Caucus: a cant word of the Americans in the March 2019 update
There are perhaps few political terms more idiosyncratically American than caucus. In 1818, the English writer Sydney Smith referred to it as ‘the cant word of the Americans for the committees and party meetings in which the business of the elections is prepared.’ Though today the word may be used to refer to elected representatives of any country if they share a particular policy position or party membership, only in the United States is the caucus still an official mechanism for selecting representatives democratically. Despite this and despite the breathless media coverage of the Iowa caucuses every presidential election cycle (the next are less than a year away), even many Americans remain unclear about what this mechanism is and how it came to be.
A Notification from the Association of Lay-Brethren
In fairness, where the word caucus comes from is something nobody is clear about. Probably the most common explanation is that it comes from an Algonquian name for a group of elders, which sounds plausible given how many other words American English has taken from indigenous languages, but there is no direct evidence for this. Likewise, it has been noted that caucus is a medieval Latin term for a drinking vessel, so some have speculated that the term derives from the name of a tavern or drinking club. In addition to the lack of clear proof of this, what makes this Latin derivation unlikely is that the earliest examples we have of caucus are not spelled this way at all.
In 1788, the historian Reverend William Gordon was the first to report that, more than fifty years earlier, a caucus would meet in the city of Boston to ‘lay their plan for introducing certain persons into places of trust and power.’ According to Gordon, one of the meeting attendants was the brewer Samuel Adams, Sr., whose grandson, future president John Adams, also noted in a 1763 diary entry, ‘This day learned that the Caucus Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws.’
But when we turn to the records we have from Boston in the first half of the eighteenth century, the word caucus is nowhere to be found. What we find instead are several obscure references to some association or club variously referred to as Corcas, Corcus, and even corkus. (To Americans the spelling shift from -or to -au might seem unlikely. But if the speakers involved were using what is called a non-rhotic r—compare the British pronunciation of caucus to the way they say words like corner and quarter—then this change becomes much more plausible.) Context suggests that this group held secret meetings to coordinate votes ahead of town elections, but we can’t tell much more than this. Perhaps most mysterious of all is the very oldest example we have of Corcus from an August 1745 issue of the Boston Evening Post Supplement:
It is accordingly proposed that there be such a general meeting, and that it be held..at West-Corcus in Boston.
As author and blogger J. L. Bell has observed, the ‘Notification’ this quotation is drawn from ‘appears to be one of those sarcastic eighteenth-century essays pretending to be someone on the opposite side of a controversy in order to lampoon that side’s views.’ The anonymous author claims to be a member of something called the Association of Lay-Brethren, a group whose name suggests sympathy with the rising evangelism of the American Great Awakening. But the document’s details call this into question. In fact, the author seems to be satirizing local enthusiasm for itinerant evangelicals like Reverend George Whitefield, even going so far as to suggest that perhaps Boston should do away with their own resident ministers in order to save money. It is in order to discuss this and other questions that the author proposes a meeting ‘be held..at West-Corcus in Boston’. What’s strange about this proposal is that there doesn’t seem to have ever been a place called West-Corcus in Boston (nor any Corcus named for any other cardinal direction). Whether this itself is part of the satire, or whether the author is alluding to an already established ‘corcus’ that was secretly pulling political strings in 1740s Boston is probably impossible to say definitively.
‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes’
When we imagine the eighteenth century today, we tend to think of it as a period of enlightened liberalism, when the virtues of democratic representation were finally starting to be taken seriously, culminating in the political revolutions that brought the century to a close. While this isn’t necessarily a false narrative, it minimizes the extent to which scientific enlightenment and liberal ideologies were also regarded as esoteric, potentially dangerous doctrines whereby small elite cabals like the Freemasons could secretly manipulate the masses. To the extent that the so-called ‘caucus system’ is a product of this liberal tradition, such paranoia was not without justification.
Over the course of American history, the power to vote and the power of voting have steadily expanded to such a degree that we now often overestimate how democratically inclined the original American government truly was. For instance, it is not well known that not until 1828, nearly half a century after the ratification of the Constitution, were the vast majority of white men granted the right to vote. Before that time, suffrage was contingent on being a wealthy landowner. But, even after 1828, who you could vote for was still not decided in a democratic fashion. Instead, elected representatives and other political operatives would meet privately to decide who would be nominated at the party’s convention and eventually appear on the ballot. These meetings were known as caucuses.
Suffice it to say, the practice of holding such meetings was neither widely liked nor widely trusted. The nineteenth century is dominated by public criticism of the particular caucuses of individual political parties as well as of the ‘caucus system’ in general. Already by 1824, the political cartoonist James Akin was depicting proponents of presidential nominating caucuses as wild, angry ‘curs’, and, of course, with the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, Lewis Carroll was memorably mocking the idea of a ‘Caucus-race’ as a race with no clear beginning or end whose only merits derive from the solemn pronouncement of the Dodo: ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’
The end of the caucus system
In fact, while the Caucus-race may never end in its entirety, when it comes to US presidential elections, things have changed considerably since 1865. In the early twentieth century, members of the progressive movement successfully introduced primary elections in several states so that the democratic preference of party members could be measured. But party leaders could still choose to ignore these results if they wanted to. It was not until 1968, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president by the Democratic Party despite not competing in any of its state primaries, that the anti-democratic nature of the caucus system finally reached a breaking point. Following violent riots and an embarrassing loss to Richard Nixon, the Democrats reformed their caucus procedures in 1972, so that all Democratic Party members could participate. The Republicans followed shortly thereafter.
The implications of this shift greatly expanded the power of ordinary voters. Instead of caucus members (‘party delegates’) voting to decide who the candidate would be, all party members could now vote for who these delegates would be based on which candidate they pledged to support. Unfortunately, including all party members in the nominating process also greatly increased the complexity of caucuses. For this reason, many states opted to pass laws replacing their caucuses with binding primary elections. As a result, the caucus remains an unfamiliar, if persistent, feature of American political life. During the most recent presidential campaign, only fifteen states still used caucuses as part of their presidential nominating process.
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