Saturday, January 21, 2012

A History of American Political Parties, Part II

Read Part I

The Era of Good Feelings - a name given to the 2-term presidency of James Monroe - came to a screeching halt with the end of his time in office in 1825.  For the past quarter century, the United States had effectively been a 1-party democracy, controlled by the so-called Democratic-Republicans.  This party had been founded by Thomas Jefferson in the 1790's as a populist movement focusing on states' rights and a limited federal government.  It had consolidated its influence over the U.S. political system with Jefferson's presidential victory in 1800 over John Adams.  Adams'  party, the Federalists, had very quickly fallen apart, and didn't even bother running a candidate against James Monroe in 1820.

In 1824, four major candidates of the Democratic-Republican camp ran for president - Henry Clay, William Crawford, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson.  Three were southerners; only Adams came from a northern state.

With four well-known and widely-liked candidates from the same party all running against each other - effectively splintering the party - the election results were unlike anything we can imagine today.  Clay won 13% of the popular vote and 37 electoral votes.  Crawford won a slightly lower percentage of the popular vote, but took 41 electoral votes.  Adams, whose father had been the only Federalist president, took virtually all of New England (the old Federalist stronghold), and garnered 84 electoral votes.  Finally, Jackson took 41% of the popular vote, including most of the southern states, and won the most electoral votes, with 99.

However, because of the 12th Amendment, which had been passed after the divisive 1796 and 1800 elections, none of the candidates won the presidency.  The 12th Amendment requires that the winning candidate carry a majority of the electoral vote, regardless of popular vote percentages.  In this election, 131 electoral votes would have been needed to win a majority.  So with none of the candidates getting enough electoral votes to win, the election had to be decided by the House of Representatives, as stipulated in the 12th Amendment.  This is the only time in U.S. history that this has happened.

Considering that he won the most popular votes, along with the most electoral votes, Andrew Jackson expected to win the vote in the House.  However, because the stipulation of the 12th Amendment states that only the top three candidates can be considered in a House run-off, Henry Clay (who got the least electoral votes) was not on this congressional ballot.  Clay was not only the Speaker of the House, but also a major political enemy of Andrew Jackson.  Because of his status in the House, he was able to convince a number of representatives to vote for Adams instead of Jackson.  For his part, Adams agreed to make Clay his Secretary of State if Clay could help him win.

The backroom bargaining paid off.  In a shocking turn of events, Adams ended up winning the House run-off, with Jackson left wondering how he had been outfoxed.  Adams immediately named Clay as his Secretary of State, and considering that the previous three Secretaries of State had gone on to win the following  presidential election, this was seen as Adams' way of effectively naming Clay as his presidential successor.

As a result of this highly divisive presidential election, the prevailing Democratic-Republican party began to splinter.  Jackson accused Adams and Clay of unethical backroom deals (which was probably a fair accusation), and the faction supporting Jackson began to form itself into a new party, called the Democratic Party.  Their main platforms included Manifest Destiny - the notion that Americans had a God-given right to the unsettled territories of North America; a free market economy; opposition to national banks, and even, for some Democrats, all banks; and a patronage system that rewarded political supporters with government-appointed jobs.

Supporters of Adams and Clay, on the other hand, began to refer to themselves as the Anti-Jackson party, or the National Republicans.  Unlike their Jacksonian counterparts, they did not believe the U.S. should worry about expansion into new territories (Manifest Destiny), but should instead focus on strengthening the existing United States.  They believed in a strong national bank, as well as tariffs on trade goods to bring revenue into the federal government.  This revenue, in turn, could be used to subsidize internal improvements like roads and bridges and canals.  Where the Jacksonians tended to be focused on agriculture and territory expansion, the Adams-Clay faction focused more on the economy and growth of cities.

In 1828, Adams and Jackson faced off once again, and this time it was no contest.  Jackson, who had gained enormous popularity during the previous four years, defeated the incumbent Adams in a landslide, winning every state outside of New England, as well as Pennsylvania and New York - traditional strongholds for Adams.

As a result of this dramatic repudiation of John Quincy Adams, and the growing strength of the populist Democratic Party headed by Andrew Jackson, the burgeoning National Republican party was halted in its tracks, and basically fell apart before it ever really got started.

Out of its ashes, in the early 1830's, would rise the ill-fated Whig Party, which would see two men elected president, but would also suffer both their deaths in office.

Read Part III

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