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Fifty-Fifty and Fight!

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

A century and nine years ago, the founder of what is today called the Democratic party sat down at his writing desk in the hospitable home on his little mountain near Charlottesville, to write to his friend Alexander Von Humboldt. The theme of Thomas Jefferson’s letter was the sacredness of majority rule. It was a favorite topic with the founder of the Democratic party. He had first referred to it in 1782, in his “Notes on Virginia,” saying that it was “founded in common law as well as common right,” and that this law of the majority is “the natural law of every assembly of men.” In 1800 he had written John Breckenridge, of Pennsylvania, that majority rule “is the fundamental law of nature, by which alone self-government can be exercised by a society.” So important had Jefferson considered this “sacred principle,” this “fundamental law of nature,” that in his first inaugural address, in 1801, he had declared that “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority—the vital principle of republics—I deem one of the essential principles of our government.” Neither the stormy experience of his own two presidential terms, nor the dire disasters and belated victories of his beloved James Madison’s two administrations, altered his views.

One may well wonder whether in 1817 some fateful prevision of his own party’s pre-ordained departure from his beloved principle caused the sage of Monticello to write Von Humboldt what then might serve as a warning, and today seems a mournful prophecy:

The first principle of republicanism is that the law of the greater part is the fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights; to consider the will of the society announced by the majority of a single vote as sacred as if unanimous, is the first of all lessons in importance, yet the last which is thoroughly learnt.


The author of the Declaration of Independence predicted accurately enough that this “fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights” was “the last which is thoroughly learnt.” Yet it is doubtful if even he could have imagined that exactly a century after his death, the party he had founded would be debating the desirability of selecting its candidates for president and vice-president by majority rule, that “natural law of every assembly of men” (except a Democratic national convention).

The one-third rule has been with us for 92 years. Even in its conception it was a child of hate. This, briefly, is its history.

General Andrew Jackson felt that neither Briton nor Don should own Florida. So he seized it himself, for the United States. He suspected the British of inciting the Seminoles to raids and warfare. And in his taking, he used a convenient limb of a tree by which to suspend two Englishmen by the neck until dead. Great was the stir thereof. This was in the balmy year of 1817. The hero of the Battle of New Orleans was looming larger and larger in the public eye. The cabinet of President Monroe hardly knew what to do. From across the waters came bitter British protests. Stern notes—then sterner: the Monroe cabinet was sore beset.

Among these cabinet members was one John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina. He was secretary of war, and technically the immediate chief of General Jackson. Incidentally—hardly accidentally—he favored stern measures for “Old Hickory.” The South Carolinian foresaw the lengthening shadow of Andrew Jackson. Hence, perhaps, his virtuous vote.

Nothing came out of it—then. But “Old Hickory” had a good memory; and in 1828, when he was elected president, and this same South Carolina gentleman was named vice-president, Jackson apparently had determined to let bygones be bygones; but it was not to be so.

Calhoun presided over the senate with grace and dignity. Martin Van Buren, of New York, maliciously called by his contemporaries Red Fox, was Jackson’s shield and buckler. Not only was he Old Hickory’s Secretary of State, but even more important, he was then a bachelor. Thus no protesting wife prevented Red Fox taking the famous Peggy Eaton in to routs, levees, and dinners of state. Mindful of malicious slights to his own beloved Rachel, Jackson stood by pretty Peggy. In the famous petticoat war which thereupon raged through the cabinet ladies and their loves, Van Buren was Old Hickory’s adjutant-general, first quartermaster, and chief of staff.

Old Hickory was vastly beholden to Red Fox. More important, he liked him and nominated him for American Minister to the Court of St. James. When the generalissimo of the petticoat war was safely off in London, his choice came up in the senate for confirmation, and was rejected. The vote on the floor had been a tie. It was the soft and gentle voice, the calm and imperturbable eye, the deft and delicate hand of Vice-President John C. Calhoun which gave the senate majority of one, to reject the nomination of Martin Van Buren. Such a snub to the White House could not be endured. Its author should be punished. 1832 recalled 1817. Old Hickory set out to nullify the nullifier.

True enough, in 1832 Jackson’s fight with Nicholas Biddle and the United States Bank was about to burst in full fury. But Old Hickory could wage two wars, social, military, or political, about as easily as one. He was skillful enough with his battalions to win a skirmish as well as a battle. He waited to see the whites of Calhoun’s eyes. Then he fired the one-third rule.

Jackson had no opposition for renomination for the presidency. So he carefully arranged for a Democratic national convention at Baltimore, the sole purpose of which was to select a candidate for vice-president, to denounce the United States Bank, and to endorse Andrew Jackson. Thus it happened that there was introduced a resolution into the convention as a rule for its governance, (a rule doubtless cooked up in the famous “kitchen cabinet”):

Resolved, That each state shall be entitled, in the nomination to be made for a candidate for the vice-presidency, to a number of votes equal to which they will be entitled in the electoral colleges; and that two-thirds of the whole number of votes in the convention shall be necessary to constitute a choice.

Of course, with the White House behind it, and Red Fox under its cloak, the convention adopted it, this one-third rule, of a specific purpose and application, admittedly imposed only for a temporary effect.

There had been several other and more popular candidates for the vice-presidential nomination. The gentleman from South Carolina, viewing the handwriting on the wall, had made a graceful exit. But his forces were behind an attempt to undo Old Hickory, and Red Fox also. The latter had made many enemies who nevertheless loved Old Hickory. Van Buren quaintly tells of a few of them in his politically fascinating, stylistically soporific, autobiography.

Pennsylvania, (think of it!) then was a strong Democratic state. It had stood by the General in 1824. It had insisted on him in 1828. In 1832 it was bent upon his reelection. Yet the same Pennsylvania convention which vociferously indorsed a second term for Old Hickory, rejected Red Fox for his running mate, nominating a favorite son named Wilkins. Philip p. Barbour, of Virginia, and Richard M. Johnson, of Kentucky, likewise had delegations pledged to them.

The rule accomplished its purpose, but not without heartburning and bitterness. So strong was the opposition to Van Buren that even after the Baltimore convention, with Red Fox as the official vice-presidential candidate, the Virginia Democrats held a state convention under the shadow of Monticello, Jefferson but six years dead, and nominated Barbour. North Carolina did the same. The same feeling was reflected that fall in the electoral college. Jackson’s vote of 219 led Van Buren’s 189 by 30 votes. Thus came the one-third rule.

Thus the Democratic party, political child of Thomas Jefferson, that great apostle of the will of the majority, abandoned a basic tenet because a president born in South Carolina hated a vice-president from the same state.


Four years later, the special rule for Jackson’s 1832 purpose was extended to cover the selection of presidential candidates. Again it was for the benefit of Red Fox. And again Red Fox won. In 1840 the Democrats mournfully renominated him; and, after many tuneful parades of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” Red Fox sought another residence than the White House.

In 1844 the Democratic party held another convention in Baltimore. Strange how this metropolis of a state now so proudly and ridiculously styling itself “Maryland Free State” plays such an important role in the annals of this child of hate; strange, too, how the commonwealths of New York and South Carolina, through their cities and men, likewise appear again and again in the tale. But be that as it may, Van Buren was again a candidate, but not the candidate. To use the quaint phrase of Marlborough, he was “hoist upon his own petard.” He entered the 1844 Baltimore convention with a majority. The one-third rule laid him flat. He could not get a two-thirds majority, and his candidacy crashed. He became the political flat wheel of the decade. Southern pro-slavery Democrats did not want Van Buren, a free soiler. James K. Polk of Tennessee was the Democratic nominee; and was elected in the fall. There is a strong and ironic flavor of poetic justice in Van Buren’s being undone by the rule that made him.

Nor should we forget 1860, the next classic instance of this evil eye of politics. In the 40’s, the one-third rule had unhorsed Van Buren, snubbed the Democratic free soilers, and crystalized the passions which led up to the Civil War. In the 50’s came James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. In 1856, he sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency. He looked to the one-third rule as his buckler and shield, Illinois Democracy presented the name of Stephen A. Douglas, the famous “Little Giant.” Douglas had a deep antipathy to the two-thirds rule. As a protest against the continued existence of “this relic of political barbarism,” he withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, and Buchanan plucked the plum. This new beneficiary of minority control made one of the weakest presidents in a catalogue replete with glaring instances of White House sterility. He fumbled the slavery question. He fumbled the handling of federal armories in the south. He fumbled the tariff. But his knife was out for Stephen A. Douglas, and he didn’t fumble that.

Buchanan’s administration had been so unpopular that the president himself embraced no hopes of a renomination. Yet he determined to deprive the Little Giant of the nomination which the latter’s courage, charm, and ability richly deserved. The whole machinery of the federal government was set to work to deprive Douglas of delegates. The merry old game of using postmasters, United States attorneys, collectors of internal revenue, customs officers, and all the other multitude of whats and what-nots of federal patronage, was no unknown art even in 1860. And Buchanan had the one-third rule to fall back on.

The Democrats met in Charleston, in the birth state of Andrew Jackson, the home state of John C. Calhoun. There they used the fruit of the feud of these two to refuse the nomination to the Little Giant. The convention battled heatedly, clamorously, fruitlessly for forty-nine ballots. Douglas won the majority, but he couldn’t get two-thirds. Some malign fate had ordered otherwise. The very rule originally framed by the most stalwart defender of the constitution, a rule which had ended any White House hopes that might have been held by the author of the doctrine of nullification, a rule which made a free soil Democrat president, was in Charleston successfully used to uphold nullification, to eliminate the strongest and most honest statesman then in the Democratic party, and to force a Lincoln success even then seen to insure secession and civil war. The convention gasped for breath. It adjourned to Baltimore. In this unhallowed spot, with the memories of other political abortions in the air, the Democratic convention regathered, re-battled, and resplit.

Thereafter doom hung heavily in the air. By an accident of fate an Illinois rail splitter was destined for the White House. John Bell, and John C Breckenridge did their best to defeat Stephen A. Douglas. They succeeded. Douglas had 1,375,157, popular vote; Breckenridge 847,953, and Bell 590,601; a total of 2,813,741. Abraham Lincoln had received only 1,866,462, a little less than a million under the combined vote against him.

The one-third rule had done its work. The divided opposition to Lincoln gave the latter an electoral college majority of thirty. Douglas’ popular strength gave him only twelve electoral votes; Breckenridge had seventy-two. Bell had thirty-nine. The child of hate, now full grown, became the father of disunion, the parent of Civil War.


Appomattox left the Democratic party so gasping for breath that it was willing to take up almost anyone as a nominee. In the 1868 national convention, another fateful New York episode in party history, impeached but unconvicted by a single vote, Andrew Johnson had lingering hopes of Democratic nomination; while Justice Salmon P. Chase, during intervals of his lobbying with doubtful senators to vote against Johnson’s impeachment, had found time to make the moves toward his own selection by the Democratic as well as the Republican conventions. Both, of course, equally vain, although the two-thirds rule was only a shadow in this convention; just as its nominee, Horatio Seymour, was only a shadow in the ensuing presidential election.

The 1876 demand for the anti-Tammany Tilden was so strong as to be almost unanimous. Yet during the Democratic dog days of the next few years, the faint unfragrant odor of the rule remained about the party conventions. Nor were Democrats lacking who recognized this political halitosis of their party. On a number of occasions there was talk of sweetening their breath. But nothing was done. A ravaged south, suffering with the wounds of war, and stung with the injustices of ruthless reconstruction, held to the idea that the two-thirds rule gave it somewhat of a veto upon the doings of the party which perforce it had to follow.

On two occasions between 1868 and 1912, democratic national conventions, after they had nominated their presidential and vice-presidential candidates, passed resolutions mildly suggesting to the next succeeding national convention that it get rid of the one-third rule. These devout wishes withered on the parent stem. There was no conspicuous instance of the effect of the two-thirds rule in the Democratic party until 1912 in Baltimore, where the air of the Fifth Regiment armory was superheated by Champ Clark’s majority, his failure to get two-thirds, and the nomination of Woodrow Wilson.

Present day antagonists of a Jeffersonian majority rule always offer the instance of Baltimore in 1912 as a classic example of the value of the one-third rule. Oddly enough, those who resoundingly refer to it almost without exception are of the tribe which fought Woodrow Wilson in Baltimore, and which has been fighting his viewpoint in the Democratic party ever after. Yet there is not even any need to admit for the sake of argument that the Wilson nomination would not have occurred under the majority rule. Had a majority rule existed, there would have been an entirely different basis, both in selecting delegates, and in their action in the national convention. Those who say under the majority rule we would never have had President Wilson might quite as well claim that the Civil War would surely not have been fought if Douglas had been unifiedly nominated in 1860. It might have been so. It might not have been so. That little word “if” is sometimes important.

In 1920, the one-third rule gave the nation Cox. He carried only the “Solid South,” minus Tennessee and Oklahoma. In 1924 the one-third rule nominated John W. Davis, who likewise carried only the “Solid South,” minus Kentucky and Oklahoma. Nomination by negation had two good tests. So now, in the centennial year of Jefferson’s death, Jefferson’s party is debating whether it shall follow Jefferson’s principle of majority rule, or do reverence to a heritage of hate.


A real effort is under way to democratize the Democratic party, and one of the essential steps thereof is the elimination of the one-third rule. It means very little who started this enterprise, or what groups are behind it. It means a great deal that it has been cordially received in nearly every section of the country, and by nearly every element in the party. It is particularly significant that a considerable body of southern support already has made itself known.

For many years the Solid South seemed to think that the one-third rule gave it an effective veto upon nominations by the Democratic party. It is feeling so no longer. Mental arithmetic and practical politics have proved the contrary. If today the South believed that the one-third rule gave it a veto, and that a veto was essential, there is little likelihood that the various Democratic state committees of Southern States, which have been adopting resolutions favoring majority rule, would have done so. For the Southerners are practical politicians as well as political idealists. They are not ignorant that what counts is votes—both in the nominating conventions and in the electoral college. Neither are they ignorant that if every delegate from every state south of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi, and every delegate from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, voted as a unit, the one-third rule would give the South no veto.

In Democratic national conventions for some years the representation of all states has been a figure double that of the number of senators and representatives each state has in the Congress. In the 1924 Democratic national convention, the delegate strengths of southern states were: Arkansas 18, Alabama 24, Florida 12, Georgia 28, Kentucky 26, Louisiana 20, Mississippi 20, North Carolina 24, South Carolina 18, Tennessee 24, Texas 40, Virginia 24; a total of 278.

The 1924 Democratic national convention had a total in it of 1098 delegates. To have had a veto, the South would have needed one more than a third of this number, or 367 votes. The total in the list is but 278, or 89 less than a veto.

Even if Oklahoma’s 20, and West Virginia’s 16, and the same number from Maryland were counted in as being united with the southern states, the total would fall 37 votes short of a veto. Nor is there much likelihood that Maryland, obsessed as she is with the wild urge to nullify the eighteenth amendment, would co-operate with dry Georgia and Tennessee in selecting a presidential nominee. She is far more likely to side with New York or Massachusetts. West Virginia’s status is similarly un-Southern. She is certainly not of Dixie politically, and is hardly so geographically. Pennsylvania and Ohio mean much to her, Florida and Alabama little. Oklahoma is quite in line with Texas, but it is a western rather than a southern kinship. These figures prove easily enough that the one-third rule does not aid the South. I do not deny, however, that the one-third rule does allow a veto. Indeed it does; but to the Solid North, to a group of states which seldom or never return Democratic electors to the electoral college. The Solid North does possess, through the one-third rule, a direful, effectual, and boss-controlled veto.

Consider the “Solid North”—most of the states north of the Potomac, and east of the Mississippi. Here are their convention votes: Connecticut 16, Delaware 6, Illinois 58, Indiana 30, Massachusetts 36, Michigan 30, Maine 12, New Hampshire 8, New Jersey 28, New York 90, Ohio 48, Pennsylvania 76, Rhode Island 10, Vermont 8, West Virginia 16; total 472.

Let us go back a moment. One over a third of the convention is 367. The strength of the Solid North is 105 more than needed for a veto. And yet some shallowpates say that it is the South which demands the one-third rule for its protection.

Grouping these states of the Solid North by sections, the 90 New England votes, the 200 Atlantic Seaboard state votes, Tom Taggert’s Indiana 30, and George Brennan’s machine-ruled 58 in Illinois, total 378. The Solid North, the boss-ridden portion of the Democratic party, has the veto; not the South. The one-third rule today is the best friend of the Tammany Tiger. Through it, Tammany possesses a veto on the progressives of the party, without allowing the South a corresponding veto upon the Tiger.

The South is not asleep to these facts. Otherwise the Tennessee state Democratic committee, meeting in Nashville June 7, 1926, would never have passed this resolution, urging abandonment of a rule originated by the Volunteer State’s patron political saint:

Be it resolved by the Democratic executive committee, That we favor the abolition of the two-thirds rule in the nomination of candidates for president and vice-president by National Democratic conventions, and we favor majority rule in such conventions on all questions coming before them. We believe this is the sentiment of the great majority of Democrats in Tennessee, and respectfully request our national committeemen to use their efforts and influence to abolish the rule and to adopt the majority rule.

Nor would North Carolina, through her state committee, in session the next day, have followed suit. Nor would the Georgia state committee have refused to entertain a motion sustaining the one-third rule; thus by its negative action indorsing the endeavor to abolish it.

One finds a faint Jeffersonian flavor in a remark of the great-grandson of Jefferson on this anti-Jeffersonian doctrine. It was Mr. Hollins N. Randolph, of Atlanta, the chairman of the Georgia delegation to the 1924 convention, who said:

No deliberative body is democratic which is controlled by a two-thirds majority, because the will of its members is defeated before that majority is reached in most cases. . . The two-thirds rule is unsound because it is undemocratic. . . . If we are a democratic nation our political bodies which concentrate so much power should be democratic. As it is, the Democratic national convention does not fit in with the republican form of government.

Nor is it easy to answer the question asked by Mr. Ernest Haston, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic body:

I never could quite understand just why a greater requirement should be made for the nomination for the office than for the office itself. . . The majority of the electoral votes cast for president wins the office. To require a two-thirds vote to nominate is out of line and not in harmony with my idea of Democratic rule. We should abrogate the two-thirds rule, and establish in lieu thereof that of majority control.

Nor can we help being struck by a North Carolina remark. In the session of its Democratic committee, Mr. Josephus Daniels upheld majority rule. It is well to understand in North Carolina politics however, that the friends of Senator F. M. Simmons are politically powerful there. So the action of the committee meant not only that Mr. Daniels was for majority rule, but that Senator Simmons and his friends felt the same way about it.

Thomas Jefferson once paid a tribute to Tennessee, deeming its constitution “the most republican and least imperfect” ever enacted. He likewise was fond of referring to Tennessee’s mother state of North Carolina as, “fixed, and forward.” Today the South, as a whole, following the leadership of these fine commonwealths, is forward, but not fixed.


A further possible meaning of the movement to end the one-third rule is a closer approach to intellectual honesty in political relations than has existed in either political organism for a number of years. A willingness to eliminate minority rule implies an equal willingness to eliminate a sterile “harmony” which has recently emasculated the Democratic party. The truth of the matter is that for a large number of years, the constituency calling itself “Democratic” has been so mixed and mingled that it has been a well-nigh impossible task to find a greatest common denominator among all the various elements of the party; the effort to do so has resulted in so much compromise that no vigorous group has been satisfied, or active. The only clearly ascertainable divisor has been the word “Democrat.” Even on the tried and true topic of tariffs there has been an increasing split. General Hancock’s famous remark: “The tariff is a local issue,” has become truer than he dreamed. Self-styled Democrats from sugar states have been pleading and imploring for a tariff against foreign goods or a bounty upon domestic sugar. Lumber state Democrats have had a kindly feeling for a duty on that commodity. So it is on prohibition. What common denominator can there be between the views of Edwards of New Jersey and Tyson of Tennessee? How can William Cabell Bruce, of Maryland, classify himself a member of a party returning William J. Harris to Capitol Hill? What unity of thought is there between such arch-nullifiers of the federal constitution as Smith and Ritchie, and such stout defenders of the integrity of that instrument and its amendments as Walsh and McAdoo?

There is a basic division of Democratic constituencies and viewpoints—I use upper, and not lower, case “d”, because when one uses lower case “d,” many Democrats are disqualified—which apparently is irreconcilable; to cure this there have been several sterile efforts at superficial harmony, the results of which have been devastating.

The growing willingness to relinquish the one-third rule can only mean an increasing appreciation of the uselessness of cancellation, and of the need for a definite determination of Democratic party control. With the one-third rule out of the way, one of the two vigorous affirmative groups now calling themselves Democratic would emphatically establish its title to control of the party. If the defeated group were irreconcilable, it could seek a more fitting alignment. This would be a move toward honest politics. Nomination by affirmation, rather than by exhaustion, will re-establish Jefferson’s child as somebody’s party, instead of nobody’s party.

It is not such a far cry from the prize ring to the Democratic national convention. Those familiar with the Madison Square melee, either by radio, newspaper, or personal attendance, will readily acknowledge the aptness of the simile. At Madison Square the Democratic party engaged in a battle royal. Under majority rule this should become a real pugilistic encounter under Marquis of Queensbury rules.

Any follower of fisticuffs can define a battle royal. From six to a dozen human gamecocks enter the ring, usually pugilists of a dusky hue. They may not be particularly adept with their mitts. They may be unequally matched in strength, endurance, or skill, but they are always equipped with a basic rule of strategy. It is this: Beat the big boy first. Every battle royal develops an initial concerted attack upon the shining and conspicuous example of strength, courage, and prowess in the ring. As one man they turn upon him. Pretty soon he is dragged out by his heels. Then the rest go after the next strongest. By such inverse processes the victor of a battle royal is selected—usually one of the weakest, least aggressive, least acceptable of the original entrants.

Nomination by cancellation fits in exactly with such a scheme of things. Under the one-third rule, only a battle royal is possible. It affords a breeding ground for favorite sons, those selfish few willing to bankrupt a party for possible personal advantage. It furnishes an ideal cloak for convention trade and barter, for the seduction of delegates, and of the various forms of quid pro quo by which practical politicians play the game.

How much finer a convention held under Marquis of Queensbury rules, in which two vigorous gladiators of actively different but equally affirmative viewpoints meet, combat, and determine the victory!

The continued existence of the Democratic party, the oldest continuously existing political instrumentality in America, depends upon the party’s determination to stand for something. The endeavor to ban the one-third rule is a symbol of an approaching finish fight to democratize the Democratic party, and to place it aggressively behind an affirmative program in the interest of the average man.


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