The next Speaker of the US House of Representative is courting the Freedom Caucus while the next President of the US is courting the Iowa caucuses. But the importance of the caucus to the American political process isn’t new. The caucus – a meeting of members of a political party or movement, especially to choose a candidate for election or to decide on policy – has long been an important part of the American political process. This is evident even in the history of the very word: some of the first records of caucus involve John Adams, Sam Adams, the Boston Tea Party, and possibly even John Smith and Pocahontas. But, like so much of American democracy, the origin of caucus is subject to debate.
A significant and early citation of caucus comes from an entry John Adams made in his diary in 1763. In this entry, Adams writes that he learned the “Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws.” This private organization – whose social meetings were even then associated with tobacco and drink, as his notes remark – was influential in pre-Revolutionary politics, including a possible role in the Boston Tea Party.
The Oxford English Dictionary has two citations before Adams’ own in 1763. They give us more insight into the place caucuses held in the colonies, not to mention the historic phonology of the word, especially in the New England region, where the OED concludes it arose:
1760 Boston Gaz. Suppl. 5 May The new and grand Corcas….The old and true Corcas.
1762 O. Thacher in Proc. Mass. Hist. Soc. (1884). 20 48 The connections and discords of our politicians, corkus-men, plebeian tribes, &c.
The word was “not novel” when English minister and historian William Gordon discussed it in his 1788 “History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of Americans.” He recalls it as early as the 1720s, though he admits he has “no satisfactory account” of its origins, which largely remains the case today.
But we do have a number of suggestions, some of which are more electable, shall we say, than others.
In Gordon’s own discussion of the word, he notes the Boston caucuses met at “the north end of town, where much of the ship-building business was carried on.” Noting this, philologist John Pickering in 1816 guessed the word originated in a cant term, caulkers, shortened from caulkers’ meetings. Pickering suggests ship caulkers and their vocational brethren were known for their political meetings and activities. Scholars have swiftly dispatched this derivation.
Pickering is not alone in considering the locations of these meetings, though. In his excellent account of the word, storied American writer and philologist H.L. Mencken notes that the Dictionary of American English suggests caucus “may have derived from the name of a forgotten neighborhood” based on a reference in a Boston newspaper to a meeting in the “West-Corcus in Boston” in 1745. In an interesting thread on the American Dialect Society’s email discussion list, Professor Stephen Goranson finds some wind in this speculation, though he doesn’t fully explain why.
Pickering surfaces again in 1943, thanks to the scholarship of LeRoy Barret, as we also learn in Mencken’s work. Barret cites an attempt by Pickering to derive caucus from the initials of six members’ surnames: Cooper, Adams, Urann, Coulson, Urann, and Symmes. With characteristic mordancy, Mencken dismisses this initialism in his account of the history of the work:
There is, furthermore, an unhappy tendency among amateur etymologists to derive words from the initials of proper names, often without justification.
Another effort, from the Century Dictionary in 1900, looks to the drink John Adams noted. This origin takes caucus back, via Latin, to a late Greek word, kaukos, a “drinking vessel,” emphasizing the conviviality of meetings and recalling Platonic symposia. Historians, such as William Harris in his own informative piece on this problematic word,¹ have serious doubts about the record of kaukos in itself, not to mention the unlikeliness these colonial Bostonians would have adopted such a recondite word for their club.
The Powhatan cau′-cau-as′u
Some may doubt these secret politickers used Latin or Greek names, but they may have taken Native American ones. According to the OED, philologist and Algonquian scholar James H. Trumbull suggested in the Proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1872 that caucus has a
possible derivation from an Algonquin word cau′-cau-as′u, which occurs in Capt. Smith’s Virginia 23, as Caw-cawaassough ‘one who advises, urges, encourages’, from a verb 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; but there appears to be no direct evidence.
Of all the etymological candidates for caucus, this one gets the most votes, though no nominee is ever perfect.
Caucus, then, may may come from the Algonquian spoken by the Powhatan peoples in what is now Virginia. The very political concept, too, may well have native roots. As the late Classics professor William Harris sums up in his: “And so it turns out that CAUCUS is a truly American word.”American English is indeed indebted to the very language of the peoples the colonists eradicated, to be frank. But so, too, in many complex ways we may struggle to comprehend or acknowledge, is American democracy.
¹ I did observe that Professor Harris states that Captain Smith married Pocahontas. She married John Rolfe. I felt the inaccuracy was worth noting.