James Buchanan Predicts Southern Democrats will Keep Electoral Rules Stacked to Southern Power
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“By adopting the rule, it was believed that a majority of the Delegates representing Democratic States could be secured in favor of the nominee. Besides, the Southern States will doubtless adhere to it [the two-thirds rule] with her tenacity, as it gives them the power of preventing the nomination of any individual obnoxious to themselves...”
The future president writes to fellow Pennsylvania Democrat Andrew H. Reeder, about the possibility of repealing their party’s rule for nominating presidential candidates. The rule, adapted in 1832 at the first Democratic Party convention, required a two-thirds supermajority to nominate a presidential and vice-presidential candidate. Buchanan correctly predicts the rule will stay in force to maintain heavy Southern influence over the nominating process. This, like the three-fifths rule of the U.S. Constitution, was a crucial factor allowing the South to protect slavery. JAMES BUCHANAN.
Autograph Letter Signed. “Wheatland, near Lancaster
[Pennsylvania],” January 28, 1852. 1 p., 8 x 10 in.
“Wheatland, near Lancaster 28 January 1852.
My dear Sir/
I have received your favor of the 21st instant & know not how, in adequate terms, to express my gratitude to yourself & others friends for our triumph over [Richard] Brodhead in Old Northampton. I hope you will complete your work by consenting to be a Delegate to the National Convention.
It will be very difficult to repeal the two thirds rule. The reason of its adoption was that if a majority should nominate, a majority of their majority might consist of delegates representing States which could not give a single electoral vote to the Democratic Candidate. By adopting the rule, it was believed that a majority of the Delegates representing Democratic States could be secured in favor of the nominee. Besides, the Southern States will doubtless adhere to it with her tenacity, as it gives them the power of preventing the nomination of any individual obnoxious to themselves. But ‘nous verrons’as father Ritchie says.
I spoke strongly to Mr. Morison about your supervisor, but he is very much his friend & assured me that his continuance was necessary to carry Bucks County, he should regard the wishes of yourself & other friends.
It is long since I have heard from Goundie [George H. Goundie, American consul to Basle, Switzerland]. I believe him to be a good fellow, but he has chosen a difficult part to play that of being the friend both of Brodhead & myself.
Please to remember me very kindly to Wagener, Haller O other friends & believe me to be sincerely & gratefully
A. H. Reeder Esquire”
Buchanan’s reference to “father Ritchie” was Thomas Ritchie, an influential Virginia journalist, who bore the nickname “Thomas Nous Verrons” (French for “we shall see”).
As Buchanan notes, the rule gave Southern delegates an advantage they used to eliminate potential presidential nominees they thought could threaten the institution of slavery. The rule was of course unpopular with Northern Democrats, who saw it as the latest in a long line of power grabs by Southern politicos to maintain slavery despite being increasingly in the minority as new states joined the Union. Ultimately, the antebellum fight between free and slave states would come to a head during Buchanan’s term, with the two thirds rule playing a part. The 1860 Democratic convention in Charleston ending without a clear winner, and delegates reconvened in various locations choosing regional candidates. The Democratic Party split allowed the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln without the vote of a single Southern state. Before Lincoln could even take office, under Buchanan’s watch, South Carolina seceded.
The rule was abolished in 1936 after producing seven multi-ballot conventions. When replaced, resulting in the election of Franklin Roosevelt, it transferred power away from the Southern to Northern Democrats and began Southern disenchantment with the Democratic party which remains to this day.
Andrew Horatio Reeder (1807-1864) was a lawyer from Pennsylvania and a member of the Democratic Party. Two years after receiving this letter, President Franklin Pierce appointed him governor of the Kansas Territory, only to fire him after his refusal to make Kansas a slave state resulting from serious voter fraud. He soon migrated to the Republic Party.
Richard Brodhead (1811-1863) had been elected a Democratic member of the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania only months earlier, though he likely did not carry Northampton County, as Buchanan alludes.
Very fine. Text clear and sharp, signature bold. Clean paper with expected folds.