The Beginning of Political Parties

Monday, April 6, 2009

Nothing in Federal Constitution anticipated the emergence of political parties. James Madison had hoped that one of the chief strengths of the Constitution would be its tendency to break and control the violence of factions. Jefferson, in one of his characteristic moments of rhetorical windiness, declared that allegiance to a party was the last degradation of a free and moral agent, and that “if I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all”. Hamilton said: “We are attempting by this Constitution to abolish factions and to unite all parties for the general welfare”. This might well have worked, but for the fact that the ideological division between Hamilton on the one side, and Jefferson on the other, quickly became so great; and the animosity between the two men so visible, that the new republic was less than a decade old before American politics had sorted itself out along two parties: the Hamiltonians or Federalists, and the Jeffersonian or Democratic Republicans, or simply Republican party.

Hamilton’s Energetic Federal Government

Federalists and Republican clubs and newspapers sprang up, candidates began presenting themselves to the voters as Federalists or Republicans. In 1804, in the most shocking demonstration of how deeply the idea of party had seized hold of political life, Alexander Hamilton was wounded and killed in a duel fought with one of Jefferson’s disciples, Aaron Burr. Everyone deplored parties, and everyone joined them. Each blaming the other for starting the process, each blaming the other for making their own party organization necessary.

Hamilton observed, during the Confederation, how easily the jealous interests of land-holders and land-speculators in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut could paralyze the very breath of the republic. Everywhere in the States Hamilton found provincialism, small-mindedness, bad habits and oligarchy. That could only be eliminated, in Hamilton’s mind, by ruthlessly subordinating the State governments to a strong central government, or even reducing the States to administrative units of the Federal government. And valorizing an economy in which the worth of an achievement could be measured in the form which is the most indifferent to hierarchies of color or inheritance: cash money.

This won, for Hamilton and his Federalist allies, the approval of city merchants, workers and most of New England. It also won him the vituperation of Jefferson and his Republican followers. It also got Hamilton a reputation for cold-blooded authoritarianism. Jefferson convinced himself that the Federalists were nothing but an alliance of the old Loyalist refugees and Tories, and American merchants who had sold their souls to the British. They wished for everything which would approach the new government to a monarchy, said Jefferson.

This was a strange set of accusations in the ears of the Federalists. Hamilton left the government in 1796, refusing to use his insider information to speculate in Western land, even mocking himself as one of those public fools who sacrifice his private interest to public interest, at the certainty of ingratitude. The major Federalist political voices were all those lawyers with no independent family wealth, who often ruined themselves financially in civil service. If the new republic had any likely candidate for being a member of an aristocracy, clearly the best offer was Thomas Jefferson.

The chief offence of Hamilton’s liberal economic program was that a debt-compelled government is no remedy to men who have lands and Negroes. As a result, Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans cried “Liberty!”, but mean, as all party leaders do, “Power”.

Jefferson’s Revolution of 1800

Power was what they got. In 1800, the Federalist John Adams run for reelection to Presidency, but lost to Jefferson. Running with Aaron Burr as his Vice-President, Jefferson beat Adams and the Federalists by 73 to 65 votes in the electoral college. Fifty-three of Jefferson’s votes came from the South, which hardly made Jefferson the uniform favorite of the nation. But that did nothing to discourage Jefferson from looking upon his election as the “revolution of 1800”, a mandate to undo everything Hamilton and the Federalists had accomplished.

He pledged in his inaugural to look above party: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Noble, generous sentiments, but privately Jefferson hoped to sink Federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection of it.

The Federalists’ economic policies that Hamilton had helped to cement into place were already too firm for Jefferson to dislodge them. The charter for Hamilton’s National Bank run until 1811, and Jefferson had to wait until the election of his hand-picked successor and Secretary of State, James Madison, for that charter to be cancelled. With the on-going war, as the French and the British threatened to put American shipping on the North Atlantic in the crosshairs of both warring navies, Jefferson thought he could solve the problem simply with an embargo of all American trade with them, and leaving off the products of virtuous American farmers.

Instead, Jefferson’s embargo triggered the first national economic collapse. Hamilton might have said “I told you so”. The Republicans blamed this on the evil machinations of Great Britain. There was just enough mean-spirited British encouragement given to British Canada to hostile Indian tribes on the frontier to give this a coating of credibility. Enough credibility, in fact, to send Jefferson’s successor, Madison, galloping after the British by declaring war in 1812, and expecting to annex Canada as a result.

The Disasters of the War

Without Hamilton’s National Bank, there was no money to fund an army or a navy, and so, the American army stumbled from one defeat to another, punctuated by a handful of victories in places where the victories got nothing. The American navy spent most of the war, apart from a few moral-lifting ship to ship combats, meekly bottled up in American ports by British ships-of-the-line. Without Federally funded manufacturing on the Hamiltonian model, there were no uniforms and weapons for the army, no national roads to assist them and get them from one place to another.

The war of 1812 cruelly revealed the inadequacies of Jeffersonian economic policy. “Our armies went to the frontier clothed in the fabrics of the enemy, ammunition of war was gathered as chance supplied them, and the whole struggle was marked by prodigality, waste and privation of a nation”, complained John Pendleton Kennedy.

It was this disaster of the war which Kennedy believed opened eyes to some important facts. Henry Clay, who represented Kentucky both in the House and the Senate, began his political life as an ardent Jeffersonian Democratic Republican. He helped engineer the defeat of the recharter of Hamilton’s Bank of the United States in 1811, and he was the most malevolent of the war hawks who agitated James Madison into declaring war on Britain in 1812.

Henry Clay’s Moderation and the Success of Andrew Jackson

The war left Clay a wiser Jeffersonian. In 1816, the repented Clay began singing a very different song, about the need for a National Bank, for government sponsored internal improvement projects, to build roads and canals, and for the erection of protective tariffs on imports in order to shield American manufacture from killer competition from abroad.

The embarrassments of the war of 1812 gave enough persuasiveness to this talk. Clay was able to navigate a bill for a second Bank of the United States through Congress. Madison’s successor in Presidency, James Monroe, gave a reluctant blessing to funding for a National Road, a federally financed highway. The result of this, however, was to split the old Democratic Republican party. A good deal of the split was related to the three-fifths clause.

Henry Clay himself was a slave owner. His State, Kentucky, legalized slavery. In the long run, Clay became, despite his slave holding, an ardent proponent of colonizing American slaves out of the United States, and gradually eliminating slavery from American law. Clay’s most famous disciple would be another Kentuckian who really did use the power of the national government to abolish slavery. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

For more than two decades after Jefferons’s “revolution of 1800”, the Constitution’s three-fifths clause guaranteed that the Presidency would go almost routinely to a Southerner, a Jeffersonian and a slave owner. By 1824, Jefferson’s old Democratic Republican party, with Clay at the head of one faction, had fractured so badly as a party that the presidential elections were no longer quite so predictable. John Quincy Adams, the Jeffersonian son of the last Federalist President, had served President James Monroe as Secretary of State, and that casted him as a presumptive to the Presidency in 1824.

Adams, however, was challenged by the ambitions of Henry Clay. In turn, Clay and Adams were challenged by a pure undiluted Jeffersonian, General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, a slave owner and the commanding general in the most important victory the United States had won in the war of 1812 at New Orleans. Jackson rose from out of nowhere to win the popular vote, but he failed to capture a majority in the electoral college. So, under the rules laid down in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, where Henry Clay was the speaker of the House.

Unable to sum up enough votes to win the Presidency for himself, Clay at least preferred to stop Andrew Jackson. Clay, through his support in the House of Representatives, elected Quincy Adams President. Adams hoped to pull down the remaining resistance to what Clay was now calling his American system of banking, internal improvements and tariffs. But rumors that Quincy Adams had stroked a corrupt bargain with Henry Clay for the election robbed him of the political momentum he needed.

In 1828, Andrew Jackson was swept into the Presidency on a wave of national enthusiasm and by the united votes provided by the three-fifths clause of the South. The two terms that Andrew Jackson spent in the White House were much more successful as a revolution that Jefferson’s in 1800.