As the Republican Party begins its national convention today in Florida, I offer this brief history of political conventions and examine their relevance to modern American politics.
The generation of political leaders who initiated and executed the American Revolution and founded a new nation, believed in the concept of republican virtue. That is, they felt it the obligation of every citizen to give of themselves to the welfare of their new, shared political endeavor. That their definition of citizenship was quite narrow is very imoprtant, but another matter altogether.
The founders believed that in order for the republic to survive and be healthy, citizens must sublimate their selfish interests for the sake of the general welfare. In line with this, they imagined that the nation’s politicians would be citizen servants: men, who for a temporary period of time, sacrificed the profits and joys of their personal pursuits so that they might shoulder the responsibility of governing the nation, the states, and localities, offering their wisdom and insight for everyone’s benefit.
There was nothing of political parties in this vision. Neither the Articles of Confederation nor the U.S. Constitution made any mention of them. They are, in the strict sense of the term, extra-constitutional political organizations, and they are most decidedly not what the new nation’s architects had in mind when they fashioned this republic. Indeed, they did not even use the term “party” for the most part, instead referring to the political alliances that soon formed as “factions.” George Washington especially despised the new factionalism, even in its nascent form, and he refused to ally with any group. To this day, he is the only president listed on the roll of chief executives as Independent.
Perhaps it was näive of Washington and other purists to scoff at the emerging political gangs. Perhaps the constitution’s framers should have better anticipated this development and done something to temper it, to keep it from warping their beloved system of checks and balances. Regardless, the move towards modern parties was underway as the nation’s politicians began to lineup behind the philosophies and reputations of top leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams.