The Birth of the U.S. Political Convention in 1831

In 1831, a radical third party had a new idea for selecting a presidential candidate, and it’s still in use today: the national nominating convention.

This series was produced by Matt Spolar, in partnership with Politico.

For teachers
  • Read transcript
  • Producer: Matthew Spolar
  • Editor: Brian Kamerzel
  • Associate Producer: Victor Couto

For Educators


This four-minute video shows students how the Anti-Masonic Party pioneered the political party convention as a means of nominating presidential candidates. An engaging illustration of the democratizing political trends of the 1820s and 1830s, the video explores the populist impulses that animated the Anti-Masonic Party, and how its anti-establishment ideology, combined with political necessity, led to its rejection of the congressional nominating caucus and its embrace of participatory party conventions. Useful for lessons focused on the expansion of the franchise during the 1820s and 30s, the video also helps students see the connection between the anti-establishment politics of the past and the present.

Background reading

Presidential nominating conventions are so much a part of today’s political landscape, it’s hard to believe they resulted from a 19th Century populist movement obsessed with conspiracy.

The Anti-Masonic Party rose in the late 1820s to oppose what it believed to be the control of the American political process by the Freemasons, a secret fraternal organization that numbered among its members many prominent politicians and statesmen, including George Washington.

The party was formed in New York after William Morgan’s mysterious disappearance in 1826. Morgan, who lived in Batavia, was a fierce critic of the Masons, and promised to write a book exposing their inner workings. He even secured a publisher. But then he vanished.

Many believed the Masons had kidnapped and murdered Morgan to keep him quiet. And the public outrage against Masonry that followed soon built into a national political force.

As part of its anti-establishment profile, the Anti-Masonic Party rejected the traditional means of nominating a presidential candidate through the congressional nominating caucus.

Instead, it held in Baltimore in 1831 the first party nominating convention in American history. The 111 delegates from 13 states nominated William Wirt, who, ironically, was a Mason. He was trounced by President Andrew Jackson (also a Mason) in the 1832 election.

The Anti-Masonic Party collapsed before the 1830s were over, but the idea of nominating conventions took hold, and was adopted by all major parties.

Lesson Plan 1: The Birth of Party Conventions: the Anti-Masonic Party (1831)

Students will learn why the populist and conspiracy-obsessed Anti-Masonic Party held America’s first political party convention, a democratizing innovation that changed forever the way Americans choose their presidents.

  • How the congressional caucus system for nominating presidential candidates came to be replaced by political party conventions.
  • How the Anti-Masonic Party emerged within a context of expanding suffrage and increasingly participatory democracy.
  • How the Anti-Masonic Party was a manifestation of anti-establishment and populist trends that continue to affect American politics.
Essential questions
  • Why did some Americans think the Freemasons were a threat to democracy? Why were some people frightened of them?
  • Prior to political party conventions, how did the parties select their presidential candidates? Why was this system unpopular?
  • Why did the Anti-Masonic Party create a convention to choose its candidate?
  • Who did the Anti-Masonic Party nominate for president in 1832? What did their candidate think of the Freemasons?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Civ.5.9-12.Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Period 4: 1800-1848
  • AP Government and Politics
    • Unit 5: Political ParticipationTopic 5.3: Political Parties
      Topic 5.8: Electing a President
      Topic 5.9: Congressional Elections
      Topic 5.10: Modern Campaigns
    • Topic 5.8: Electing a PresidentSkill 1.E: Explain how political processes apply to different scenarios in context.