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The Lives Of The Parties
The two-party system, undreamt of by the founders of the Republic, has been one of its basic shaping forces ever since their time
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
As war followed secession, the system lay in ruins, but then a stronger Union and a two-party system more vigorous than ever arose from the carnage.
Nonetheless, the violence with which the Republicans and Federalists went at each other during John Adams’s administration seemed to justify Washington’s fear of “horrid enormities.” The wars of the French Revolution furnished a fiery background against which the pro-British Federalists and pro-French Republicans denounced each other as Jacobins, Tories, atheists, and inquisitors. The repressive Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in 1798 by the Federalist Congress, looked like an ominous warning of bloody strife to come.
But then came Jefferson’s election, labeled by some historians “the revolution of 1800.” In his inaugural address the philosopher of revolution called for conciliation. “We are all Republicans,” he said, “—we are all Federalists.” Every difference of opinion did not have to be a difference of principle. There were no reprisals, other than the replacement of Federalist job-holders, no arrests, nothing except a convincing demonstration that power could peacefully pass from one party to the other when the voters spoke. It was the clinching demonstration that the constitutional system—political parties and all—was working and would endure.
So it would, but not without change. Inside of another twenty years the initial party system got a vigorous shaking up. The Federalists died, and the Republicans were transformed and renamed, all because of two irresistible and linked forces: national expansion and the rise of democracy. The curtain went up on the second act for American parties. This one saw the birth of modern political machinery, and it ended in the disaster of civil war.
The Republicans not only won in 1800 but took the next five presidential elections in a row, conferring double terms on Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—the so-called Virginia Dynasty. Beaten time and again, the Federalists remained strong for a while in New England but gradually sank out of sight. This was not because their economic concepts were rejected but because their open courtship of privilege ran counter to the incoming tide of democracy and especially because their pro-British leanings put them on the wrong side of patriotic public opinion during the War of 1812, which most of them opposed. (Diehards from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island held an antiwar convention at Hartford in December of 1814 and succeeded only in making themselves vulnerable to campaign charges of treason.)
It was ironic that the nationalistically minded Federalists should make a last stand defending the rights of states not to cooperate fully in “Mr. Madison’s war,” but that was to be expected when they were constantly shut out of control of the central government. They were no more inconsistent than the Republican administrations that doubled the size of the nation by purchasing Louisiana and Florida and that took the country into a costly conflict to defend freedom of international trade. These switches simply illustrate a second rule about American parties. Not only do the national organizations fail to impose ideological consistency on their state counterparts, but their own positions on the proper constitutional powers of the state governments, the Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court often shift around, depending upon who is temporarily entrenched in any of those institutions. This is not to say cynically that all party principles are disposable, but merely that the flip-flopping reflects the federal system in operation and the intensely pragmatic nature of American political life.
At any rate, the Federalists were out of the national picture after 1816, and for practical election purposes American voters were all Republicans. But this so-called single-party (or no-party) “era of good feelings” was deceptive and did not last long. True, there was an invigorating flush of almost universal pride in the country’s successful emergence from the war, in the rush of westward expansion, and in the surge of industry and invention. Everyone was, in the modern sense, “pro-growth.” But unsettled questions remained. What kind of banking system should provide the credit for investment in canals, steamboats, turnpikes (and, later, railroads and telegraph systems)? Should the federal government and the Treasury have a hand in encouraging a transportation network? What about a tariff to protect those new textile factories from foreign competition? And those millions of acres of land owned by the nation—should they be virtually given away to immigrant and native-born pioneers? Or kept as a good source of revenue, to be sold at a controlled pace to well-heeled developers and town founders?
Splits over these issues would soon fracture the old-time Republican monolith that had been naming its presidential candidates in caucuses of its members of Congress, who supposedly represented a cross section of national opinion. The first sign of revolt came as individual leaders went their own ways, plucking clusters of support off the Republican stem. In 1824 the electoral college had to choose between four candidates, only one of them—who ran last—named by “King Caucus.” The others were put forward by state legislatures or special petitions. No one got a majority, and the House of Representatives chose the winner, John Quincy Adams, over Henrv Clay and Andrew Jackson.