Losing the Immigrant Vote

Martin Van Buren, Free Soil presidential candidate

Martin Van Buren

In an era where raising the most money best ensures winning the most votes and election and corruption thus often merge into the same process we can easily forget just how parties worked just a few decades ago, let alone in the nineteenth century. Martin Van Buren created the first real party machine in New York for the Democracy. The machine ran on loyalty to the party and to its leaders, rewarding that loyalty with patronage. Every civil service office went up for grabs every four years and lucrative government contracts went to supporters as a matter of course. Contributing to campaigns, then and now, involved personal investment with an expected return. The president could appoint every single postmaster in the country but picking so many people for such a minor post generally took too much time and effort. Instead the president would farm the selection out to party machines at the state level. Those state level machines had their own subordinate, usually, machines at the local level in major cities or centered around powerful constituencies.

To some degree this went on before Van Buren, but he perfected the system and made it national when he and Andrew Jackson went to Washington in 1831. Before then, changes in power usually meant little turnover. Jackson dismissed nearly ten percent of the federal government’s employees. The raucous celebration that accompanied his swearing in, where an unruly and drunken mob stormed the White House party and the president had to leave through a window, neglects that many of those men came looking for offices. They made investments in the Democracy, after all. Time for the Democracy to pay up.

One can’t help but be struck by the corruption inherent in all of this. The United States did not stand out from other governments of the time. You could literally buy offices in the British civil service, and commissions in the Royal Navy and British Army, in the same era. But with all the corruption going in one can miss what rarely came out: ideology. You bought into the Democracy for your own interests and advancement, not out of abstract idealism. Joining did not mean you favored particular policies. It meant that you voted the right way, sometimes early and often. It definitely meant you did that if you won elected office, unless you had a very good excuse, many friends, or a powerful patron to support and defend you. If you ran a newspaper, buying into the Democracy meant that you hewed to its editorial line and produced its propaganda. The notion that a newspaper man should aspire to objectivity and fairness hails from a later era indeed, after most places had turned into one paper towns.

A political cartoon lampooning Jackson's spoils system

A political cartoon lampooning Jackson’s spoils system

The lack of an official ideology, beyond “vote our way”, made the Democracy into a cosmopolitan party very adept at handling internal disagreement, which thus weathered the division over slavery better than the Whigs had, until now. That cosmopolitan approach gave the Democracy a great advantage in the North: new immigrants.

Fresh off the boat, these Americans on the make had no jobs. They often had no friends and nobody local they could prevail on to help them get started. They naturally inclined toward others who came from the same places in Europe and shared a language, religion, and common culture to help them out. The Democracy patronized the natural associations that resulted, helping immigrants find jobs, housing, and helped them on their way to citizenship and voting. When they voted, the immigrants in turn had every reason to favor the Democracy.

Those immigrants did not come from slave societies. Many saw free blacks in the North as competition that helped keep labor prices down and thus keep them poor. Opening the northern half of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery, essentially all of the nation left for those immigrants or their children to occupy, meant to them flooding it with black competitors. There the story of the northern cities would surely replay itself. Enraged by the prospect of losing their American dreams, the German migration that began after the revolutions of 1848 failed began to break away from the Democracy. Thousands flocked to anti-Nebraska meetings. The German language newspapers could only manage cool indifference to the act at their most generous. One of the nation’s most numerous and growing immigrant groups, a key to the Democracy’s future in a more diverse United States, prepared to desert.

The Senate’s Democrats knew all of that. They knew that Germans did not much like slavery or black people anywhere near them or where they aimed to go in the future. If popular sovereignty played out, Germans would vote against slavery. So would the British immigrants. In response they floated an amendment to exclude non-citizens from the territories. These new and future Democrats, who the party so courted and who had in turn faithfully supported it, found themselves rewarded as well as the old Northern Democrats: with a direct repudiation of the social contract that the party relied upon.

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