Party Organization and Operations

views updated

Party Organization and Operations

The founding fathers accepted the conventional wisdom that political parties or factions are inherently undesirable. Parties, they thought, set one part of the community against the rest and prevented attention to the general good. James Madison and the other framers believed that the U.S. Constitution would prevent any party or faction from taking control of all parts of the new government and would thus encourage interest groups to compromise. The founders were, however, thinking of the political groupings they had experienced, which modern historians see as either unstable leadership factions or broader movements held together only by an immediate crisis or a single pressing issue. What developed in the 1790s were parties of a quite new kind: more organized and coherent; based on the secure loyalty of ordinary voters; and capable of surviving changes of leadership or the passing of the issues that had led to their formation. Ironically, these new formations were a consequence of the Constitution: it had created a center of national power capable of capture through the electoral process at a time when most states had already granted the right to vote to most adult white males, while the complexity of the new constitutional structure ensured that only the broadest coalitions could hope to succeed.


Parties did not seriously develop, however, until George Washington's impending retirement produced the first contested presidential election in 1796, after six years of growing disagreement over domestic policy, the French Revolution, and the Anglo-French war had aroused deep passions. The long-drawn-out debates over Jay's Treaty (1794) produced a deep cleavage within Congress and polarized the political classes. Supporters of the Washington administration kept the old name "Federalist" and backed John Adams, while their opponents, calling themselves "Republicans," supported Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists exploited their command of the federal government and its patronage, whereas the Republicans had to develop extraconstitutional means of organization, though in some states they did command the state government. For the Republicans, John Beckley, the clerk of the House of Representatives, corresponded with opposition elements in the various states and ensured the nomination of party tickets. After Adams's narrow victory in 1796, partisanship intensified as the growing international crisis made each side believe that the future of the Republic was at stake in the coming presidential election of 1800.

Though at this stage the groupings are best described as proto-parties, the electoral battle of 1800 took on characteristics that were qualitatively different from earlier factional struggles. All participants accepted that the contest was between two distinct groupings. Despite bitter rivalries within each party, the internal factions recognized the need to back the party's candidate, however much they disapproved of him. Both sides saw that it was necessary to organize support in the wider public and stimulate voter turnout, especially in the six states where the electorate chose the members of the electoral college. The Republicans were the more energetic, even intervening in New York in the state election that would affect the makeup of the legislature which would choose the presidential electors, but the Federalists began to develop comparable techniques. In their creation of a committed party press, their use of nominating procedures to unify the party's vote, and their belief that they possessed committed popular support, these political formations were taking on some characteristics of mass parties.

first party system, 1800–1824

Taking power in 1801, President Jefferson buttressed Republican predominance by distributing office on a partisan basis, and his supporters in Congress regularized the use of a congressional caucus to maintain party unity there. The effectiveness of the Federalist opposition gradually diminished as Jefferson won overwhelming reelection in 1804 and the Republican majority in the House grew from 69 to 36 between 1801 and 1803 to 118 to 24 between 1807 and 1809. Factionalism among Republicans seemed at times more important than the party contest, and many historians have deduced that the Jeffersonian parties were not well-established, deep-rooted institutions. However, the economic dislocations and social discontent created by Jefferson's Embargo of 1807 revived the opposition party and reinvigorated the party contest. In all the seaboard states north of Virginia, Federalist voters who had been disheartened since 1800 reappeared at the polls and challenged Republican control at the state and local levels. In 1808 the Federalists contested every congressional seat north of the Potomac as well as some in the South and then built up their electoral position impressively, especially after the outbreak of war in 1812. In that year's presidential election, they backed the dissident New York Republican DeWitt Clinton and would have defeated Madison's reelection bid had they carried Pennsylvania. Similarly, their position in Congress improved, and through the 1813–1815 Congress their 68 members showed far greater cohesion than the 112 Republicans.

Party competition. Even during their revival, the Federalists never seriously challenged the Republican predominance because they could not break into the South and West. In these areas the overwhelming support for the Republicans inhibited party development and politics remained elitist, personal, and informal. By contrast, the intense rivalry in two-thirds of the states, from New Hampshire through Maryland and even reaching Ohio, made this period one of intense partisan experience for many Americans. As Philip Lampi's collection of election data at the American Antiquarian Society reveals, voter turnout increased between 1808 and 1814. Over 70 percent of adult males were voting in states as various as New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

In New England the Republicans mounted an effective challenge after 1800, using legislative caucuses and local meetings to nominate their candidates and backing them with a committed local press. The Federalist revival sharpened party competition and saw the Federalists adopting Republican techniques. The conflict became so sharp in some states, notably Massachusetts, that each year it seemed control of the state government might change hands.

The middle states were throughout the period the most competitive and politically innovative. In the 1790s the Republicans in Pennsylvania and New Jersey developed a party organization that enabled them to nominate tickets, coordinate action, arouse the electorate, and dictate a strict party line. After 1807, in the area from New York through Maryland, the Republicans—who increasingly called themselves Democratic Republicans or even Democrats—began to encourage the popular election of delegates to meet in local and county conventions to nominate candidates for local office, the state legislature, and Congress, and in some states by 1812 in state conventions to nominate gubernatorial candidates. Similarly, the Federalists, eager to harmonize the party, occasionally resorted to delegate conventions, though they usually met in secret because of their public disapproval of Republican "dictation" to the voters. In presidential elections the Republicans either backed the incumbent or, as in 1808 and 1816, used their wide representation in Congress to name a successor through a congressional caucus. The Federalists, for their part, had to look beyond Congress and, in both 1808 and 1812, called secret meetings in New York that some have seen as, in effect, the first national nominating conventions.

The acceptance of parties. One consequence of this experience of party contest was that publicists began to develop theoretical justifications for party organization. In the 1790s most Republicans regarded themselves not as a party but as a band of patriots coming together to overthrow the selfish interests that had captured the federal government. After 1800 Republicans continued to regard their party as embodying the general interest, though some argued that voters owed loyalty to party nominations only if the people could influence nominations to office through delegate conventions. The Federalists ostensibly maintained a traditional scorn for parties, but during the War of 1812 they defended the right of constitutional opposition, arguing that an opposition was essential to protect civil liberties against an overbearing government. Only as the Republican Party began to lose its unity and cohesion after the war did its publicists start to argue that a two-party conflict was good in itself.

Federalist demise. The party battle lost its heat and purpose when news of the Treaty of Ghent (December 1814) and the Battle of New Orleans (January 1815) transformed the Federalists from the prudent critics of a foolish war into traitorous obstructionists. As the presidential election of 1816 demonstrated, the Federalist Party now found it impossible to attract new support, and it ceased formal opposition to the new Republican president, James Monroe. In many localities, however, party activists ignored calls for partisan differences to be dropped and tried to organize elections along party lines, though it became harder to maintain unity behind a single candidate. Close state elections returned some Federalist state governments into the early 1820s, and members of the U.S. House of Representatives continued to be categorized as Republicans or Federalists down to 1824.

party realignment, 1824–1832

The old party system was finally destroyed by the sectional feelings generated by the Missouri crisis of 1819–1820 and the depression of the early 1820s. In 1824 the Democratic Republican Party could not agree on a single candidate, and four Republicans found strong bases of voter support. The need to find a president obliged John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay—and their supporters—to come together in 1825 to elect the former in the House election and form an administration, prompting their disappointed rivals to raise the banner of opposition. By 1827 these opposition groups had accepted Andrew Jackson as their presidential candidate, and they began to appeal to voters in a manner entirely reminiscent of the late 1790s. Some of their leaders, notably Martin Van Buren, specifically saw this campaign as the recreation of the old Democratic Republican Party, which they argued was the best means of restoring the rule of sound political principle. In this process the Federalists also divided, though most supported Adams. Old political friends now separated, old enemies joined together, and new newspapers were founded in what was in effect the greatest political realignment in American history.

The election of 1828 produced a turnout unprecedented in presidential elections, though not in earlier state or congressional contests. Jackson and his supporters responded to victory as had Jefferson's Republicans thirty years before, moving their own men into office and using the federal government to consolidate their position. The former Adams men maintained their opposition and adopted the new name of National Republicans. The electoral basis of this new party contest was confirmed when the election of 1832 saw most voters voting the same way as they had in 1828.

In this new party competition, the election devices that had been created over the previous thirty years were adopted again, only more systematically, by both sides. If anything, the Adams men of 1828 proved the more innovative in their use of state conventions and the creation of a national campaign newspaper. Once again, overwhelming sectional preferences—for Jackson in the South and the frontier West, for the National Republicans in most of New England—made the adoption of thoroughgoing party techniques unnecessary. Partisan organization advanced at the state level only in states and districts that were competitive. But in battleground states like New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, the parties used all possible devices, swaying public opinion with scurrilous pamphlets and broadsides, introducing national party divisions into state elections, and using delegate conventions to name tickets at all levels, including congressional elections. Finally, in 1831 and 1832, the Democrats, National Republicans, and a third party, the anti-Masons, all used a national delegate convention to nominate their candidates, the beginning of a practice that became the particular hallmark of American electoral politics.

See alsoAnti-Masons; Democratic Republicans; Election of 1796; Election of 1800; Election of 1824; Election of 1828;Federalist Party; Jay's Treaty; National Republican Party .


Chambers, William Nisbit. Political Parties in a New Nation: The American Experience, 1776–1809. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Chase, James S. Emergence of the Presidential Nominating Convention, 1789–1832. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Cunningham, Noble E. The Jeffersonians in Power, 1801–1809. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1963.

Fischer, David Hackett. The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Age of Jeffersonian Democracy. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Formisano, Ronald P. "Deferential-Participant Politics: The Early Republic's Political Culture, 1789–1840." American Political Science Review 68 (1974): 473–487.

Hoadley, John F. Origins of American Political Parties, 1789–1803. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1790–1840. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Ratcliffe, Donald J. Party Spirit in a Frontier Republic: Democratic Politics in Ohio, 1793–1821. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

Sharp, James Roger. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.

Donald J. Ratcliffe