Thursday, December 13, 2007

December 12, 1831:

Proto-Whigs Meet to Nominate Clay

The idea of a national convention to nominate a presidential candidate was a novelty in December 1831 when members of the National Republican party -- elements of which would later evolve into the Whigs -- met in Baltimore to nominate Henry Clay (left) to run for president in 1832. In previous election cycles, party candidates had been nominated by caucuses of Congressmen. After the election of 1832, however, the parties realized the value of state and then national conventions in building membership and loyalty, so conventions became the norm.

The 1831 National Republican meeting was essentially one against President Jackson, spurred especially by his veto of the Maysville Road bill in 1830 and later vetoes of other internal improvements funded by the federal government. Such improvements were a cornerstone of the "American System" of Henry Clay, the leading anti-Jacksonian. The platform of the National Republicans included federal support for internal improvements, a protective tariff to nurture infant industries, and a strong Bank of the United States, all of which were articulated in the convention's journal -- an early version of a party platform decided by a convention.

John Sergeant, a Congressman from Pennsylvania, was also nominated in December 1831, as Clay's running mate. Ultimately, though, President Jackson (running with Martin Van Buren) was far too popular for Clay and Sergeant to overcome, with the Democratic ticket capturing 54.2 percent of the popular vote vs. 37.4 percent for the National Republicans, and 219 electoral votes vs. 49.

Interestingly, the convention nominating Clay wasn't the very first such meeting. In the summer of 1831, the Anti-Masonic party met to nominate William Wirt (right), a former US attorney general (and former Mason) for president. Wirt, of Maryland, and his running mate Amos Ellmaker of Pennsylvania, must have capitalized on strong anti-Masonic feelings in Vermont, because they won that state in 1832 -- the only state they won -- and got all of seven electoral votes for their trouble.

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