The Twilight of the Second Party System

The idea of party systems deserves more of an introduction than my passing references last week. Broadly speaking, major realigning elections make and break party systems. Those realignments in turn come out of major events, processes, and trends in the wider culture. In American history, the First Party System involved the Federalists squaring off against the Republicans. That invites no end to confusion with the Republican Party that formed in the 1850s, but Jefferson and his contemporaries picked the name with callous disregard for the primacy of the men who gathered decades after his death. Inheriting that mess, we usually call Jefferson’s party the Democratic-Republicans or Jeffersonian Republicans.

After the Federalists dissolved in the wake of the War of 1812, the Democratic-Republicans became by default the dominant party of American politics. For about a decade, during which many thought a republic might function better with only the one party instead of two, they had no opposition. But people do disagree, whether they have institutions built around those disagreements or not. In the absence of organized opposition, the Democratic-Republicans needed few institutions to keep themselves together through those natural disagreements.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Those disagreements over policy, over sectional interests, over party organization, and wrapped up in the personal animosities of various players, split the Democratic-Republicans four ways in 1824. In a time of weak party organization, with none of the four candidates commanding an electoral college majority, the election went to the House of Representatives. There Henry Clay managed to make John Quincy Adams president instead of war hero Andrew Jackson, who won a plurality of the popular and electoral vote alike. Clay in turn received appointment as Secretary of State.

Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party

Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party

Jackson saw all of that and cried foul, denouncing the whole thing as a corrupt bargain to hand the election to the man who lost it. He and his supporters, chief among them Martin Van Buren, set out building a thoroughgoing party organization to ensure a secretive band of elites couldn’t steal another election. Recent historians have dismissed Jackson’s accusations, but he and his supporters believed them and acted accordingly. They founded the Democratic Party as a kind of anti-elitist common white man’s conservative party, aimed at fighting moneyed business interests and preserving a kind of populist version of Jefferson’s elitist agrarianism against the forces of industrialization and modernization.

The Jacksonian Democrats, with Van Buren as their organizational mastermind, placed a strong emphasis on party loyalty on local and national levels. Even if one’s own faction did not prevail a Democrat ought to feel honor bound to support the candidate and platform of the national party. Martin Van Buren did not feel so obligated in 1848, but a conspicuous departure from the norm does not negate the general tendency.

The Whigs, from their inception as the anti-Jackson movement, did not have that kind of institutional unity. Their coalition had a Southern wing of dedicated Nullifiers enraged over Jackson’s embrace of federal power over the states. That kind of thing could lead to abolition. But the Northern Whigs wanted internal improvements to build national infrastructure for trade and commerce. That required a deep-pocketed, engaged federal government to take on projects that crossed state lines and might demand resources beyond any state’s ability alone. The Democrats thought that entire program would enrich the rich and do nothing for the common man, a prospect which did not discomfit well-heeled Whigs much at all.

Before slavery came to dominate everything, the Whigs’ internal divisions did not bring them to much sorrow. As long as it stayed off the table, the common interests of many wealthy planters and industrialists alike made for sufficient unity. Especially in the old Southwest, wealthy planters had a healthy interest in growing commerce.  (DeBow’s Review, published out of New Orleans, proclaimed commerce its king at the front of every issue.) They appreciated the tariff, which brought in revenue that could go to internal improvements, and in an era when the South increasingly felt left behind by the pace of national development the Whigs offered a path to sectional improvement. Especially in Louisiana, sugar planters also appreciated the tariff’s protection against cheaper sugar from more tropical climes. Calhoun’s South, like Jefferson’s, had largely passed away by the 1850s.

So too had the era when slavery might intrude into national politics and then recede back to the margins once the crisis passed. War, California, the rest of the new Southwest, four years of tension, and the fugitive slave law closed the door on that, at least temporarily.

With its organizing principles and sectional modus vivendi overthrown by fire-eater secession conspiracies and fugitive slave rescues, how long could the old order endure? Uncle Tom’s Cabin flew off the shelves and abolitionists spilled the blood of slave catchers as the days of Millard Fillmore’s term ran out and the election of 1852 loomed ahead.

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