History and Etymology

In the winter of each year the eyes and ears of the country become focused on the Iowa Democratic "caucus", and the word is current in every TV commentary, newspaper and all political conversation at the grass roots level. But we know that a caucus count is not the same as the party voting process, which will be coming along later. It has no binding value and may not be important in the course of the national elections. Some of us have wondered over the years what this special term "caucus" is, what is its historical background, why does it have such a special place in American politics, and where does the word itself come from? On a web search for the word I found it appears in some millions of web locations, all involving various kinds of political, lobbying and conferencing interests, beside which the state party caucuses are a small and politically specialized segment.

Why there should be such high level interest before the formal and binding Party votes seems something of a mystery. And why this sort of process should be endemic in the United States and apparently so dear to the American heart is also curious. In such situations there is usually more than meets the eye, and this might be a good time to probe behind the scene to get the background into a clearer focus. History does not really explain things the way historians always hope, it is true we don't really need to understand background while we are going about out current business. But there is a human trait which likes to search back in History, since our Past is reassuringly finite in the face of a Future which is very unclear and uncertain. History may not be very useful in a pragmatic sense, but one thing can be said for it: It is always very interesting !

From 1800 to 1824 the American Caucus was used to nominate Party candidates for the office of President and Vice-President, but in 1824 the Party Convention system was adopted and took the place of the former caucus nominations. From that time on there is a twofold use of the word, on the one hand for any conference group working in congress or another legislative body, but also for the vestigial Presidential caucus which has survived as a pre-voting Party conference with the same agenda as it had in the pre-1824 period. One might wonder why it has been retained in l7 states of the Union , as the focus of much political attention while forgotten in others through the nation. The best explanation seems to be first the thread of past history, and then some usefulness as a dry-run or sort of peep-show for something more important coming down the road. Winning or losing in a caucus is no sure sign of winning or losing in the Party elections, but there seem to be no good reasons for dropping the caucuses we have, any more than adding them where they have not been established. There must have been something attractive about this unusual word "caucus" which was quickly imported to other countries and regularly used since Disraeli's time in l9th century Britain for any political machine, usually with a negative implication.

The term Caucus is first attested in the diary of John Adams in l763 as a meeting of a small group interested in political matters, but William Gordon's "History of the Independence of the United States of America, 1788" speaks of the establishment of caucus political clubs as going back fifty years earlier than his time of writing in l774, so a first-occurrence date for the caucus can be estimated in retrospect as early as l724. The authentic anc final word from the Oxford English Diction or OED gives the following information about early uses of the word:

1763 J. Adams Diary Feb. Wks. II. 144 (Bartlett) This day learned that the caucus club meets, at certain times, in the garret of Tom Dawes. 1788 W. GORDON Hist. Amer. Rev. I. 240 (Bartlett) More than fifty years ago, Mr. Samuel Adams's father, and twenty others..used to meet, make a caucus, and lay their plan for introducing certain persons into places of trust and power.

1809 KENDALL Trav. I. xv. 174 A caucus is a political, and what is in practice the same thing, a party meeting; but it is not a popular meeting..It is in caucuses that it is decided, for whom the people shall be instructed to vote, and by what course of politics the party may be secured.

1818 SYD. SMITH Wks. (1869) 271 Caucus, the cant word of the Americans. 1847 in CRAIG. a1850 J. C. CALHOUN Wks. I. 41 Party organization, and party caucuses.

1853 LYTTON My Novel XII. xii. (D.), I think of taking a hint from..America, and establishing secret caucuses: nothing like 'em.

1855 MOTLEY Dutch Rep. I. 360 The meeting was, in fact, what we should call a caucus, rather than a general gathering.

1870 LOWELL Among my Bks. Ser. II. (1873) 98 In the Greek epic, the gods are partisans, they hold caucuses, they lobby and log-roll for their candidates.

Looking about for an etymology for this unusual word Caucus, I searched the voluminous Century Dictionary of l900, which was based on the Imperial Dictionary of l894, both of which foreshadowed the Oxford English Dictionary of l928. It was under classically oriented directorship of W.D. Whitney, Professor of Sanskrit and historical linguistics at Yale. So it is not surprising to find from that classically trained era a suggestion that Caucus came from a M-Latin caucus, from a M-Greek kaukos from an ancient Gr. kaukus (or its dim. kaukion) meaning "a cup". From this it would follow that the early l8th c. caucus was a Symposium of sorts after the Athenian manner of Plato, essentially a drinking party with wine and convivial discussion to follow. But l8th century Americans would have had little opportunity to borrow from Late Greek vocabulary before the Greek Revolutionary period of the early l9th c. And as to actual ancient Greek sources, the word "kaukos" is found only in one place as a Greek gloss on a Latin form found in a book not to be published yet for a century and a half, the "Corpus Glossariorum Latinorum, ed. Loewe, Goetze, Schoell, l888-l924" and the word is never seen elsewhere. It is true the American l8th century period did have some classical roots, like Caesar's Campaigns against the Gauls which were read as a standard school textbook to provide insight about the suppression of native peoples like our Native Americans or Indians . But this etymology is quite unthinkable outside the carrel of a major university library.

It was suggested by a Mr. Pickering in l816 that " as a mere guess, he thought it not improbable that caucus might be a corruption of caulkers' (meetings) being understood". He suggested that the Tories of the time of the Revolution had marked the ships' caulkers and rope makers in Boston as agitators against British rule, and applied the term "calkers" or in local dialect pronunciation "caucers", to political discussion clubs. However the word caucus was actually in use before the date of the Revolution in the l770's as noted above, and this folk-etymology, which is unconfirmed by fact or linguistic probability, is certainly spurious.

On the other hand, there is a curious linguistic thread connected with this word which goes back to Capt. John Smith who had emigrated to the colony of Virginia in l607, and his book "The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles", was published in l624, where he mentions a native word "Caw-cawaassough" as one who advises, a counselor. An American scholar made a note of this word, which he connected with a Indian language word, as follows:

Dr. J. H. Trumbull (Proc. Amer. Philol. Assoc. 1872) has suggested possible derivation from an Algonkin word cau´-cau-as´u, which occurs in Capt. Smiths Virginia 23, as Caw-cawaassough one who advises, urges, encourages, from a vb. meaning primarily to talk to, hence to give counsel, advise, encourage, and to urge, promote, incite to action. For such a derivation there is claimed the general suitability of the form and sense, and it is stated that Indian names were commonly taken by clubs and secret associations in New England........

Trumbull is not convinced by this argument which depends solely on Smith's citation of one word from an unknown language, in a period when the traces of native speech had been heavily suppressed. But the word "caucus" has survived in the Algonquin language group, and was well understood by Judge Charles Riley Cloud delivering a speech to the Symposium of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in l992, with these words:

European colonists in America had so little experience with democratic representative institutions, that they had to use an Algonquin Indian word, "caucus", to designate this decision making procedure in a representative government............ James Madison, in 1788 in The Federalist papers said that the English government could not be called a representative government. He said that this was an "extreme inaccuracy" when compared to a "genuine republic." Of course, the ever present examples for our Founding Fathers of genuine republics, were the Native American governments which had been here centuries before the arrival of Columbus to America. The example provided by the Native American "caucus" grew into a major organizing factor in the Congress, and even more importantly in the American convention system for nominating political candidates.

We must remember that the early Colonies were founded under the British Crown and set up as rigidly controlled business enterprises by legalist experts like John Locke, with clearly defined rules for operation without discussion or local participation. It seems pointed that Captain Smith, who had married Pocohontas and spoke the native language, made special mention of an Algonquin family based word for "counsel" as a discussion group, something which the native population possessed in contradistinction to the ways of the encroaching colonial administrations. Since from the middle of the 17th century there had been nervous unrest here in the business of dealing with a Crown six weeks distant by ship message, it is no surprise that a word for a secret council which was modeled on the native peoples' administration was adopted into colonial English as a special term pertinent to the local situation. The word Caucus was especially fortunate since it contrasted discussion and consultation on the local level with British administration from a distant office. Furthermore it was an ideal item of vocabulary since it meant something over here which would not be understood as word or as meaning to the British government over there.


And so it turns out that CAUCUS is a truly American word, properly borrowed by immigrants from natives, a democratic word in a time when a working democracy was not yet even a working idea. This was a term which the American republic of the early l9th century was quick to turn into political operation and would never relinquish as useless or obsolete. It may be that the present caucus as precursor for part elections is not necessary, but the notion that discussion on every level is profitable, is in the end quite necessary, and a good safeguard against voting rights being hurried through the polls without sufficient warning. The right to associate and discuss is at the heart of any democratic process, and if do we end up associating overly and talking endlessly, that will be the price of democracy, and the inefficient minor segment of a larger process which does by its essence and importance require endless talk and endless consideration.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College