The New International Encyclopædia/Caucus

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CAUCUS (of uncertain origin; possibly from Med. Lat. caucus, Gk. καῦκος, kaukos, cup, as being originally an informal festal gathering). A term applied (1) to an informal meeting of the voters of a political party within a limited district for the purpose of nominating candidates for office or of naming delegates to a nominating convention, and (2) to a conference of the members of a political party in a legislative body for the purpose of determining in detail the course to be pursued by the members of the body belonging to such party. In its former application the word is said to have been derived from the “Caulkers' Club,” a political organization of some prominence in Boston during the activity of Samuel Adams (q.v.). Until within a comparatively brief period this informal meeting of voters was a well recognized and widely established feature of the American political system. In the party caucus all ‘regular’ members of the party were considered entitled to be present and to be heard. Its participants named the party's candidates for local office and determined the policy of the party in the political district from which the members of the caucus were drawn. From the caucus of a small political unit, such as the town or the Assembly district, were sent the various constituent members of a larger and similar conference representing, and acting for, the voters of a Congressional district or of an entire State. Within the past two decades the typical caucus of the past has assumed a new form through the statutory control of nominations to office, especially in the establishment of a system of so-called “primaries,” the composition and procedure of which have in several States been made the object of as detailed and specific legislative control as are the elections themselves. The informalities which earlier made possible many questionable practices in the effort to ‘capture’ a caucus have thus gradually disappeared, and have been superseded by the routine of secret balloting by the legally registered members of a party. The nominating caucus appeared also in American politics in a conspicuous form, until 1824, in the caucus of members of Congress of each party which for a couple of decades named the candidates for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency, until the system of national nominating conventions was introduced.

The second type of caucus has not only survived, but has increased in influence and has become recognized as a legitimate feature of legislative procedure. Both in local legislative bodies and also in the various State legislatures, and still more conspicuously in Congress, the members of each party participate in a caucus, by which are named the party's candidates for the offices of the body and by which are determined the lines of policy to be followed within the larger body. Such action is considered as binding not only upon all the participants in the caucus, but also upon all members of the Legislature belonging to the party holding the caucus; and very rarely do any dissentient members of a party have the will, or the desire, to ‘bolt’ the action of their caucus.