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Caucus, a general term for a policymaking meeting of members of a political party. The term has various shades of meaning, depending on the nature of the business transacted at such a meeting. Undertones of disrepute are associated with the word because of the early American practice of holding clandestine caucuses to select candidates and determine issues without public discussion.

The congressional caucus for nominating U.S. presidential candidates in the first quarter of the 19th century was later discredited and gave way to national party conventions. Nominating caucuses in state legislatures gave way to conventions and later to direct primary elections. Legislative caucuses on the national and state levels in the United States remain useful tools for determining party strategy, but their decisions are not necessarily binding on legislators. In Britain the term "caucus" usually refers to a system of party organization.

The Changing Meaning of Caucus. The earliest documented use of the term caucus in the United States was in a history of the American Revolution published by William Gordon in Boston in 1788. Gordon wrote that "more than fifty years ago, 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 plan for introducing certain persons into places of trust and power." Gordon noted that the terms "caucus and caucusing" were in common usage in Boston before the 1780s, "but my repeated applications to different gentlemen have not furnished me with a satisfactory account of [their] origin." No satisfactory explanation has ever been provided. By various authorities the origin of the word has been traced, inconclusively, to caulkers, engaged in ship building; to the medieval Latin caucus, after the Greek kaukos, a drinking vessel; and to the Algonkian Indian caucausu, elder, counselor.

The most famous description of the early Boston caucuses, though not an eyewitness account, was recorded by John Adams in his diary in February 1763. Adams reported that "the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws, the Adjutant of the Boston Regiment. He has a large House, and he has a moveable Partition in his Garrett, which he takes down and the whole Clubb meets in one Room. There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other. There they drink Phlip [i.e., flip] I suppose, and there they choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and Selectmen, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town."

Whatever the etymology of the word "caucus," the definition that Adams provided is the meaning that came to be accepted in the United States; its connotation of smoke-filled rooms where public decisions were made in advance by an influential group of leaders survived. In 1810 a North Carolina Federalist congressman defined a caucus as "a private night meeting of a party, in which particular measures are discussed and determined on for reasons which do not admit of being disclosed in public."

In the late 1800s the term "caucus" was used in New England and some Western states to mean a primary election, but the use of the word in connection with informal meetings of party leaders continued in the designation "parlor caucuses." Increasingly in American political life "caucus" is used to mean a political conference designed to determine party strategy. Thus, state delegations to national presidential nominating conventions hold caucuses to decide floor strategy and votes; Democratic governors assemble periodically in a caucus; or Republicans in the U. S. House of Representatives meet in the Republican conference.

British Usage. In Britain, "caucus" came into use in the 1870s as a term, largely of reproach, applied to a closely disciplined system of party organization of one's political opponents. Borrowed from the United States, the designation was meant to imply a "political machine" rather than a conference. The term was first applied by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Earl of Beaconsfield) to the Liberal Association organization initiated by Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, from which the plan of organization spread throughout the country. The term passed quickly into general usage in reference to the new Liberal machinery of representative party associations.

The Caucus in U. S. History Although in the United States the terms "conference" and "caucus" are increasingly being used interchangeably, in certain earlier periods caucuses were more sharply defined, had clear and continuing rules of operations, and wielded extensive powers in the nation's political life. This was especially true on the level of national politics with respect to congressional caucuses.

There were two main periods when congressional caucuses were particularly influential elements in the political structure of national politics: the first was from 1800 to 1824, when the congressional nominating caucus controlled the choice of presidential candidates; the second was from 1910 to 1920, when the legislative caucus exercised its most powerful influence on congressional actions.

The Congressional Nominating Caucus. The formation of national political parties in the United States in the 1790s required that procedures be devised for nominating presidential and vice presidential candidates. As early as 1796 the Jeffersonian Republicans reportedly held a caucus of Republican members of Congress to decide on a vice presidential nominee to be run on the ticket with Thomas Jefferson, whom consensus had made their first choice. Although no agreement was reached at this meeting, it initiated a precedent, and in 1800 the Republican congressmen met in a nominating caucus and agreed on a party slate of Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Federalist members of Congress in 1800 also held a caucus and agreed to support John Adams and Charles C. Pinckney.

The congressional nominating caucus was continued by the Jeffersonian Republicans from 1800 to 1824, and all the candidates for president and vice president that the Republicans nominated until 1824 were successful. Thus, the Republican congressional caucus, which selected the nominees of the dominant party, came to exercise a powerful influence in American politics. After the Federalist defeat in 1800 and the resultant decline in Federalist membership in Congress, that party abandoned the congressional nominating caucus.

Initially, both Republicans and Federalists had attempted to keep their nominating caucuses secret. However, in 1804 reports of the Republican caucus proceedings were published in the newspapers, and members of Congress wrote freely about the practice. That year, for the first time, the nominating caucus appointed a committee to promote the election of the party's nominees; this was the earliest version of a national party committee in the United States. By 1808 the congressional caucus had become so decisive that political maneuvering and competition for its nomination was one of the most keenly contested aspects of the presidential campaign.

The powerful role of the congressional nominating caucus provoked vigorous protests against the practice. One observer complained that "an intriguing character has nothing therefore to perform, but to secure the good will of a majority of the members of Congress, and his success is inevitable." Protests against the nominating caucus generally came from those who disapproved of the caucus choice, and many contemporaries defended the practice on the grounds that congressmen were a representative group well qualified to make presidential nominations. Nevertheless, criticism of the system continued.

Decline of the Nominating Caucus. The caucus system broke down in the presidential election of 1824. Supporters of presidential aspirants who had little chance to win the caucus nomination carried their campaign directly to the people. They aroused widespread popular resentment against the institution that was increasingly denounced as "King Caucus." For the first time, in 1824, the nominee of the Republican congressional caucus, William H. Crawford, was not elected. But because no national system of concentrating support behind a particular candidate had replaced the caucus, no candidate in 1824 received a majority of electoral votes; the election was decided in the House of Representatives, which chose John Quincy Adams.

The breakdown of the nominating caucus marked the end of the first American party system, in which the role of the members of Congress, especially through the caucus, had provided the principal national party machinery. The vacuum created by the collapse of the caucus was not immediately filled. However, in 1832, following the lead of the Anti-Masonic party, the Jacksonian Democrats and the National Republicans held national nominating conventions, and a new institution in American politics was established.

Early State Nominating Caucuses. During the Federalist-Jeffersonian period, state caucuses paralleled the congressional nominating caucus. In many states party members of state legislatures met in caucuses to nominate candidates for state offices, representatives to Congress, and presidential electors. These caucuses were also frequently open to party leaders from throughout the state. In some instances such party caucuses established statewide systems of party committees or other party machinery. In short, the party caucus was a key device in determining state party nominations and in the creation of formal party machinery. State caucuses, at times, also attempted to influence the nomination of the congressional caucus by announcing support for particular candidates.

On the state level the transition from caucus nomination to a convention system occurred earlier than on the national level. New Jersey initiated a state nominating convention in 1800, and a growing trend from caucus to convention on the state level strengthened the opposition to the national nominating caucus. However, after the introduction of the national convention, parties in some states continued to use the state party caucus to choose delegates to national conventions.

The Congressional Legislative Caucus. Although the nominating caucus was the most significant and influential use of the caucus device in Congress during the early national period, party members in Congress occasionally held party caucuses to consider legislative issues and nominees for officers chosen by Congress. These were frequently informal gatherings and had no rules of procedure. The development of the committee system from 1816 onward largely superseded the legislative caucus, and the standing committee system became the established method of conducting congressional business.

Woodrow Wilson, writing in 1885, saw no controllable party organization within Congress, where party discipline was slack and indefinite in dealing with legislation: "The only bond of cohesion is the caucus, which occasionally whips a party together for cooperative action against the time for casting its vote upon some critical question." However, the occasional caucus, which Wilson saw as weak in the late 1800s, emerged strong in the early 1900s, and for the period between 1910 and 1920 was the most significant device employed for the consideration of legislative policy in Congress.

The reemergence of "King Caucus" in the 20th century followed the successful revolt in Congress against the power of the Republican speaker of the House, Joseph G. Cannon, in 1910. The caucus had previously been used primarily to nominate party candidates for the speakership and other House offices. But depriving the speaker of much of his power opened the way for the revival of powerful party caucuses.

After capturing the House in the congressional elections of 1910, the Democrats used the secret caucus to establish strong party control over Congress. Under this system the caucus established direct control over legislative action. Every major measure was discussed and differences settled in a party caucus. Rules adopted by the Democratic caucus in 1909 provided that a caucus decision adopted by two thirds of the party membership in the House was binding on all Democrats with the following exceptions: questions involving interpretation of the Constitution, contrary pledges made to a member's constituents before election, or contrary instructions received on nomination.

Modern Functions. After World War I, the party caucus system gradually disintegrated. Party caucuses in Congress are held primarily on the eve of the meeting of each new Congress for nominating candidates for the elective offices of the House. Nomination by the majority party caucus is tantamount to election. Party caucuses rarely are held to determine the party stand on legislative issues, and they are not binding on members.

The Democratic caucus rarely meets to decide legislative matters, but the Republican conference of the House of Representatives has met regularly since the early 1950s to discuss policy and exchange ideas. The adoption by Republicans of the name conference rather than caucus is indicative of the declining use of the older term. The Republican policy committee is an adjunct of the Republican House conference, having been established by the conference.

State Legislative Caucuses Legislative caucuses operate with varying degrees of power and effectiveness on the state level in the United States. Because the existence and operation of state caucuses is closely related to two-party politics, they never remain static. An authoritative survey of American state legislatures, made by the American Political Science Association's committee on American legislatures in 1954, showed that majority party caucuses in state legislatures functioned in 25 senates and 24 houses, existed but had little significance in 8 senates and 9 houses, and were nonexistent in 15 senates and 14 houses. Minority party caucuses were found in 25 states, but were reported to be of importance in only 15 states. Majority and minority caucuses are most commonly found in states with competitive 2-party systems. Party caucuses generally do not exist in 1-party states, although there may be factional caucuses within the majority party.

The states that had strong majority party caucuses during the 1960s were Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wyoming. In these 13 states, majority party caucuses met frequently, sometimes daily, and played a major role in the legislative process. In some instances caucuses serve as places where debates on bills are held by the majority party, differences are settled, and the party members decide the fate of legislative proposals. In New Jersey, where the majority caucus in both House and Senate meet daily, the caucus controls the legislative program and makes all crucial legislative decisions. In the states in which a majority party caucus functions but does not attempt to exert any significant control over the legislative program, the caucus usually meets once a year, primarily for organizational purposes.

The evidence that the legislative caucus exerts, or attempts to exert, a strong influence on the legislative process in only 13 states suggests the decline of the legislative caucus on the state level in the United States, as it already has declined on the national level. On the local level, party caucuses may be found in such a variety of circumstances and places as to make generalizations about them impossible.

See also Convention, Political; Democratic Party; Election.

Noble E. Cunningham, Jr.
University of Missouri


Butterfield, Lyman H., ed., The Adams Papers: Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. I, pp. 238–240 (Harvard Univ. Press 1961), on the early Boston caucuses.

Byrne, Gary C., and Marx, Paul, The Great American Convention: A Political History of Presidential Elections (Pacific Bks. 1977).

Congressional Quarterly, Inc., "National Party Conventions 1831–1980,"1983.

Cunningham, Noble E., Jr., The Jeffersonian Republicans in Power (Univ. of N.C. Press 1963).

Davis, James W., National Conventions in an Age of Party Reform (Greenwood Press 1983).

Epstein, Leon, Political Parties in the American Mold (Univ. of Wis. Press 1986).

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