Politics: Overview

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Politics: Overview

By the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, the colonies of British North America had relatively mature political systems. Most were royal colonies whose governors and (often) governor's councils were appointed by the imperial government. Proprietors—the Penn family, for example—appointed the governors of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Only in the corporate colonies, Connecticut and Rhode Island, were they elected. The colonial assemblies

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often found themselves in direct conflict with the governors. In the course of the eighteenth century, these assemblies—whose members were popularly elected—expanded their legislative role at the expense of both the governors and the imperial government.

provincial politics

All of the British North American colonies had relatively large electorates made up of white male freeholders, men who owned their own land. Because of the wide distribution of landholding, common men voted in greater numbers than anywhere else in the world. Outside of New England, the assemblymen were often the only elected officials in the colonies, and those chosen by the voters were invariably men of wealth and power within their colony. The rituals of politics, such as treating—the practice of providing liquor and food for the voters—and the fact that the legislators were not paid meant that candidates had to be wealthy. Viva voce and other open voting procedures heightened the pressure of the "better sort" on the voters of lesser means. Thus, colonial elections revolved around reputation on the one hand and deference on the other.

Intracolonial politics involved questions of money and credit, internal improvements, taxes, land, Indians, and ethnic and religious conflict. Sectionalism, rooted in differences between coastal areas and the backcountry or simply East Jersey and West Jersey, and the various—often associated—ties of family and kin generally determined the ways men in the assemblies responded to these local issues. There were no real parties in the assemblies. In fact, the political culture of these years, as can be seen clearly in the debates leading up to the Revolution, reflected a commitment to the form of republicanism which had emerged in mid-eighteenth-century England that condemned parties. Most states, however, had fairly stable factions, such as those associated with the Livingston and the De Lancey families in New York or the followers of Samuel Ward (1725–1776) of Newport and Stephen Hopkins (1707-1785) of Providence in Rhode Island. The elites of Virginia and South Carolina, because of the nature of their economic and social structure, had an exceptional degree of unity on the eve of the Revolution.

The American Revolution was a revolt of the already empowered. As Parliament attempted to reassert its imperial power following the Seven Years' War through a series of taxes and other actions such as the Intolerable Acts (1774), the colonists resisted. While resistance was sometimes violent or marked by the fake-violence theater of the Boston Tea Party (1773), most often the colonists made use of the normal tools of redress in the imperial system of politics. The members of the colonial assemblies led this resistance and then a rebellion, designed at first to preserve their rights as Englishmen. In a lawyerlike fashion Thomas Jefferson, trained in colonial politics and representing the extralegal Continental Congress, put forth the case against the illegal actions of King George III in the Declaration of Independence. Most of the colonies, over a period from 1776 to 1792, wrote and rewrote republican constitutions for the new states. In 1781 the states were joined in a very loose national government under the Articles of Confederation. During the 1780s, congressional politics under the Articles of Confederation witnessed divisions between the original federalists, who supported a weak central government, and the nationalists, who wanted to give the federal government greater power.

The unstable factions in the Continental and Confederation Congresses were, except perhaps in the case of Pennsylvania, unconnected with the factions in the state legislatures, which focused on local issues. The new constitutions notoriously limited executive power and emphasized the role of the state legislatures. They also expanded the electorate by allowing taxpayers to vote and lowered the requirements for officeholding. Yet the old colonial politics, a "politics without party," based on family connections and intrastate geographical divisions, continued. The Revolution stripped off royal appointees, and many of the most conservative Loyalist elements fled. A revolution of expectations among those who had stood and fought, or watched cautiously from the sidelines, led to an increase in voter turnout and a change in the nature of the political elite. More common men became involved and more people at the middle levels of the economic structure gained office. The Revolution had brought neither a democratic political system nor a democratic order, but clearly the new American nation was, in its politics, moving toward a more democratic interpretation of republicanism.

the early republic

The writing of the Constitution in 1787 and the fight over its ratification the following year brought a crucial change in the politics of the early Republic by creating for the first time a national stage for political action. The politicians in the states, who had carried out the Revolution and who were arguing among themselves about various economic questions, had to decide what approach to the Constitution was in their interest. Historians disagree in their interpretations of the conflict between the Federalists, who favored the Constitution, and the anti-Federalists, who opposed its adoption. Was it a matter of ideological conflict or economic self-interest? The obvious answer is that it was a bit of both. Ideologically, Federalists and anti-Federalists mixed together liberal and republican ideas along with long-standing Protestant religious convictions. Clearly, the more commercial and cosmopolitan elements of the society disagreed with those whose local perspective grew out of their reliance on subsistence agriculture and only a modest connection to the marketplace. Yet it is nearly impossible to put even a majority of the men at the time into these categories, and some of the anti-Federalists were very wealthy "men of little faith." The ideological arguments did have a similarity from state to state, but the economic conflicts did not. As a consequence, neither the Federalists nor the anti-Federalists had the degree of organization associated with modern political parties. The Federalists were led by two very young men, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who—along with the slightly older John Jay—wrote The Federalist in 1787–1788 and managed the ratification of the Constitution in two of the three most populous states, New York and Virginia. In the end the Constitution was ratified through a system of state conventions and never voted upon nationally. The elections for the state conventions drew only one-quarter of the white adult men.

Through a very complicated process that extended over six months from 1788 into 1789, George Washington was chosen as the first president and John Adams as vice president. While Washington was popular the election was not a democratic affair, the modes of selecting electors varied widely from state to state and turnouts, where white men of property were allowed to vote were low. It is nearly impossible to imagine what the two hundred and twenty men who ran for elector in Massachusetts had in mind or explain why thirty-five electors cast votes for candidates other than Adams for the second (and possibly the first) office or why twelve electors chose not to vote at all.

The critical problem faced by Washington's new administration was not only to create a government, but also to build a nation. The administration included men who had emerged during the Revolution. When Robert Morris, the financier of the Revolution, refused the post of secretary of the Treasury, Washington chose Hamilton for the post, and then the president called back Thomas Jefferson from France to be secretary of state. The anti-Federalists and their demands for a new constitutional convention passed from the scene, although some were in the First Congress and one of them, James Monroe, would eventually become president.

In the 1790s two issues separated the American people, or at least the political elite. One was related to the old fight over how strong the national government needed to be, and the other involved how the country should align itself internationally, particularly after the outbreak and radical turn of the French Revolution. How would the new government respond to the French Revolution? In Washington's cabinet, Hamilton was pro-British and Jefferson pro-French, although they agreed with the president that the best position for the new nation was neutrality. Hamilton created a set of economic policies designed to handle the Revolutionary debt and put the country on an even keel while strengthening the federal government. The Virginians, Jefferson and Madison, who were not happy with the growing power of the federal government, led the opposition in the cabinet and Congress.

Although there were numerous battles on individual issues, it took almost six years before clear and consistent pro- and anti-administration blocs appeared in Congress. In the election of 1796, Jefferson came out of retirement to challenge Adams. In a closely contested election, Adams won the presidency and Jefferson became vice president. Clearly, modern parties did not exist. Over the next four years, however, fairly stable coalitions emerged in Congress. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 showed how clearly the lines were being drawn. In the states, newspapers reflected the contrasting positions of the Federalists and the Republicans.

In 1800 Jefferson won the presidency in what he called "The Revolution of 1800," which began the rule of the Virginia Dynasty of presidents—Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Jefferson, who is every modern American democrat, did not win his office because of his great popularity with the American people, but because of the nature of the presidential electoral system. Ten of the sixteen states let the their legislatures pick the electors. He won in the electoral college, helped crucially by the fact that the three-fifths clause in the Constitution enlarged the electoral vote in the slave states and the fact that the vote was both close and clearly sectional. The result was a product of elite manipulation and back-room negotiations in the state legislatures, particularly that of South Carolina. If there was a Revolution of 1800, it came in the congressional elections of 1800–1801, during which the Republicans gained twenty-seven seats in Congress and six in the Senate to go from being a minority in both bodies to a clear majority in both. When Jefferson became president, he had a friendly Congress to work with. He took advantage of this fact during his first administration (1801–1805) to replace as many Federalists as he could in the bureaucracy and to realign the federal courts.

Jefferson began his first term decrying partisanship. He declared in his Inaugural Address, "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans," and he truly believed that he was a president above party. His war against the North African pirates, his purchase of Louisiana (1803), and his often-ignored Indian policy made Jefferson extremely popular. By the election of 1804, his supporters controlled most of the state governments (even in New England) and held over-whelming majorities in both houses of Congress. Jefferson won a second term against what was only a shadow opposition. Politicians continued to come predominately from the "better sort," or what might be called upper middle class, but the "middling sort" of mechanics, manufacturers, and editors entered the fray and often won.

Jefferson's second term caused grave problems for the Republicans. In response to the return of war in Europe, Jefferson in 1807 pushed Congress to institute an embargo on American foreign trade. This created economic problems in much of the country and, along with its enforcement legislation, produced a Federalist revival. The opposition, led by a younger generation, developed new organizations that addressed voters more directly than before and encouraged them to come out in larger numbers. To add to their appeal, in several areas they took on the name "American" and accused the administration supporters of being the "French" party.

The Federalists became a significant minority during James Madison's administration, which was embroiled in an ongoing foreign policy crisis that led to the War of 1812 (1812–1815). The election of 1812 and the war brought on a high point in American partisanship, affecting both Congress and the electorate. When the war went poorly, the Federalists gained further support. Yet the presidential election of 1812 was one of the most sectional in American history and the "Federalist" candidate was a New York Republican, DeWitt Clinton.

the era of good feelings

Hostility to the war led a group of New England Federalists to meet in Hartford in 1814–1815 to suggest amendments to the Constitution designed to limit Congress's power to make war and to eliminate the three-fifths clause. Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans in January 1815 and the Peace of Ghent (December 1814), which ended he war, doomed the Federalists. In 1816 the Republicans pressed an aggressive set of economic policies. After these were approved by Madison, his secretary of state, James Monroe, was elected president. Early in his presidency, a Boston newspaper referred to the postwar period as an Era of Good Feelings. Later, historian Charles Sydnor called the decade between 1815 and 1825, "The One Party Period of American History." The presidential election of 1820 was the dullest and least interesting in American history and signaled the end of the First American Party System, which off and on involved the contention of Republicans and Federalists. By this time, nearly everyone claimed to be a Republican. Monroe ran virtually unopposed and received all of the electoral votes save one, cast for his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams. The decade of the 1820s was, however, an era of "ill feelings" in which fierce intrastate sectional and factional politics prevailed. "Connections" such as the Albany Regency in New York, the Richmond Junto in Virginia, the Nashville Junto in Tennessee, and Ambrose "Sevier's Hungry Kinfolk" in what became Arkansas, along with barbecues and stump speeches, began to dominate state politics, while sectionalism dominated national affairs.

The postwar era was characterized by conflicts among the Republicans over the economic policies that Henry Clay termed the American System. The sectional nature of these issues was exaggerated by the Panic of 1819, the debate over Missouri's entrance into the Union as a slave state in 1819–1820, the emergence of the industrial revolution in the North, and the spread of the cotton culture across the Lower South. The effects of these events were clearly seen in the fragmentation of the Republican establishment in the election of 1824. All of the contenders were Republicans. John Quincy Adams was the secretary of state, William Harris Crawford the secretary of the Treasury, and John C. Calhoun the secretary of war in Monroe's cabinet. Henry Clay had been Speaker of the House for a decade and General Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans, was a U.S. senator from Tennessee. Ironically, this is the most impressive array of candidates ever assembled for an American presidential election. Calhoun withdrew and became the overwhelming choice for vice president.

Jackson won the most popular and electoral votes, but not a majority of either. Thus, the election went into the House of Representatives, which chose Adams in what Jacksonians called, "the corrupt bargain" because Clay influenced his supporters to vote for Adams and Adams then appointed Clay secretary of state. While this laid the basis for the development of the Second American Party System, the most important aspect of the election was its sectional nature. Two-fifths of Jackson's popular votes came from three states. In this election, each of the candidates represented a separate part of the American electorate and, with a few ethnic overtones, such as the fact Jackson was Scotch-Irish, there was also a generalized sense of regional economic self-interest. During Adams's administration, the congressional factions that had supported the various candidates in 1824 came together into pro- and anti-administration coalitions to prepare for the next presidential election.

The states tended to be dominated by one faction or the other. There was much talk about organized "political machines." More important probably was the expansion of the newspaper network dedicated to the future candidacy of Jackson. The Virginia editor, Thomas Ritchie, and the New York lawyer-politician, Martin Van Buren, wanted to revive the old Republican Party and use General Jackson's "great popularity" to reunite "the Planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the North." And to a great degree they did. The Old Hero, as Jackson was called, won handily in both 1828 against Adams and in 1832 against Clay and the third party anti-Mason candidate, William Wirt. All of the these men with good reason described themselves as Republicans. The election of 1832 led to the development of the nominating convention, initiated in 1831 by the anti-Masons, who had begun as an organization opposed to secret societies.

Jackson's election victories in 1828 and 1832, which have been described as being about democracy and class conflict, were most clearly sectional. The popular vote from 1824 to 1832 shows a clearly correlated and consistent pattern. Certainly New York, and still more so Pennsylvania, yielded Jacksonian majorities, as did New Hampshire, which voted for Jackson in two out of the three elections. But Jackson was overwhelmingly popular in the slave states. What is more important is that while the strands of party were being woven together, the whole cloth did not yet exist.

The same patterns can be seen in Congress during the 1820s and even the early 1830s. The major votes on the important issues of Indian policy, land policy, the Bank of he United States, and of course, the tariff, revealed that section trumped party. There were as yet no clear partisan labels, nor truly national organizational structures. However, the average American voter seemed more interested in politics, a newspaper network that was intensely partisan was growing, more common men were running for office, and the rhetoric of American politics had become much more distinctly democratic.

See alsoDemocratic Republicans; Democratization; Election of 1796; Election of 1800; Election of 1824; Election of 1828; Federalist Party;Hamilton, Alexander; Hartford Convention; Political Parties: Overview; Presidency, The .


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William G. Shade

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Politics: Overview

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Politics: Overview