Saturday, January 14, 2012

A History of American Political Parties, Part I

Political parties are a little bit like religious denominations - they are rarely formed out of thin air, but instead tend to evolve over time.

This fact is easy to forget in this day and age when the U.S. is virtually wholly controlled by two prevailing parties, representing two prevailing political ideologies.  For many of us, it may seem that these two parties have always existed, and have always been just like they are today.

Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth.

In the earliest days of the United States, there was no such thing as a political party.  There were political ideologies, of course, many of which stood in stark contrast to one another, but there was no such thing as an organized political party that used resources and manpower to help elect like-minded individuals.  As such, the first few sessions of Congress, as well as the first presidency under George Washington, were all non-partisan.  It's hard to imagine such a scenario today.

By the end of Washington's second term, in 1796, political parties were developing into what might be called an embryonic stage.  Two primary ideologies had taken widepspread root, with politicians and average citizens generally falling into one camp or the other.  The first camp was known as the Federalists, and they generally believed in a stronger federal government (hence the name), a national bank to streamline the economy and assume the public debt of the states, and a large standing army.  To put a modern spin on it, they might be thought of as the "big government" ideologues of the 18th century.  Though George Washington never aligned himself with any political party, he was most in line, politically, with the Federalists.  The Federalist founder and leader was Alexander Hamilton, who was Treasury Secretary under George Washington.  

The other party developing during these years was known by a number of different names.  Historians today generally refer to them as the Democratic-Republican party.  In their own day, they tended to either call themselves Jeffersonians (after their leader, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson), or, more often, Republicans.  They generally believed in stronger states' rights, state militias instead of standing federal armies, and private banks.  They were essentially the "small government/states' rights" group of the 18th century.  They called themselves Republicans because they believed strongly in republican principles of government - representatives, elected by the people, doing the will of the people.  They are not related to the modern day Republican Party.  The Jeffersonian Republicans viewed the Federalist movement as leaning too closely to monarchy, and thus to tyranny, and even insultingly referred to the Federalists as "tories" - the name for members of the British parliament who were strong supporters of the king.

The Federalists generally supported big businesses, banks, and wealthy urban interests; they also supported improved relations with Great Britain.  The Jeffersonians, on the other hand, pushed for the rights of rural America, arguing for the importance of farmers and planters over industrialists and financial investors.  They were sympathetic with the anti-monarchy values of the French revolution, and were opposed to the Federalist treaties with Great Britain.

These ideological differences tended to play out geographically.  Federalists were strong in the industrialized north, while the Jeffersonians were strong in the agrarian south.  In many ways, it's not much different than the tension that still exists today between management and labor, Wall Street and Main Street, urban and rural, the 1% against the 99%.

Both of these political ideologies coalesced, during the 1790's, into true, burgeoning political parties.  Their main way of gaining prominence and backing and support was through the use of mainstream media, which, at that time, consisted primarily of newspapers.  Newspapers have tended to have a political slant ever since.

After choosing not to accept a third term in the White House, George Washington delivered a farewell address to the nation, which was printed in all the newspapers around the country.  Sensing the trouble brewing in the political arena, he spent no less than six paragraphs of this address condemning political parties and encouraging Americans not to form them.

This [tendency among people to form political coalitions] inseparable from our nature...But, it is truly [our] worst enemy.  The alternate domination of one faction over itself a frightful despotism...The common and continual mischiefs of [political parties] are sufficient to make it in the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain [them].

Unfortunately, no one took the Father of Our Nation very seriously on this point.

In the 1796 election, John Adams, who had been Vice-President under George Washington, ran on the Federalist platform.  He ran against Thomas Jefferson, who was running on the Democratic-Republican platform.  This election proved to be immensely divisive, and in the end, Adams won by only 3 electoral votes over Jefferson, with voting split geographically - the North going with Adams, and the South with Jefferson.

Because of the rules of electoral college voting at the time, Jefferson ended up being elected as Adams' Vice-President, marking the only time in American history when two people from different political parties shared the Executive office.  Jefferson went on to do everything in his power to undermine Adams' presidency, and four years later, they faced off again in an even more divisive election, and this time Jefferson won.  Adams did not attend his inauguration.

Following Jefferson's victory in the 1800 election, the Federalist party began to fall apart, and no Federalist was ever elected again to the presidency.  For the next 25 years, the U.S. was essentially a one-party system.  The Democratic-Republicans held the White House, and also maintained what can only be called a "super-majority" in Congress (often as high as 80%).  In the 1820 election, the Federalists didn't even bother to run anyone against James Monroe, and he became the only president since Washington to run unopposed.  His eight years in office are frequently referred to as the Era of Good Feelings, because there was virtually no political rancor going on in Washington - something that is virtually unthinkable in this day and age.  Essentially, by this time, Americans had stopped thinking of politics in terms of parties, and simply viewed everyone as part of the same basic team.

These good feelings, however, were about to be turned on their head.

Read Part II

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