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Nominating Presidents

February 14, 1824

The U.S. Constitution includes no provision for nominating presidential candidates. Its framers failed to anticipate the development of political parties. They assumed that states would assign their electoral votes to individuals with strong local and national reputations. The candidate with the most votes would become president and the runner up would be vice president. Thwarting this plan, political parties developed almost immediately.

By 1800, a party-based system of nominating caucuses had emerged that placed the major responsibility for selecting presidential candidates on Congress. That arrangement lasted for 24 years, producing presidents from Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe. Its influence endures even today in those states that select national convention delegates through party caucuses.

The early 19th-century party-based congressional nominating caucuses emerged out of necessity. Meetings of the Senate and House of Representatives were the only national gatherings of party leaders. Consequently, each party’s congressional caucus, by default, assumed the role of selecting presidential nominees. This arrangement quickly attracted criticism for unbalancing the separation of powers; it made selection of presidents dependent on members of Congress. These fears materialized in 1812 when senators and representatives pressured President James Madison to declare war on Great Britain as a precondition for his renomination to a second term.

James Monroe’s presidency, from 1817 to 1825, witnessed the demise of the Federalists and therewith the temporary end of a dynamic two-party system. Without party competition, there was no need to select a party nominee, because there would be no opposition nominee to run against. This sparked concerns that the unstructured selection process could turn into a free-for-all.

On February 14, 1824, when the Jeffersonian-Republican caucus convened in the House Chamber, the congressional nominating system lay in tatters. Only one-quarter of the caucus members bothered to attend. They supported Treasury Secretary William Crawford, a former Georgia senator, despite a recent stroke that had left him speechless and nearly blind. The other active candidates—Tennessee Senator Andrew Jackson, House Speaker Henry Clay, and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams—encouraged their supporters to boycott the moribund caucus. A Jackson biographer sarcastically concluded, "The next President of the United States, if Congress had its way, would be paralyzed, sightless, and dumb."

The absence of party discipline in 1824 kept any candidate from winning an Electoral College majority and threw the contest into the House of Representatives. The House elected John Quincy Adams, who in both popular and electoral votes had run behind Andrew Jackson.

The chaotic 1824 election sealed the fate of the congressional nominating caucus. It led to a revived two-party structure, creation of party nominating conventions, and the rise of the modern Democratic Party.