The Boss and the Machine; a Chronicle of the Politicians and Party Organization

Author: Samuel Peter Orth

Chapter II. The Rise of the Machine

Ideas or principles alone, however eloquently and insistently proclaimed, will not make a party. There must be organization. Thus we have two distinct practical phases of American party politics: one regards the party as an agency of the electorate, a necessary organ of democracy; the other, the party as an organization, an army determined to achieve certain conquests. Every party has, therefore, two aspects, each attracting a different kind of person: one kind allured by the principles espoused; the other, by the opportunities of place and personal gain in the organization. The one kind typifies the body of voters; the other the dominant minority of the party.

When one speaks, then, of a party in America, he embraces in that term: first, the tenets or platform for which the party assumes to stand (i.e., principles that may have been wrought out of experience, may have been created by public opinion, or were perhaps merely made out of hand by manipulators); secondly, the voters who profess attachment to these principles; and thirdly, the political expert, the politician with his organization or machine. Between the expert and the great following are many gradations of party activity, from the occasional volunteer to the chieftain who devotes all his time to "politics."

It was discovered very early in American experience that without organization issues would disintegrate and principles remain but scintillating axioms. Thus necessity enlisted executive talent and produced the politician, who, having once achieved an organization, remained at his post to keep it intact between elections and used it for purposes not always prompted by the public welfare.

In colonial days, when the struggle began between Crown and Colonist, the colonial patriots formed clubs to designate their candidates for public office. In Massachusetts these clubs were known as "caucuses," a word whose derivation is unknown, but which has now become fixed in our political vocabulary. These early caucuses in Boston have been described as follows: "Mr. Samuel Adams’ father and twenty others, one or two from the north end of the town, where all the ship business is carried on, used to meet, make a caucus, and lay their plans for introducing certain persons into places of trust and power. When they had settled it, they separated, and used each their particular influence within his own circle. He and his friends would furnish themselves with ballots, including the names of the parties fixed upon, which they distributed on the day of election. By acting in concert together with a careful and extensive distribution of ballots they generally carried the elections to their own mind."

As the revolutionary propaganda increased in momentum, caucuses assumed a more open character. They were a sort of informal town meeting, where neighbors met and agreed on candidates and the means of electing them. After the adoption of the Constitution, the same methods were continued, though modified to suit the needs of the new party alignments. In this informal manner, local and even congressional candidates were named.

Washington was the unanimous choice of the nation. In the third presidential election, John Adams was the tacitly accepted candidate of the Federalists and Jefferson of the Democratic-Republicans, and no formal nominations seem to have been made. But from 1800 to 1824 the presidential candidates were designated by members of Congress in caucus. It was by this means that the Virginia Dynasty fastened itself upon the country. The congressional caucus, which was one of the most arrogant and compact political machines that our politics has produced, discredited itself by nominating William H. Crawford (1824), a machine politician, whom the public never believed to be of presidential caliber. In the bitter fight that placed John Quincy Adams in the White House and made Jackson the eternal enemy of Clay, the congressional caucus met its doom. For several years, presidential candidates were nominated by various informal methods. In 1828 a number of state legislatures formally nominated Jackson. In several States the party members of the legislatures in caucus nominated presidential candidates. DeWitt Clinton was so designated by the New York legislature in 1812 and Henry Clay by the Kentucky legislature in 1822. Great mass meetings, often garnished with barbecues, were held in many parts of the country in 1824 for indorsing the informal nominations of the various candidates.

But none of these methods served the purpose. The President was a national officer, backed by a national party, and chosen by a national electorate. A national system of nominating the presidential candidates was demanded. On September 26, 1831, 113 delegates of the Anti-Masonic party, representing thirteen States, met in a national convention in Baltimore. This was the first national nominating convention held in America.

In February, 1831, the Whig members of the Maryland legislature issued a call for a national Whig convention. This was held in Baltimore the following December. Eighteen States were represented by delegates, each according to the number of presidential electoral votes it cast. Clay was named for President. The first national Democratic convention met in Baltimore on May 21, 1832, and nominated Jackson.

Since that time, presidential candidates have been named in national conventions. There have been surprisingly few changes in procedure since the first convention. It opened with a temporary organization, examined the credentials of delegates, and appointed a committee on permanent organization, which reported a roster of permanent officers. It appointed a committee on platform—then called an address to the people; it listened to eulogistic nominating speeches, balloted for candidates, and selected a committee to notify the nominees of their designation. This is practically the order of procedure today. The national convention is at once the supreme court and the supreme legislature of the national party. It makes its own rules, designates its committees, formulates their procedure and defines their power, writes the platform, and appoints the national executive committee.

Two rules that have played a significant part in these conventions deserve special mention. The first Democratic convention, in order to insure the nomination of Van Buren for Vice-President—the nomination of Jackson for President was uncontested—adopted the rule that "two-thirds of the whole number of the votes in the convention shall be necessary to constitute a choice." This "two-thirds" rule, so undemocratic in its nature, remains the practice of the Democratic party today. The Whigs and Republicans always adhered to the majority rule. The early Democratic conventions also adopted the practice of allowing the majority of the delegates from any State to cast the vote of the entire delegation from that State, a rule which is still adhered to by the Democrats. But the Republicans have since 1876 adhered to the policy of allowing each individual delegate to cast his vote as he chooses.

The convention was by no means novel when accepted as a national organ for a national party. As early as 1789 an informal convention was held in the Philadelphia State House for nominating Federalist candidates for the legislature. The practice spread to many Pennsylvania counties and to other States, and soon this informality of self-appointed delegates gave way to delegates appointed according to accepted rules. When the legislative caucus as a means for nominating state officers fell into disrepute, state nominating conventions took its place. In 1812 one of the earliest movements for a state convention was started by Tammany Hall, because it feared that the legislative caucus would nominate DeWitt Clinton, its bitterest foe. The caucus, however, did not name Clinton, and the convention was not assembled. The first state nominating convention was held in Utica, New York, in 1824 by that faction of the Democratic party calling itself the People’s party. The custom soon spread to every State, so that by 1835 it was firmly established. County and city conventions also took the place of the caucus for naming local candidates.

But nominations are only the beginning of the contest, and obviously caucuses and conventions cannot conduct campaigns. So from the beginning these nominating bodies appointed campaign committees. With the increase in population came the increased complexity of the committee system. By 1830 many of the States had perfected a series of state, district, and county committees.

There remained the necessity of knitting these committees into a national unity. The national convention which nominated Clay in 1831 appointed a "Central State Corresponding Committee" in each State where none existed, and it recommended "to the several States to organize subordinate corresponding committees in each county and town." This was the beginning of what soon was to evolve into a complete national hierarchy of committees. In 1848 the Democratic convention appointed a permanent national committee, composed of one member from each State. This committee was given the power to call the next national convention, and from the start became the national executive body of the party.

It is a common notion that the politician and his machine are of comparatively recent origin. But the American politician arose contemporaneously with the party, and with such singular fecundity of ways and means that it is doubtful if his modern successors could teach him anything. McMaster declares: "A very little study of long-forgotten politics will suffice to show that in filibustering and gerrymandering, in stealing governorships and legislatures, in using force at the polls, in colonizing and in distributing patronage to whom patronage is due, in all the frauds and tricks that go to make up the worst form of practical politics, the men who founded our state and national governments were always our equals, and often our masters." And this at a time when only propertied persons could vote in any of the States and when only professed Christians could either vote or hold office in two of them!

While Washington was President, Tammany Hall, the first municipal machine, began its career; and presently George Clinton, Governor of New York, and his nephew, DeWitt Clinton, were busy organizing the first state machine. The Clintons achieved their purpose through the agency of a Council of Appointment, prescribed by the first Constitution of the State, consisting of the Governor and four senators chosen by the legislature. This council had the appointment of nearly all the civil officers of the State from Secretary of State to justices of the peace and auctioneers, making a total of 8287 military and 6663 civil offices. As the emoluments of some of these offices were relatively high, the disposal of such patronage was a plum-tree for the politician. The Clintons had been Anti-Federalists and had opposed the adoption of the Constitution. In 1801 DeWitt Clinton became a member of the Council of Appointment and soon dictated its action. The head of every Federalist office-holder fell. Sheriffs, county clerks, surrogates, recorders, justices by the dozen, auctioneers by the score, were proscribed for the benefit of the Clintons. De Witt was sent to the United States Senate in 1802, and at the age of thirty-three he found himself on the highroad to political eminence. But he resigned almost at once to become Mayor of New York City, a position he occupied for about ten years, years filled with the most venomous fights between Burrites and Bucktails. Clinton organized a compact machine in the city. A biased contemporary description of this machine has come down to us. "You [Clinton] are encircled by a mercenary band, who, while they offer adulation to your system of error, are ready at the first favorable moment to forsake and desert you. A portion of them are needy young men, who without maturely investigating the consequence, have sacrificed principle to self-aggrandizement. Others are mere parasites, that well know the tenure on which they hold their offices, and will ever pay implicit obedience to those who administer to their wants. Many of your followers are among the most profligate of the community. They are the bane of social and domestic happiness, senile and dependent panderers."

In 1812 Clinton became a candidate for President and polled 89 electoral votes against Madison’s 128. Subsequently he became Governor of New York on the Erie Canal issue; but his political cunning seems to have forsaken him; and his perennial quarrels with every other faction in his State made him the object of a constant fire of vituperation. He had, however, taught all his enemies the value of spoils, and he adhered to the end to the political action he early advised a friend to adopt: "In a political warfare, the defensive side will eventually lose. The meekness of Quakerism will do in religion but not in politics. I repeat it, everything will answer to energy and decision."

Martin Van Buren was an early disciple of Clinton. Though he broke with his political chief in 1813, he had remained long enough in the Clinton school to learn every trick; and he possessed such native talent for intrigue, so smooth a manner, and such a wonderful memory for names, that he soon found himself at the head of a much more perfect and far-reaching machine than Clinton had ever dreamed of. The Empire State has never produced the equal of Van Buren as a manipulator of legislatures. No modern politician would wish to face publicity if he resorted to the petty tricks that Van Buren used in legislative politics. And when, in 1821, he was elected to the Senate of the United States, he became one of the organizers of the first national machine.

The state machine of Van Buren was long known as the "Albany Regency." It included several very able politicians: William L. Marcy, who became United States Senator in 1831; Silas Wright, elected Senator in 1833; John A. Dix, who became Senator in 1845; Benjamin F. Butler, who was United States Attorney-General under President Van Buren, besides a score or more of prominent state officials. It had an influential organ in the Albany Argus, lieutenants in every county, and captains in every town. Its confidential agents kept the leaders constantly informed of the political situation in every locality; and its discipline made the wish of Van Buren and his colleagues a command. Federal and local patronage and a sagacious distribution of state contracts sustained this combination. When the practice of nominating by conventions began, the Regency at once discerned the strategic value of controlling delegates, and, until the break in the Democratic party in 1848, it literally reigned in the State.

With the disintegration of the Federalist party came the loss of concentrated power by the colonial families of New England and New York. The old aristocracy of the South was more fortunate in the maintenance of its power. Jefferson’s party was not only well disciplined; it gave its confidence to a people still accustomed to class rule and in turn was supported by them. In a strict sense the Virginia Dynasty was not a machine like Van Buren’s Albany Regency. It was the effect of the concentrated influence of men of great ability rather than a definite organization. The congressional caucus was the instrument through which their influence was made practical. In 1816, however, a considerable movement was started to end the Virginia monopoly. It spread to the Jeffersonians of the North. William H. Crawford, of Georgia, and Daniel Tompkins, of New York, came forward as competitors with Monroe for the caucus nomination. The knowledge of this intrigue fostered the rising revolt against the caucus. Twenty-two Republicans, many of whom were known to be opposed to the caucus system, absented themselves. Monroe was nominated by the narrow margin of eleven votes over Crawford. By the time Monroe had served his second term the discrediting of the caucus was made complete by the nomination of Crawford by a thinly attended gathering of his adherents, who presumed to act for the party. The Virginia Dynasty had no further favorites to foster, and a new political force swept into power behind the dominating personality of Andrew Jackson.

The new Democracy, however, did not remove the aristocratic power of the slaveholder; and from Jackson’s day to Buchanan’s this became an increasing force in the party councils. The slavery question illustrates how a compact group of capable and determined men, dominated by an economic motive, can exercise for years in the political arena a preponderating influence, even though they represent an actual minority of the nation. This untoward condition was made possible by the political sagacity and persistence of the party managers and by the unwillingness of a large portion of the people to bring the real issue to a head.

Before the Civil War, then, party organization had become a fixed and necessary incident in American politics. The war changed the face of our national affairs. The changes wrought multiplied the opportunities of the professional politician, and in these opportunities, as well as in the transfused energies and ideals of the people, we must seek the causes for those perversions of party and party machinery which have characterized our modern epoch.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: The Boss and the Machine; a Chronicle of the Politicians and Party Organization

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The Boss and the Machine; a Chronicle of the Politicians and Party Organization

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Samuel Peter Orth, "Chapter II. The Rise of the Machine," The Boss and the Machine; a Chronicle of the Politicians and Party Organization, ed. Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937 in The Boss and the Machine; a Chronicle of the Politicians and Party Organization Original Sources, accessed March 25, 2019,

MLA: Orth, Samuel Peter. "Chapter II. The Rise of the Machine." The Boss and the Machine; a Chronicle of the Politicians and Party Organization, edited by Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937, in The Boss and the Machine; a Chronicle of the Politicians and Party Organization, Original Sources. 25 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Orth, SP, 'Chapter II. The Rise of the Machine' in The Boss and the Machine; a Chronicle of the Politicians and Party Organization, ed. . cited in , The Boss and the Machine; a Chronicle of the Politicians and Party Organization. Original Sources, retrieved 25 March 2019, from