Caucus, a word of American origin, employed in the United States to designate a part of the political machinery of the country, which, though resting merely on usage, forms a marked feature of the American political system. The oldest written use of this word is probably in the following passage in John Adams's diary, dated Boston, February, 1763: "This day learned that the caucus club meets at certain times in the garret of Tom Dawes, the adjutant of the Boston regiment, He has a large house, and he has a movable partition in his garret which he takes down, and the whole club meets in one room. There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one end of the garret to the other. There they drink flip, I suppose, and there they choose a moderator who puts questions to the vote regularly, and selectmen, overseers, collectors, wardens, fire wards, and representatives are regularly chosen before they are chosen by the town. They send committees to wait on the merchants1 club, and to propose and join in the choice of men and measures. Capt. Cunningham says they have often selected him to go to those caucuses," etc.
Gordon, in his "History of the American Revolution," under date of 1775, traces this practice to a much earlier date: "More than 50 years ago Mr. Samuel Adams's father and 20 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 reported and used each their particular influence with 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 days of election. By acting in concert, together with a careful and extensive distribution of ballots, they generally carried the elections to their own mind. In like manner it was that Mr. S. Adams first became a representative for Boston." It has been conjectured that caucus is a corruption of calkers. Very possibly the caucus club which met in Tom Dawes's garret was originally a mechanics1 club, called from the leading trade in it the calkers' club, which name, with a variation, it still retained after it had passed into the hands of politicians. Mr. J. II. Trumbull derives the term from an Algonquin word meaning to speak, encourage, instigate.
The singular of the Indian noun is said to have been kaw-kaw-wus, plural kaw-haw-wus-sough, "counsellors," which the Virginians changed into cockarouse, designating a petty chieftain, and that thence come caurusers and caucus. - The change of government consequent on the revolution led, in the northern states especially, to a great increase in the number of elective offices, while the prevailing idea of the impropriety of self-nominations and of a personal canvass for votes made some nominating and canvassing machinery necessary. Meetings held for this purpose received the name of caucuses. Each party held in each election district its own caucus to nominate candidates. Public notice of the time and place was given, and every voter of the party was at liberty to attend. A moderator and clerk being chosen, a nomination list was opened. Each person present nominated whom he pleased. Several copies of the list were made and distributed through the meeting, each person placing a mark against the candidate whom he proposed, and the candidate having the highest number of marks was declared the nominee. This method, however, was evidently inapplicable where the constituency was large or the district extensive.
Hence the substitution of a representative caucus, delegates being appointed at meetings like that above described, held in case of cities and large towns in the wards, and in country districts in the townships. These elective caucuses commonly took to themselves the name of nominating conventions, and their introduction marks a third era in the development of the caucus system. A considerable period, however, elapsed before this convention system was applied to state or presidential nominations. The members of the state legislatures in the one case and of congress in the other, those of each party holding their own separate caucus, took upon themselves to make these nominations. At first these legislative and congressional caucuses were held privately. Afterward, however, they came to be formally and avowedly held. Committees were appointed to look after the elections, and besides a state committee the legislative caucuses assumed the power of nominating the chairmen of the local county and district conventions.
At length it began to be objected that in these legislative caucuses only those districts in which the party was in the majority were represented, and this and other causes led, between 1820 and 1830, to the substitution in New York and Pennsylvania of state conventions in their place; a custom since universally imitated. Congressional caucuses about the same time fell into disfavor. That held in 1823 to nominate a successor to Monroe was but slenderly attended: and its nomination was extensively disregarded, so that Mr. Crawford, its nominee, was behind both Jackson and Adams in the popular vote. At the presidential election of 1828 Adams became the candidate of one party and Jackson of the other, without any formal nomination. The congressional caucus system being exploded, the Jackson or democratic party held in 1832 a national nominating convention, each state being entitled to the same number of votes as in the presidential election; and similar conventions of that party have been held to nominate candidates for each succeeding presidential term. The opposition, then known as whigs, adopted the same policy in 1837, and since that period all nominations for the presidency, by whatever party or fragment of party, have been made by a similar agency.
The power of assembling these bodies usually rests with a committee appointed by the previous convention. Besides judging the qualifications of their own members, and nominating candidates, they assume the power of drawing up party creeds or platforms, as they are called, and of determining, in case of new and important questions, what position the party shall take.