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The American Party Systems – Yep, Plural

I thought it might be fun to talk about the American Party Systems.  Regular people are caught up in their kids’ soccer games and school, their own jobs and any normal hobby but my thing is the American political system and specifically, the history of said systems. Everyone alive today knows only the Republican and Democratic parties (note – it is Democratic, not Democrat.  Democratic) but there were organizations that came before our modern party system.  What we have today is just an evolution from what we had before and as such, it helps to understand how we arrived at today.

Another topic or question that comes up when discussing the American system is why we do not have more options.  Voters believe that if we had more parties, we would have better candidates.  In our current environment,  we seem to have much dissatisfaction with the two major parties and thus, there is always interest in multi-party systems.  In the last presidential election, the Libertarian ticket got a lot of attention.  The question is, did it get attention and support because of its platform and candidates or because of the major party choices?  It makes a difference.

I argue that the question is not, “Why do we not have more parties” and that the solution is not “give us more parties, ” but instead, we need to understand why the options we have beyond Democratic and Republican never seem to be viable alternatives.  Depending on your state, you may have any number of parties on the ballot:  Libertarian, Socialist, Green, Constitutionalist, etc.  Here is a handy list of all the political parties by ballot state.  We will circle back to reasons why third parties (and for that matter, fourth and fifth) are disadvantaged making it difficult to become national contenders.   For now, check out the list to see what choices you have where you live.

So this post begins a discussion of the six party systems in American history.  I think that this will be the first in a series of posts about the American party systems but let us not get too excited because, at the moment, I have not plotted out the topics that I want to cover.  I suspect that these posts will be like most:  I will read something, read some more and then pound out my opinion in short choppy sentences.   Bated breath.

The first thing I did to prepare for this topic was to find my subject matter books.  I have this huge bookcase in my living area and I knew that the paperbacks I needed were on it.  I also have a book shelf in my spare bedroom upstairs, but in my last organization frenzy, I was confident that I had placed all of my “political party” texts in my “library section.”   As it turns out, my memory was correct, except the lackluster categorization during that organizational frenzy was ineffective at best.  It took me a while, but I finally located what I needed:

  • “The Political Crisis of the 1850s” by Michael F. Holt
  • “Party Ideologies in America” by John Gerring
  • “Party of the People” by Jules Witcover (I have not yet read this one but I think it will come in handy).

I can flip through these – they are tangible.  Next are the “oh so many” digital downloads on my tablet.  I should really own stock in Barnes & Noble and the pitiful thing is, I remember maybe ten percent of what I read.  It is pathetic.

Let’s start with political parties in the United States and how they developed.  The Constitution never mentions them and if you paid attention to American government or maybe it was history, George Washington in his farewell address after his second presidential term, warned against ‘factions’ and competing interests.  Unfortunately, by the time Washington departed the presidency, the First Party System was well underway (whether it was understood or recognized).

The time period in question was the late 18th century and in those days, parties in the United States did not exist.  Even in the colonies, there were no “organized parties” in the way we understand them today.  What society DID have however were ‘factions’ and interests.  I think of them as rudimentary “special interests” similar to what we have in the twenty-first century, with an emphasis on “rudimentary.”  Obviously, there were no lobbyists or consultants, certainly nothing like 2017.  Factions were split along economics, regions, professions and the like.  These factions had opinions and positions on specific issues but the missing component was an overarching ideology.

Additionally, in the early days of the Republic (Washington’s first term), there was little need for organized political activity.  The President was chosen by the Electoral College, Senators were chosen by state legislatures and House members were elected by the people.  But the “people” who were eligible to vote was left up to the individual states.  Suffrage was gradually expanded throughout the nineteenth century, but for a long time, there were property qualifications in every state (for voting and for holding office) that limited the number of voters.

But in time, ideological differences emerged and that brings us to what historians now refer to as the “First Party System.”  Now – for dates and high-level details, I am going to pull from Wikipedia primarily because I do not want to flip through books and articles.   I tell you this because sources may differ on the actual years encompassed within each period.  I will also do my best to identify the key issues or disagreements between the parties and explain why the party system ended.  If I cannot remember, I will let you know.

The First Party System (1792 – 1824)

The parties in this period were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.  The latter has also been called the “Jeffersonian Republicans,” and were the forerunners to the Democratic party we know today.  But let us not get ahead of ourselves.

This time period has become a bit more popular and well-known thanks to the Broadway musical, “Hamilton” although from what I understand, tickets are not only hard to get, they are ridiculously expensive.   The Federalists and DR’s coalesced around the following major issues:

  • The First National Bank and centralized banking system
  • Support for Britain over France in the European War
  • Strong versus a weaker central government

If we were to assign names to each side, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and John Adams would strongly align to the Federalists and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson supported the Democratic Republicans.

Let’s focus first on the driving ideology; those ideas that truly drove a wedge between these brilliant and enlightened men.  First, I am confident that arrogance and shoe size had something to do with it.  But the differences, underlying belief systems, and understanding of democracy drove the true ideological division.

A fundamental chasm between the two sides centered on the economy; specifically what would be the economic underpinning of the United States?  Jefferson imagined a pastoral society, much like what he enjoyed on his Monticello plantation in Virginia.  He envisaged a small government, agriculturally based economy powered by small farms and limited banking.  Capital would be used solely to support a pastoral and yeomanry society.   The government, while small would be staffed by propertied and educated gentlemen, but would come from the people.  Jefferson was very much a democrat in that he opposed elitism in its aristocratic form (at least in its British form).

The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton were first and foremost capitalists.  They were the Wall Street bankers of their time.  During the Constitutional Convention, a major compromise was the location of Washington DC in the South (and not Philadelphia or New York).  Northern bankers and capitalists (aka – Federalists) agreed to locate the national capital in the south (among other trade offs) in return for the establishment of the National Bank and federal assumption of state war debts.  Hamilton wanted the federal government via the central bank (the First National Bank of the United States) to assume all individual state war debts so that he could then issue bonds to finance the debt.  In doing so, Hamilton wanted to establish a method, in addition to tariffs of collecting revenue that could then be used on infrastructure and national development projects that would, in turn, benefit capitalists and bankers.   I have oversimplified the contention here.  There was much disagreement about the debt financing plan but to go into that, would require more brain power and memory than I am ready to give at this very moment.

Hamilton and his supporters envisioned a close association between “Wall Street” (which did not exist at the time) and Washington (using today’s terms).  Further, Hamilton, who was a bit of a monarchist, was in favor of creating an “aristocracy” in the United States in which the elite class would be ‘elite’ not by birth, but by money, merit, and capital.  He strongly supported property and education qualifications that would limit officeholders to those in his “aristocracy.”  The belief was that the upper class had to have a stake in the government’s success and if it did, then the latter would survive.

The idea of elitism, capitalism and close alignment of business, capital, and a strong central government was an anathema to the Jeffersonian Republicans.    They were particularly opposed to Hamilton’s view that the United States should align itself with Britain in her war with France.

John Adams, Washington’s vice president during both administrations was elected president in his own right in 1796.  He served one term from March 1797 to March 1801 and was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson.  Adams was also a Federalist and supported the same policies and positions as his contemporaries.  Regretfully, Adams also signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a series of laws that restricted immigration and free speech against the government.  It was the dichotomy between the Federalist and Democratic Republican ideologies that drove a wedge between Adams and Jefferson.  As they grew older in retirement, the two wrote letters to each other and seemed to have resolved their differences.

But 1800 marked the turning point in the First Party System as it began the downfall of the Federalists.  John Adams was the last president who can be accurately identified with this ideology.   Jefferson’s two terms were followed by Madison’s two, who was then followed by Monroe’s one.  While Monroe is noted to bookend the First Party System, the Federalist Party died soon after the turn of the century.  The most notable ideologues were Washington, Hamilton, and Adams.  Hamilton died as a result of a gunshot wound (he was shot by Aaron Burr in a duel) in 1804.  Washington and Adams, retired from the public after they served their terms in office.   The War of 1812 was the true debilitating event as the Federalists tended to support Britain (because they felt Britain would be the better trading partner and they shared a common history).  Upon America’s victory over Britain in 1814, the Federalists lost whatever support they had left.

Although we call this a “Party System,” the visuals of it; what people saw and how they interacted with their government did not resemble in the slightest what we have come to know as a two party system.   There were duels, yes.  But those were over honor – not issues, political ideology, or partisanship.

After the demise of the Federalists, the Democratic-Republicans operated in a uni-party environment until the late 1820s when Andrew Jackson was elected POTUS (1828).  It was at that point, that we start to see the splintering of the Democratic-Republican party into the “Democracy” (Democratic Party) and the Whigs (based on the British Whig party and that which encompassed some of the strong central government ideas from the Federalists).

Stay tuned.  Next time on “American Party Systems, Yep, Plural – Part Deux,” we will discuss the Second Party System or at least, “What Amy remembers reading about the Second Party System.”  I also need to cram on the topic of why the United States and multi-party systems are at worst incompatible or at best, extraordinarily difficult to support.

Until next time,

-Amy, August 2017


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