- Historic Sites
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
Jackson actually had the highest number of electoral (and popular) votes, and in bypassing him, the House made the profound mistake of ignoring the hurricane of democracy that had blown Federalism away. Universal manhood suffrage was becoming a reality in almost every state as property and religious qualifications for the vote were toppled by popular outcry. Universal was anything but an exact term. It meant white males only. Even so, a huge and newly enfranchised body of voters stood ready to crush any kind of elite that seemed to put itself between them and success. Jackson the Indian-killer, the victor of New Orleans, the uneducated and unpolished frontier youth who had made himself a gentleman planter, a judge, and a senator was their symbolic and actual hero.
He played the role to the hilt and re-established party politics by the loyalties and hatreds he created. He ran again in 1828 and this time made it to the White House, where he spent eight years smashing and roaring, fighting the “monsters” of monopoly and privilege, freely using the veto, defying the Supreme Court and Congress when he chose, and establishing a whole new concept of the President as “the people’s” friend and the prime mover of the national government. When the time came for his reelection in 1832, his supporters were proud to call themselves Democrats. The modern Democratic party may honor the cerebral Jefferson as one of its founders, but the true paternity lies with the fiercely partisan Jackson. He made it a fighting electoral force.
Jackson’s opponents were an assorted lot of spokesmen for modified Hamiltonian economics. In a very loose way they wanted more nationalized control over the growth process—a powerful central bank, tariffs, conservative administration of the public domain, federal support of the “internal improvements” that would build a nationwide market (rather than an uneven patchwork of state and local investments). They had trouble coordinating their policies, but they were united in seeing Jackson as a dangerous demagogue. They called themselves National Republicans at first, but by the end of Jackson’s second term, they had found the catchier label of Whigs. English Whigs had fought against the power grabs of the king, and they, the American Whigs, would defend liberty against “King Andrew.”
And so from 1836 to 1852, after a long lapse, two-party politics was reborn as the Whigs battled the Democrats. The Whigs’ national record was mixed, and their luck was poor. They elected two Presidents, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. Each was a war hero, and each died in office. The Whigs won simultaneous control of both houses of Congress only once. But they were always a substantial element in the House and Senate, where they had distinguished leaders like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Despite their essentially conservative appeal to the already established, they had a following among ordinary Americans (especially in the West) who thought that the Whig road to national wealth and opportunity was the right one. Among these was an enthusiastic fan of Henry Clay named Abraham Lincoln.
By 1896 Republicans made themselves the party most friendly to business, and they dominated the federal government for the next decade and a half.
Though they sounded somewhat like reincarnated Federalists, the Whigs did not—could not—make the mistake of ignoring the common voter. Even American conservatives could no longer win without wooing the humble citizen in his own language. The Whigs did just that in 1840, when they out-demagogued the Democrats by running General Harrison, “Old Tippecanoe,” as a homespun soldier content to live in a log cabin and drink hard cider. He was actually a scion of Virginia’s plantation aristocracy, but no matter, the strategy worked, and in both parties the warmth of victory melted away any intellectual qualms.
In fact, universal suffrage was changing the basic machinery of politics. Both parties now organized vigorously at the grass roots. Meetings were held in townships, counties, and congressional districts to adopt resolutions, nominate local officials, and choose delegates to statewide or regional gatherings that in turn endorsed national candidates. In 1831 a short-lived third party known as the Anti-Masons came up with the idea of a national convention—held in Baltimore—to write a platform and pick a presidential standard-bearer. Both platform and candidate, William Wirt, are long forgotten, but the idea was quickly taken up by the other parties. The three- or four-day orgy of raucous speechmaking, celebrating, and factional infighting became a fixture. “If it were an agreeable subject,” William H. Seward wrote to a friend regarding that prototype gathering, “I would describe to you all the hustle, excitement, collision, irritation, enunciation, suspicion, confusion, obstinacy, fool-hardiness and humor of a convention.” None of those ingredients were lacking in the ones that followed.