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Henry Clay Celebrates a First


December 13, 1831

Henry Clay.

Question: Who was the first U.S. senator to win the presidential nomination of his political party? Answer: Henry Clay of Kentucky.

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.

With the rapid growth of the nation and improved means of communication, parties realized the importance of orchestrating a national event to energize supporters. In 1831 the National Republicans chose to meet in Baltimore because it was conveniently located near Washington, where many of their delegates also served in Congress.

As a former U.S. senator, House Speaker, and secretary of state, Henry Clay in 1831 could easily have won the votes needed to secure the presidential nomination 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.

A few weeks later, after Clay and his family had made their way to Washington for the first session of the 22nd Congress, Clay attended the December Baltimore convention, at which 155 delegates from 18 of the nation's 24 states met in a large saloon and unanimously chose him as their candidate for president of the United States on December 13, 1831.

The following spring, as the campaign got underway, 300 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. Unfortunately for Clay and his supporters, he was soundly defeated in the general election by incumbent president Andrew Jackson.

Since 1832, 18 incumbent senators have received their parties' nomination. Of those 18, only three have won the presidency: Warren Harding in 1920; John F. Kennedy in 1960; and Barack Obama in 2008.