Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Here We Go A-Caucussing

What is a Caucus?
And Where Did It Come From?

The 2010 primary season is upon us (ugh!). Over the next several months, literally millions of Americans will go to the polls to cast ballots for their desired candidate in the various local, state and federal elections that are being held. Many of these states (including my beloved "Centennial State"), will hold a caucus to determine who the Democratic or Republican candidate for their respective party will be.

This caucus, which is essentially nothing more than a group meeting of political supporters, may seem very confusing to its participants. Isn't it a much easier process to simply cast an electronic vote?

What most Americans don't know when it comes to the caucus is the fact that it is a very old tradition, which dates back to a time before the United States ever existed. Though the origins of the word are debated, the term caucus is believed to have originated from the Algonquin Indians, who resided in what is today New York and Vermont. It is believed that the Algonquin word 'cau´-cau-as´u', meaning "counsel" was adopted by early American Democratic-republicans in the latter part of the 18th century. Historian J.L. Bell mentions that the first known usage of the word caucus comes from the diary of America's second president, John Adams, who wrote:
"This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws, the Adjutant of the Boston Regiment. He has a large House, and he has a moveable Partition in his Garrett, which he takes down and the whole Clubb meets in one Room. There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other. There they drink Phlip I suppose, and there they choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town. Uncle Fairfield, Story, Ruddock, Adams, Cooper, and a most rudis indigestaque Moles of others are Members. They send Committees to wait on the Merchants Clubb and to propose, and join, in the Choice of Men and Measures. Captn. Cunningham says they have often solicited him to go to these Caucas, they have assured him Benefit in his Business, &c."
(Click here for the link to the electronic archive of the Diary of John Adams)

So as you make your way to the polls in the next few weeks/months, remember that you are participating in a tradition that is possibly older than America itself. To go "a-caucussing" is an activity as American as apple pie, which, by the way, Native Americans enjoyed as well.


Paul Swendson said...

I don't get to caucus out here in California. We have good old-fashioned primaries. By the way, do you know why Iowa always gets to go first with their caucus?

Ray Soller said...

Even though sacred fires have been kindled and religiously maintained by various cultures thoughout history, it is quite possible that George Washington's reference to the "[t]he preservation of the sacred fire of liberty" in his first inaugural address traces back to American eastern woodland indian culture. In particular check out James Mooney's Myth of the Chrokees (1891), Section 111 - The Mounds And The Constant Fire: The Old Sacred Things. Apparently a tribal shaman maintained the sacred fire around which all sacred festivals and tribal councils took place.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't get to caucus out here in California. We have good old-fashioned primaries.

Not anymore.

J. L. Bell said...

Folks might be interested in knowing that after I wrote about John Adams’s use of “caucas” in 1763, I discovered an even earlier use of the term as “Corcas” in the Boston Gazette in 1760.