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On Growth and Development: American Political Parties: 1790-1840
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HIUS 201: Midterm Paper

       Upon ratification of the Constitution, no one would have guessed that political parties would emerge.  However, within ten years of the founding of the United States Constitution, political parties established their footing in the American political system.  The growth and development of the American party system occurring between 1790 and 1840 saw the emergence of the two-party system that continuously changed and created a polarity within the nation.

       The founding fathers viewed political parties negatively.  The words “faction” and “party” were used interchangeably and were derisive in context.  In the Federalist #10, Madison warns of the problems created by factions, calling them mischievous and warning of the effects of having a faction capable of controlling government.  He then goes on to explain how to remedy factions.  In seeking a remedy, Madison recognizes that factions are inherent to society as small groups are bound to form, and are preventable assuming liberty, as

“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency." (Madison, Federalist #10).

Madison thus accepts factions as a necessary evil, but offers console stating that in having such a large union, “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.” (Madison, Federalist #10).

       Despite Madison’s forewarning, factions quickly formed around the policies of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  Washington, president at the time, was very worried by this new fractionalization.  In his notorious Farewell Address known for warning of international entanglement he advised neutrality, not only in issues abroad but also at home.  He warned that political parties would be susceptible to foreign corruption causing political parties to eventually destroy the government.

Despite Washington’s concern, divisiveness between followers of Hamilton and Jefferson took root during the presidency of George Washington.  This occurred due to the very differing policies they adopted.  Hamilton was a strong believer in a national bank, and as such was considered a “loose interpretationalist” of the Constitution.  Because he believed strongly in a strong national government, he and his followers were called Federalists.  Jefferson was staunchly opposed to the founding of the national bank, himself a “strict interpretationalist”, citing that there was no clause allowing the construction of such an entity.  Though dubbed Anti-Federalists by their rivals, Jefferson and his followers called themselves Jeffersonian Democrats or Democratic Republicans.  This divisiveness caused by people rallying to Hamilton and Jefferson saw the materialization of the two-party system.

Though the Federalists and Jeffersonian Democrats were indeed political parties, they were not the “factions” many feared.  The development of the two parties merely formed; it was not a conscious development.  The groups rallying behind Hamilton and Jefferson represented broad interests and did not seek to belittle others, only to further their own ideology that they did not think would be of any harm to others.  The early parties were not the self-centered, dogmatic entities that the founding fathers feared.  They instead simply created two separate groups that shared similar beliefs.

The two parties catered to different groups.  The Federalists favored the aristocracy and merchant class by creating a bank fed by investors and establishing a strong economic policy with strong trading ties with foreign nations.  The Jeffersonian Democrats favored the farmers and artisans, arguing that Hamilton groundlessly tied the government to business, instead praising the small agrarian farming societies.  Accordingly, the more upper-class New England merchants and aristocrats followed Hamilton whereas the low- and middle-class farmers and artisans of the South and followed Jefferson.  Political sectionalism arose during this period after the split of these groups.

The Federalist Party declined during the early 1800s, showing for the first time the truly awesome effects of adopting views that are more moderate.  The Democratic-Republicans, who began calling themselves simply Democrats, adopted some of the Hamiltonian views during the War of 1812.  In doing so, they were able to dismantle the Federalist Party, which became unmistakably evident in the 1816 election of James Monroe.  Monroe’s presidency was significant because it was the first time in two decades that there was no clear party competition, and was thus called the Era of Good Feelings.

The Whigs rose in opposition of Monroe’s successor and their figurehead, Andrew Jackson.  Jackson swept the nation by surprise as a war hero.  The 1828 election had a phenomenal turnout of over one million voters.  After elected, Jackson had a very strong presence, vetoing more bills than all presidents in office before him combined and signing into law such acts as the Force Bill, which gave him the ability to command the army and navy in response to the problems caused by the Nullification Crisis.  The strength asserted by Jackson was unprecedented: the executive very rarely acted as more than a figurehead, and by taking such a brusque attitude Jackson turned many away.  His actions were so unpopular that it caused a large group to form an opposition party, calling themselves the Whigs, to rise up against Jackson, whom they dubbed “King Andrew I”.  The Whigs easily garnered support, as Southerners hated his handling of tariffs and Northerners detested his anti-business stance.  Though the Whigs were able to gather many followers, divisiveness within the party prevented them from winning an election until 1840.

Much can account for the changes taking place as the evolution of political parties during these fifty years.  Changes in the organization itself of the parties were essential to the development and strengthening of early parties.  Jackson is a prime example in this, as he began utilizing grassroots support by supporting small town- and city-based groups to support the Democrats prior to the 1828 election.  Even before that, the adoption of views accepted by the opposition greatly aided the Democrats in not only winning elections, but also in causing the downfall of their opposition.

Changes in the voting process itself also vastly enlarged the electorate.  By 1820, most states had repealed wealth-based voting requirements, vastly increasing the electorate.  Further reforms included having secret ballots, replacing vocal balloting, which was very easily corruptible.  The restructuring of the voting process allowed for elections that had a much higher voter turnout, and altered the voting class to those of all social classes to vote.  This made parties pay heed to the common man, and gave much more voice to the people.

The speed and effectiveness of the rise of the Democrats and Whigs also illustrates the newfound efficiency of changes taking place.  There were many flaws inherent to the first two-party system.  Though both parties had supporters, they were unable draw support from all parts of the country.  Beginning in the 1830s, parties began having national nominating conventions to choose candidates.  These early caucuses allowed representatives nationwide to choose candidates to represent their opinions and garner national support.

The transformations that occurred between 1790 and 1840 created and developed the two-party system.  The divisions created by the growing parties separated the nation on ideological and sectional lines.  The progress and maturation of party organization transformed the parties into a stable system that dominated the government.  Through the course of fifty years, the United States saw the development of the two-party system that enduringly shaped political structure.