Birth of the “Caucus”

Critical Thinking

November 15, 2013
by J. L. Bell Also by this Author


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Portrait of Thomas Dawes by Gilbert Stuart, ca.1806. Source: Historic New England
Portrait of Thomas Dawes by Gilbert Stuart, ca.1806. Source: Historic New England

America’s Revolutionary decades produced a new republican system, and with it new republican language. One term that surfaced early in that period and remains with us today is “caucus.” The word’s origin is mysterious, but its meaning has stayed fairly steady and the earliest uses offer a good glimpse into pre-Revolutionary politics.

The first form of this word—or at least the first form that anyone has spotted—was “Corcas.” An essay in the 5 May 1760 Boston Gazette declared:

…certain Persons, of the modern Air and Complexion, to the Number of Twelve at least, have divers Times of late been known to combine together, and are called by the Name of the New and Grand Corcas, tho’ of declared Principles directly opposite to all that have been heretofore known…

The essay writer warned that this “New and Grand Corcas” planned “to employ their whole Strength, to obtain such a Choice of Representatives, at the ensuing Election, as will best serve their grand Purpose.” And what was that “grand Purpose”? The article hinted that this group wanted the Massachusetts legislature to replace Boston’s town meeting, which made decisions through direct democratic voting, with a system of a mayor and aldermen, as in some other North American ports.

Toward the end of that essay, the writer revealed he was speaking for a “Committee of Tradesmen.” This committee concluded by asking “their good Friends, the Members of the old and true Corcas,…to behave at the ensuing Town Meeting with their usual Steadiness, and like honest Freeman to vote for WHOM THEY PLEASE.” Thus, while complaining about the “New and Grand Corcas” trying to influence voters, this article touted the “old and true Corcas”—whose purpose was to influence voters.

That was the paradox of democratic political organizing. Leaders maintained ordinary voters’ loyalty to their choices by protecting their right to vote as they chose. Boston’s “old and true Corcas” clearly had the voters’ trust and was an established, if unofficial, part of the system. In 1762, for instance, the Boston lawyer Oxenbridge Thacher wrote to a colleague about “the connections & discords of our politicians, corkusmen, plebeian tribunes, &ca., &ca.”[1]

But not everyone liked the “Corcas.” The 21 March 1763 Boston Evening-Post published an angry attack from “E.J.” titled “An Impartial Account of the Conduct of the Corkass By a late Member of that Society.” That essayist described the group working this way:

At present the heads of this venerable Company meet some weeks before a Town-Meeting, and consult among themselves, appoint town officers, and settle all other affairs that are to be transacted at town meeting; after these few have settled the affairs, they communicate them to the next better sort of their brethren; when they have been properly sounded and instructed, they meet with the heads; these are called the Petty Corkass: Here each recommends his friends, opposes others, juggle and trim, and often have pretty warm disputes; but by compounding and compromising, settle every thing before the Grand Corkass meets; tho’ for form sake (as at college on commencement days) a number of warm disputes are prepared, to entertain the lower sort; who are in an extasy to find the old Roman Patriots still surviving. A night or two before town meeting the Grand Corkass meets, consisting of all sorts of men that want town offices, or other favors; the chairman is chose, who makes a harangue on freedom and English liberty, and every individual is told that he may, and beg’d that he would, speak his mind freely; some have been so credulous as to take him in earnest, and have spoke their minds to their cost, lost their favor, and all chance of town offices for ever.

“E.J.” thus sought to drive a wedge between the town’s top political leaders and their usual supporters and voters. It didn’t work. As historian Gary Nash observed, “1,089 people went to the polls for [the next] town elections, a number never exceeded in even in the tumultuous years of the following decade.”[2] In May 1764 “The Caucas” was confident enough to publish its first open request for voters’ support in the newspapers.[3]

“E.J.” had a jaundiced view of Boston’s “old and true Corcas,” but his description of how it functioned seems accurate. Just a few months earlier, in February 1763, a young country lawyer named John Adams wrote in his diary:

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.

The host of this club, Thomas Dawes (1731-1809), was a Boston builder. He served as elected coroner at the time of the Boston Massacre and as colonel of the town’s militia regiment. Among the other men John Adams identified as in this club were his great-uncle William Fairfield, his second cousin Samuel Adams, town clerk William Cooper, and other officeholders.

Adams’s uncle James Cunningham told him that this “Caucas Club” had often asked him to join, suggesting that participation would benefit his business. That club was not the only political group with clout in Boston, however; Adams added that “They send Committees to wait on the Merchants Clubb and to propose, and join, in the Choice of Men and Measures.”[4]

Two decades later, the Rev. William Gordon offered yet another peek at Boston’s caucus in his early history of the Revolution, published in London in 1788:

More than fifty years ago [i.e., in the 1730s or earlier], Mr. Samuel Adams’s father and twenty others, one or two from the north end of the town, where all the ship business is carried on, used to meet, make a caucus, and lay their plan for introducing certain persons into places of trust and power. When they had settled it, they separated, and used each their particular influence within his own circle. He and his friends would furnish themselves with ballots, including the names of the parties fixed upon, which they distributed on the days of election. By acting in concert, together with a careful and extensive distribution of ballots, they generally carried their elections to their own mind.

Samuel Adams was one of Gordon’s sources for his history, and the minister wrote that “Adams first became a representative for Boston” through this method. That was in September 1765.[5]

Gordon created what became the standard spelling of the word: “caucus.” But none of his informants, he reported, knew where that term had come from. Neither did “E.J.” back in 1763. Etymologists have since proposed various sources: a Greek word for a wine vessel, an Algonkian word for a counselor, the English word “caulkers,” the name of Boston politician Elisha Cooke, and even the initials of the group’s supposed founders. All of those theories about “caucus” fail because the word started out as “corcas” and gained its current form only after being filtered through Boston accents.

In the decade before the Revolutionary War, Boston’s politicians became more and more bold in opposing new revenue laws from London, and the caucus system grew. Men in the North End launched their own “caucos” in 1767 and reorganized at the Salutation Tavern five years later. In 1809 the Rev. John Eliot described that expansion:

In 1772 they agreed to increase their number, to meet in a large room, and invite a number of substantial mechanicks to join them, and hold a kind of caucus, pro bono publico. They met in a house near the north battery, and more than 60 were present at the first meeting. Their regulations were drawn up by Dr. [Joseph] Warren and another gentleman, and they never did any thing important without consulting him and his particular friends. It answered a good purpose to get such a number of mechanicks together; and though a number of whigs of the first character in the town were present, they always had a mechanick for moderator, generally one who could carry many votes by his influence.[6]

The North End Caucus kept written records, and its surviving texts show that, contrary to Eliot’s account, members sometimes chose a merchant or other gentleman to chair. But the gathering did include many wealthy mechanics, such as silversmith Paul Revere.[7]

By this time Boston was networked with caucuses. The North End group welcomed such leading Whigs as Samuel Adams, William Molineux, Dr. Thomas Young, Dr. Benjamin Church, and John Hancock even though they lived in other parts of Boston. Their committees consulted before town meetings with “the South End Caucus” and the “Caucus in the Middle part of the town.” In the fall of 1773 the North End Caucus voted to “oppose the vending any Tea, sent by the East India Company to any part of the Continent,” and its members helped to organize opposition to landing that tea. Caucuses were thus the ligaments of the town’s resistant body politic.

On 12 May 1776, with the Continental Congress secretly debating independence, John Adams wrote to his friend James Warren about the choice of a Massachusetts governor:

Dont divide. Let the Choice be unanimous, I beg. If you divide you will Split the Province into Factions. For Gods Sake Caucass it, before Hand, and agree unanimously to push for the Same Man.[8]

Thirteen years earlier Adams had viewed the “Caucas Clubb” in Thomas Dawes’s attic with some wonder and suspicion. Now, firmly ensconced in politics, he urged his comrade to “Caucass” a question in order to avoid divisions in wartime. Years after his Presidency, Adams stated:

Our revolution was effected by caucuses. The federal constitution was formed by caucuses, and the federal administrations, for twenty years, have been supported or subverted by caucuses.

Boston’s smoky caucuses had become a vital part of how the American republic governed itself.

1. Oxenbridge Thacher to Benjamin Pratt, draft (1762?), published in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, 20 (1884), 48.

2. Gary B. Nash, The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), 174. 

3. Boston Evening-Post and Boston Gazette, both 14 May 1764. 

4. Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961), 1:238. 

5. William Gordon, History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of Independence of the United States of America (London: author, 1788), 1:365. 

6. John Eliot, A Biographical Dictionary (Salem, Mass.: Cushing & Appleton, 1809), 472. Eliot had anonymously published the same essay as “Memoirs of Major-Gen. Joseph Warren” in The Polyanthos magazine, November 1806.

7. Richard Frothingham first described records of the North End Caucus, noting that they spelled the word “caucos” and mentioned a 1767 gathering, in History of the Siege of Boston (Boston: Charles C. Little & James Brown, 1849), 30. The same records, dated 23 March 1772 to 9 May 1774, are transcribed in Elbridge Henry Goss, The Life of Colonel Paul Revere (Boston: J. G. Cupples, 1891), 2:635-44. 

8. Papers of John Adams, Robert J. Taylor, editor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), 4:182. 

9. Works of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Charles C. Little & James Brown, 1851), 6:542.

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