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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
The new order of things raised the status of a new kind of professional, the party worker who could organize masses of men and guarantee their “correct” vote. Likewise of the candidate who could deliver a stump speech more rousing than reasoned. Political rallies became, like the revivals and camp meetings they resembled, a form of public theater, alive and clangorous, torchlit and ritualistic, parading to the beat of campaign songs under fluttering banners emblazoned with slogans and portraits. Between elections, enthusiasm was sustained by party-subsidized newspapers that scorned the pretense of objectivity. Attacks on the personal ; V and moral character of opponents were part of the game, and the most devoted partisans really had trouble crediting the motives of their adversaries. James K. Polk, the Democratic President elected in 1844, allegedly said of a new acquaintance that “he seemed a gentleman, though a Whig.”
The system engrossed the attention of those allowed to share in it. Some 2.5 million votes were cast in 1840 by a population of adult white males that probably did not number more than 3 million altogether. Dickens, on a visit the following year, complained of Americans’ “eternal prosy conversation about dollars and politics (the only two subjects they ever converse about).”
Most of what Dickens heard would have come from the dominant Whigs and Democrats. Third parties, then as now, were temporary shelters for voters with short-term unaddressed grievances, drawn together by some single idea, such as the Anti-Masonic party’s objection to “aristocratic” secret societies. When third parties showed strength, the major parties incorporated some of their ideas, then surrounded and ingested them, as the Whigs did with the Anti-Masons.
Both Whigs and Democrats needed votes in each of the different major sections that then made up the nation: the plantation South that imported heavily, the capital-hungry West, and the industrializing Northeast. The parties’ platforms were usually packages containing a balanced mixture of economic proposals with something for every point of the compass. Between such engineered compromises and the party organizations that reached from the White House down to county courthouses, the Whigs and Democrats were among the strongest of the bonds tying the United States together.
But in the 1840s the ties began to snap. The parties could not successfully make internal compromises on the uncompromisable, slavery. Relentlessly the question gutted and polarized both of them. The Whigs felt the strain first. Some of their stroneest bases were in New England and New England’s cultural extensions in those states bordering the Great Lakes, where abolitionism was swiftly ripening. The Democrats, k on the other hand, were more BL strongly rooted in the South and Southwest, far less fertile ground for antislavery sentiment. Because of a Democratic convention rule—not repealed until 1936—that required a two-thirds vote to nominate a President, Southerners had enough strength to suppress the issue for a loneer time.
But not forever. The abolitionist Liberty party, founded in 1840, pulled only 7,000 votes that year, but its total leaped to 62,000 in 1844. In 1848 “conscience” Whigs and antislavery Democrats joined in a Free-Soil nartv that was willins to stand for a half-loaf settlement of the question. Free-Soilers would leave slavery untouched where it existed but would bar it from all existing and future territories not yet organized into states. The effect would be immediate, since the Mexican War had just added the territories of California and New Mexico and, in fact, the whole present-day Southwest to the map. The Free-Soil ticket was a blue-ribbon alliance, former Democratic President Martin Van Buren at its head, and Charles Francis Adams, whose father and grandfather had been Presidents, in the second spot. It got nearly 300,000 votes. Four years later its total dropped, but not so drastically as that of the Whigs. The Whigs won 163 electoral votes and the White House in 1848 behind Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War, but that was a last blaze. In 1852 they plummeted to 42 electoral votes (from four states) and disappeared into the dustbin of history.
The Free-Soilers met a happier destiny in 1854, but under another name. That year Southern Democrats in Congress, as the price for voting to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, insisted on opening them to slavery and thereby repealing the thirty-four-year-old Missouri Compromise. Across the North outraged coalitions of “anti-Nebraska” Democrats, Free-Soilers, and conscience Whigs held mass meetings to denounce the plot of the “Slave Power” to deliver the entire West to the peculiar institution. Out of these inflamed gatherings rose a new organization, the Republican party reincarnated. Presumably the name came from independent Democrats claiming to be the true heirs of Jefferson, whose humane, liberal ideals had been betrayed by the proslavery zealots who now dominated the Democrats. But the name did not change the fact that the new Republicans were and remained basically Hamiltonian and Whiggish in economic thought. Their primary identification at birth, however, was bedrock opposition to the further extension of slavery. They argued that if confined, slavery would gradually and justifiably die and so end the problem without strife.