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An essay by George William Curtis

National Nominating Convention

Title:     National Nominating Convention
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

It was a wise newspaper that recently advised every American who could do so to see a national nominating convention. It is a spectacle visible in no other country, and the most exciting political spectacle in this. It is the arena in which the prolonged and passionate strife of countless ambitions, intrigues, interests, and conspiracies is decided; and it is the more exciting because, with every effort to predetermine the result, the result is still at the mercy of chance. The action of the convention is a lottery. Suddenly, at the decisive moment, an unexpected combination, an impulse, a whim, like an overwhelming tidal wave, sweeps away all plans and calculations, and the result is as complete as it is unanticipated.

Even the device of a two-thirds vote to make a nomination valid does not avail to secure the real preference of the party which the convention represents. The two-thirds rule, as it is called, was designed to baffle the fundamental democratic principle, which is the rule of the majority. When that is abandoned, the proportion selected is purely arbitrary. It may as well be nine tenths as two thirds. But even such a dam will not resist the swelling waters of feeling in a convention. The French say that it is the unexpected that happens, but in a national convention it is the unforeseen which is anticipated. The palpitating multitude, which has been stimulating its own excitement, confronts every doubtful moment with an air which says plainly, "Now it's coming."

There is always a preliminary contest of various cities before the national party committee to decide where the convention shall be held. Local orators with honeyed persuasion dazzle the committee with statistics of the superior convenience, accommodation, beauty, healthfulness, resources, facilities, and whatever else their good genius may suggest, of the city for which each one of them contends. The convention is held in the largest hall, or in a building erected for the purpose, like the Wigwam in Chicago in 1860. The convention itself is composed of about nine hundred state delegates, their seats designated by a flag with the name of the state placed by the seat of the chairman of the delegation. The alternates are also seated.

Every convention is full of distinguished leaders and members of the party, and as any of them appears, either entering or rising to speak, they are greeted with great applause. If the temporary chairman be an eminent party chief or an eloquent popular orator, his address touches the springs of emotion and arouses hearty enthusiasm. But the friends of the leading candidates deprecate the mention of names until the candidates are presented by the chosen orator. The reason is that the applause of the convention is one of the counters in the game. There are hired claques in the conventions which keep up a humming cry which is a substitute for applause, and which is sometimes continued for a quarter of an hour. The longer the hum, the more popular the candidate.

Forgetfulness or ignorance of the value of applause under such circumstances reveals the comparative popularity of candidates in the eager mass of delegates and spectators. In one convention the permanent president in his address, but without any sinister purpose, or indeed any other purpose than kindling the convention, mentioned successively, and, of course, with impartial compliment, the name of every candidate who was known to be on the list. Involuntarily he thus tested the feeling of the convention. The galleries also swelled the acclaim, but in the galleries the claque is shrewdly distributed, and in critical moments the approval or disapproval of the turbulent galleries undoubtedly impresses the delegates, and recalls the galleries of the French convention a hundred years ago.

There are occasional skirmishes of debate upon motions or resolutions, but the first great interest of the regular proceedings is the report of the platform committee. It is a tradition of conventions that the platform should be accepted as reported, both to gain the prestige of perfect unanimity and to escape "tinkering," which may lead to endless discussion and discordant feeling. But when the motion is made to proceed to the nomination of candidates, the excitement is intense. The orators are usually carefully selected, not alone as eloquent speakers, but as men of weight and influence, and of what at the moment is more indispensable than everything else--tact. The speeches are made with the fundamental understanding that, however glowing and elaborate the praise of the candidate may be, there shall be an explicit assurance that whatever the merits of any candidate, the candidate who shall be nominated by the convention will receive the universal and enthusiastic support of the party.

On one occasion, when this fundamental rule was forgotten by an ardent orator, who, in the warmth of his devotion to his candidate, declared that no other man was so certain to draw out the whole party vote in the state for which he spoke, a hurricane of hisses from the convention and the galleries silenced him, and the friends of his candidate were instantly aware that a fatal injury had befallen him. In another convention the orator who nominated one of the candidates was so exasperated by what he felt to be the treachery to his candidate of a conspicuous friend of another that his denunciation of the traitor was held to be a covert assault upon the traitor's candidate, and again a tempest of universal hissing overwhelmed the luckless orator and his candidate.

The announcement by states of the first formal vote for candidates is made in impressive silence, followed by immense applause. But the second ballot is more significant; and whenever upon any ballot the announcement of a vote is seen by the tally to decide the nomination, the feeling culminates in an indescribable tumult of frenzied acclamation, and the convention generally adjourns to consider the Vice-Presidency. But the interest in its work is at an end, and it is astounding to see the happy-go-lucky Providence which presides over the selection of the officer who has thrice become the President of the United States.

In the history of national conventions there is no more touching incident than that of Mr. Seward awaiting at his home in Auburn the result of the balloting at the convention of 1860, which nominated Mr. Lincoln. By what is called the logic of the situation Mr. Seward's nomination was assured, and no disappointment could have been greater than the selection of another. How bitter it was was not suspected until his life was recently published! But he encountered the shock with his usual equanimity, and before the election he had made the most extraordinary series of speeches for his party which the annals of any campaign record.

The journal's advice was sound. See a national convention if you can.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: National Nominating Convention