Political Parties (American History Through Literature)
By 1820 American politics had entered "The Era of Good Feelings," a time when divisive party politics seemed a thing of the past. From 1808 to 1824 the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe swept aside the Federalist Party of George Washington and John Adams in a series of lopsided electoral triumphs, concluding with Monroe's 231-1 victory in the electoral college in 1820. Such harmony soon ended. In the election of 1824 four Democratic-Republican candidates received electoral votes, with none achieving the constitutionally required majority. The contest was thrown into the House of Representatives, which elected John Quincy Adams (1767848) despite the fact that he finished second to Andrew Jackson (1767845) in the electoral college. The era of good feelings was over and a long period of party division and realignment had begun. Between 1820 and 1870 four different parties held the White House; a major second party (the Whigs) was born, matured, and died; several short-lived minority parties were formed; and the Republican Party was founded and developed into the chief rival of the Democrats. The era ended with the now-familiar two-party system firmly in place, shaping American politics and elections for the century ahead.
Most antebellum American authors grew up in a period of political disarray that made party affiliations fleeting and party labels imprecise indicators of actual ideology. These years were among the most politically unstable in America's history, with party alignments shifting rapidly, old parties splitting into competing factions, new parties arising almost overnight, and other parties coming to great power only to crumble in the next election or two. Local politics often trumped national issues, further complicating the picture in such rapidly changing states as New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, and Illinois. Westward expansion, European immigration, and a rapidly expanding franchise created an electorate with unpredictable values and desires. Between 1824 and 1828 the popular vote for president more than tripled; it doubled again by 1840. Only 350,000 people voted for president in 1824; almost 6.5 million voted in 1872. This was, as many historians have noted, the "golden age" of democracy, when forces came into play that empowered individuals politically as never before. Mass demonstrations, torchlight parades, and party platforms, slogans, and symbols all developed during this period, creating the trappings of the modern American political campaign. At the same time, however, many Americans opposed the rising tide of democracy and formed parties designed to restrict voting rights and keep political power from the masses, particularly women, African Americans, recent immigrants, and Roman Catholics. As debate over the extension of slavery into the western territories increased, parties fractured along sectional lines that in 1860 led to a second presidential election with four candidates winning electoral votes. It took the Civil War to consolidate the
|Year(s)||President/Vice President||Political party|
|1817825||James Monroe/Daniel Tompkins||Democratic-Republican|
|1825829||John Quincy Adams/John C. Calhoun||Democratic Republican|
|1829837||Andrew Jackson/John C. Calhoun and Martin Van Buren||Democrat|
|1837841||Martin Van Buren/Richard Johnson||Democrat|
|1841||William H. Harrison/John Tyler||Whig|
|1845849||James K. Polk/George Dallas||Democrat|
|1849850||Zachary Taylor/Millard Fillmore||Whig|
|1853857||Franklin Pierce/William King||Democrat|
|1857861||James Buchanan/John Breckinridge||Democrat|
|1861865||Abraham Lincoln/Hannibal Hamlin and Andrew Johnson||Republican|
|1869877||Ulysses S. Grant/Schuyler Colfax||Republican|
country into the largely Republican Northeast and Midwest and the Democratic "Solid South," a regional divide that lasted until 1964.
THE FOUR MAJOR PARTIES
Historians have identified four major parties during this period: Democrats, Whigs, Americans (or "Know-Nothings"), and Republicans. In addition, a number of minor parties fielded presidential candidates: the National Republican Party of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay from 1828 to 1836, the Anti-Masonic Party in 1832 and 1836, the Liberty Party from 1840 to 1848, and the Free-Soil Party from 1848 to 1856. Most minor parties originated in a faction within a previous party, but some were cobbled together from various patriotic associations and local political groups. The basic issues that divided them were the extent of federal power over the states, the extension of slavery into new states and territories, and ethno-cultural issues such as immigration and the rise of Roman Catholic political power. The major parties contained members with divergent views on these issues, making the parties highly unstable coalitions of competing interests. The minor parties, however, represented narrow ideological or sectional interests that limited their appeal and led either to their demise, as with the National Republicans, or their absorption into one of the major parties. As they disintegrated, the Anti-Masons gravitated toward the Know-Nothings and Whigs, while the antislavery Liberty and Free-Soil Parties coalesced into the Republican Party.
The Democratic Party grew out of the 1824 election that split the Democratic-Republican Party into the Adams and Jackson wings. After the House of Representatives elected Adams, he formed the National Republicans to counter Jackson's Democrats. In 1828 Jackson soundly defeated Adams, ushering in an era when Democrats won six of the next eight presidential elections and controlled nearly every congressional session until 1859. As the self-styled "party of the common man," the Democratic Party exercised great strength in the South, on the frontier, and among working-class citizens in cities. As the latter group became increasingly immigrant, Irish, and Roman Catholic, Democrats found themselves representing constituencies that helped them in the populous Northeast but alienated them from the Protestant South. The party remained unified around the slavery issue, however, for both northern workers and southern farmers felt threatened by the prospect of free African American labor. This coalition held until the annexation of Texas as a slave state (1845), the Mexican-American War (1846848), and the Wilmot Proviso (1846) to exclude slavery from territories acquired in the war split the party into the antislavery Barnburners and the proslavery Hunkers. Many Barnburners supported the Free-Soil ticket of Martin Van Buren in 1848, which received 10 percent of the popular vote. By the 1850s a rising tide of antislavery sentiment fueled by the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) and the Dred Scott decision (1856) combined with anti-Catholic sentiment to drive many former Democrats out of the party, either toward Free-Soilers or Know-Nothings. By 1860 the Democratic coalition was as shattered as it had been in 1824, and when it fielded two presidential candidatestephen A. Douglas from the North and John C. Breckinridge from the Southt virtually assured the election of Abraham Lincoln.
The Whig Party arose from the ashes of Adams's National Republican party in the late 1820s and adopted its official name in 1834. For the next twenty years it constituted the primary opposition to the Jacksonian Democrats. It was a major national party and from 1836 on fielded presidential candidates who rivaled the Democrats for broad support. Whigs won narrow victories in the presidential elections of 1840 and 1848 with the war heroes William Henry Harrison (1773841) and Zachary Taylor (1784850) and also won short-lived majorities in the Senate. They defined themselves largely by their opposition to Jackson and his policy of a strong executive but had difficulty maintaining party cohesion. John Tyler (1790862), Harrison's vice president, assumed the presidency when the old general died after one month in office and was read out of the party when, like a Jacksonian Democrat, he vetoed bills to establish a national bank. Fundamentally conservative, Whigs included an unholy coalition of states' righters, New England Congregationalists, wealthy merchants, small businessmen, high-tariff protectionists, western frontiersman, and temperance advocates. Despite their two presidential victories, the Whigs enjoyed only one congressional majority (1841843) and, like the Democrats, split over slavery. Many "Conscience Whigs" defected to Van Buren's Free-Soil ticket in 1848, whereas proslavery "Cotton Whigs" supported Taylor. Senator Daniel Webster (1782852) of Massachusetts, along with Senator Henry Clay (1777852) of Kentucky, repeatedly compromised with the "slave power" in order to maintain the Union. But when they supported the Compromise of 1850 that forced northerners to return fugitive slaves to their masters, Whigs lost their last shred of antislavery support. They nominated another war hero, Winfield Scott (1786866), for president in 1852, but he lost badly in the electoral college to the Democrat Franklin Pierce (1804869), and the party disappeared from the national scene by 1855.The American Party was popularly known as the "Know-Nothings" because their members, when asked about their party affiliation, were supposed to say "I know nothing." This response reveals the party's origins in a mix of secret, nativist, Protestant societies during the 1830s, including the Anti-Masonic Party of the early 1830s and the American Republican Party that allied with the Whigs in 1844. In the late 1840s these movements united under the American Party banner and advocated severe restrictions on Catholics and immigrants, such as a twenty-one-year naturalization period. As the Whigs disintegrated during the 1850s the Know-Nothings gained strength among southern Whigs, poorer classes who felt threatened by immigration, and Protestants fearful of Roman Catholic political power. From 1855 to 1859 the party elected several U.S. senators, and in 1854 it won 347 out of 350 seats in the Massachusetts legislature. In 1856 Millard Fillmore ran for president on the American Party ticket and won eight electoral votes and over 20 percent of the popular vote. Like the Whigs and the Democrats, the Know-Nothings split
The Republican Party developed from the growing opposition to slavery evident in the major parties and the unwillingness of Democrats or Whigs to take a firm stand on controversial issues. In 1856, spurred by the fighting over slavery in "Bleeding Kansas," a coalition of Free-Soilers, Conscience Whigs, Barnburner Democrats, and northern Know-Nothings nominated John C. Frémont (1813890) for president on the Republican ticket. He won an astonishing 114 electoral votes to Democrat James Buchanan's (1791868) 174, demonstrating that a major party had arisen to challenge Democratic hegemony. The vacillations of Pierce and Buchanan on the slavery issue and the rising crisis of sectionalism split the Democrats in the 1860 election and paved the way for Lincoln, who won a four-way race for president with 40 percent of the popular vote but a clear majority in the electoral college. With a series of overwhelming victories in the House and Senate as well as the Executive Office, Republicans consolidated their power during and after the Civil War to become the majority party for the next fifty years.
AUTHORSHIP AND PARTY POLITICS
The rapid shifts of party and doctrine during this period make it difficult to align American writers consistently with any single party. Few major writers could be called "party men," and in many cases their party allegiances can only be surmised. Some, like James Fenimore Cooper (1789851), managed to alienate politicians of all stripes while others, like Washington Irving (1783859), ingratiated themselves with several parties. Under the prevailing "spoils system"to the victor belong the spoils"arties who won power typically fired the appointees of the previous administration and replaced them with loyalists from their own party. Authors with friends in high places could win a coveted political appointment that allowed free time for writing, foreign travel, and sometimes significant remuneration. Because it was difficult to make a living on authorship alone, writers eagerly sought these appointments. Irving, for example, was a man of fundamentally conservative temper, an old-line Federalist by birth who remained unsympathetic to Jacksonian democracy. But he proved adept at negotiating the ideological shifts of his era and served as a secretary to the British legation under Jackson and as minister to Spain under Tyler, a position he resigned when the Democrats resumed power in 1845. Cooper, less politically agile than Irving, enjoyed a nonsalaried position as U.S. consul to Lyons, France, under the Adams administration. When he returned to America in 1833, he wrote such scathing political critiques of his bumptious, democratic countrymen that he antagonized both Whigs and Democrats and never served in government again.
Among the period's leading writers Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864) was one of the more politically successful. He remained a Democratic loyalist his entire life, and although it paid off in government appointments, it eventually damaged his reputation. He worked in the Boston Custom House from 1839 to 1841 during Van Buren's administration and in the Salem Custom House from 1846 to 1849 during James K. Polk's (1795849) presidency. When the Whig Millard Fillmore (1800874) succeeded Polk, Hawthorne was summarily dismissed. He recounts this experience memorably in his "The Custom-House" introduction to The Scarlet Letter (1850), offering an insider's view of the ups and downs of the spoils system. In 1852 Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography for the proslavery Democrat Franklin Pierce, and when Pierce won he appointed his old college chum to a consulship in Liverpool, a position that paid especially well. After seven years abroad Hawthorne returned to Massachusetts, finally financially secure. In 1863, during the Union's darkest days, Hawthorne dedicated his last published work, Our Old Home, to his patron Pierce. For Hawthorne it was a simple act of personal friendship. But many northerners, among them some of Hawthorne's greatest admirers, considered "Copperhead Democrats" like Pierceemocrats who advocated compromise with the Southittle more than traitors. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882) removed the dedication from his copy, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896) could hardly believe Hawthorne had written it. This incident, along with an unflattering essay on Lincoln that Hawthorne had published a year earlier in the Atlantic Monthly, revealed his low opinion of the Republican Party and his refusal to commit to any extreme position, in this case abolition. For Hawthorne the parties changed faster than the man and left him isolated with an outmoded and discredited political ideology.
Herman Melville (1819891) was also an ardent Jacksonian Democrat, but unlike his friend Hawthorne he managed to keep his one political appointment for nineteen years. He tried several times to win a consul-ship, but he lacked the party credentials to succeed. His first and only government appointment came in 1866, when the pro-Union Democrat Andrew Johnson (1808875) was president and the highly partisan "Radical Republicans" dominated Congress. Melville became a deputy customs inspector in the New York Custom House, a modest, low-paying job he maintained through five Republican presidents and the first year of one Democratic president. He retired, relatively unscarred by public office, in December 1885.
Walt Whitman (1819892), whose enthusiasm for democracy knew no bounds, embraced politics as eagerly as he did America itself. As a journalist and newspaper editor, his early prose writings supported the Mexican-American War and other mainstream Democratic issues. With the ascent of the Free-Soil Party, however, he found a more hospitable home for his increasingly strong antislavery views, and by the time of the Civil War he was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln (1809865) and the Republican Party. In 1865 he was appointed to a clerkship in the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the considerable salary of $1,200 a year, certainly more than he ever made from his poetry. Unfortunately, the new secretary of the interior found an annotated copy of the 1860 Leaves of Grass in Whitman's desk and fired the poet for writing indecent literature. With the support of his friends, Whitman managed to stay on the federal payroll until 1873, when ill health, not party politics, led him to retire.
Many lesser-known writers engaged in party politics with varying degrees of success. When the Maryland novelist John Pendleton Kennedy (1795870), a friend of Edgar Allan Poe (1809849), found that the Democrats had become too populist under Jackson, he joined the Whigs and served several terms in Congress. Millard Fillmore appointed him interim secretary of the navy in 1852. Kennedy's friend William Wirt (1772834), a Maryland lawyer and noted essayist, served twelve years as U.S. attorney general (1817829) and ran for president on the Anti-Masonic ticket in 1832. Edward Zane Carroll Judson (1823886), best known as the dime novelist Ned Buntline, was an early activist in the American Party and even served time in jail for his rowdy political activities. In contrast, many well-known writers stayed aloof from party affairs, even when they had strong political principles of their own. Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (1817862) felt strongly about the Mexican-American War, slavery, and American cultural nationalism but seldom identified with any one party. Poe repeatedly satirized Andrew Jackson and condemned the "mob," a popular term for the working class, yet focused his attention on poetry, criticism, editing, and fiction. In the turbulent world of antebellum America, political parties remained unstable and often short-lived. Yet out of this period emerged a strong two-party system that has exercised a generally moderating influence over the electorate and given the United States a political stability many once thought it would never attain.
See also Democracy
Cooper, James Fenimore. The American Democrat; or, Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America. With an introduction by H. L. Mencken, and an introductory note by Robert E. Spiller. New York: Vintage, 1956.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Novels. New York: Library of America, 1983. Particularly relevant are "The Custom-House, Introductory to 'The Scarlet Letter,'" pp. 12157; The House of the Seven Gables, pp. 34727; and The Blithedale Romance, pp. 62948.
Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982. Particularly relevant is Democratic Vistas, pp. 92994.
Bernhard, Winfred E. A., ed. Political Parties in American History. New York: Putnam, 1973974.
Holt, Michael F. Political Parties and American Political Development from the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Maisel, L. Sandy, ed. Political Parties & Elections in the United States: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1991.
Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
Polakoff, Keith Ian. Political Parties in American History. New York: Wiley, 1981.
Roberts, Robert North, and Scott John Hammond. Encyclopedia of Presidential Campaigns, Slogans, Issues, and Platforms. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. History of U.S. Political Parties. New York: Chelsea House, 1973.
Waples, Dorothy. The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1938.