December 13, 1831
Henry Clay Celebrates a First
Question: Who was the first U.S. senator to win the presidential nomination of his political party?
In December 1831, that senator’s party—known as the National Republicans—met in Baltimore to conduct the first major national political convention. In previous presidential elections, parties had produced candidates through state conventions, and caucuses held in state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress. The last congressional caucus had taken place in 1824 and included only 66 of Congress’s 261 members.
As the nation grew and means of communication improved, parties realized the importance of orchestrating a national event to energize supporters. The National Republicans chose Baltimore because it was conveniently near Washington, where many of their delegates also served in Congress.
As a former House Speaker and secretary of state, Henry Clay in 1831 could easily have won the necessary number of electoral votes without the added formality of a national convention. But his party wanted to take no chances in its campaign to dislodge Democrat Andrew Jackson from the White House.
In addition to supporting the innovation of a national party convention, Clay had decided that his standing would be enhanced if he could return to public office as a member of the United States Senate. This move reflected the growing stature of the Senate in that era as it moved out of the shadow of the House of Representatives. Eight years earlier, Andrew Jackson had made the same tactical decision. In doing this, both men risked humiliation at the hands of political opponents in their state legislatures. A defeat for a Senate seat would certainly tarnish a subsequent presidential bid. Indeed, the Kentucky legislature elected Henry Clay to the Senate in November 1831 by a margin of only nine votes.
Clay remained in Washington during the December Baltimore convention, at which 155 delegates from 18 of the nation’s 24 states met in a large saloon and chose him unanimously on December 13, 1831.
The following spring, as the campaign got underway, three hundred young National Republicans visited Washington to support their candidate. Known as “Clay’s Infant-School,” they experienced an unexpected treat on May 7, 1832, when the candidate himself rode down from the Senate to accept their ceremonial nomination.
Since 1832, fourteen other incumbent senators, including three Republicans and four Democrats, have received their parties’ nomination. In 1920, Warren Harding became the first among them to win the presidency; in 1960 John F. Kennedy became the second; in 2008 Barack Obama became the third.
Remini, Robert V. Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.