. But he would not allow it to be brought before the national convention, and in a published letter he gave his reasons, arraigning the whole system of the conventions with all the power of his sombre logical genius. Finding fault, in the first place, with the constitution of these assemblies, he proves that they are no more a direct expression of the popular voice than they are a true representation of the party: "Instead of being directly or fresh from the people, the delegates to the Baltimore convention will be the delegates of delegates; and of course removed, in all cases, at least three, if not four, degrees from