This is the fifth, penultimate entry in a series analyzing historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1969 book, The Idea of a Party System. During a period when progressives’ frustration with the Democratic Party seeks constructive resolution, it is worth looking at the historical evolution of parties under the leadership of the Founders, whose very fears about political parties quickly became reality.
Part V: The Young Republic Weathers War
Before his presidency and during his popular first term, Thomas Jefferson had written extensively on the eventual triumph of Republican values. That’s why his second-term tack towards heavy handed government intervention through the embargo and subsequent military mobilization for war caught Federalists flat-footed politically. By absorbing so many of their key policies both domestically (a strong national bank) and in foreign policy, Jefferson had, however wittingly, sucked the air out of the minority party.
The consequence, of course, was sacrificing his own core Republican ideals of small government and military non-intervention. Politics versus policy, the age old story. The Federalists would never control 40% of either legislative body again, but their influence would live on within the ranks of the Republican Party.
Jefferson’s posturing recalls the now well-understood maxim that in American politics, change is most easily advanced by the unexpected party- that is how Bill Clinton pushed through “welfare reform” and Nixon was able to open relations with China. The public is more trusting of a politician’s intentions when he bucks the orthodoxy of his party.
While Jefferson had the political muscle to govern without opposition, the lack of opposition led to poor results. In preparing for an embargo against Britain, Jefferson completely miscalculated the economic impact it would have on the United States, and how little it would affect Britain. Additionally, his plan for small gunboats to enforce the embargo proved militarily disastrous. The Republicans’ military posturing only led them further to the brink of war, but their frugality prevented them from building a commensurate military until it was too late. Most of the Founders had come to understand the need for a strong oppositional party to hold the government accountable, and without one, those fears were legitimated.
Even as the embargo left Jefferson as the second president to exit amidst tumbling approval ratings (a trait many of his successors would share), James Madison easily won the election of 1808. His Republican Party had all but abandoned its original principles of small agrarian government, as unfettered trade, expansion and nationalism became the mantra of a party that increasingly needed taxes and guns to advance its interests.
The collapse of a substantial opposition party worried many who feared that the small ‘r’ republican experiment had been a failure. Jefferson didn’t see it that way, writing in 1817, “The best effect of the war has been the complete suppression of party.” Until the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson, who ironically became an American hero during the war with his dramatic victory at the Battle of New Orleans, the Republican Party governed alone. One person most pleased with the destruction of the Federalist Party was a major beneficiary of its demise, President James Monroe.
A hard-line Republican partisan, Monroe had advocated Federalist “annihilation” for years, and had rebuffed efforts to split the party and run against James Madison. Monroe’s passages on the importance of party discipline are too extensive to quote here, but suffice to say, he felt that dissent belonged behind closed doors, and that elections delivered explicit mandates that ought to be followed. His rhetoric was more Tom Delay than Founding Father.
Monroe believed that party and faction were not rooted in human nature, a notion most of the Founders had come to accept, but rather, “The cause of these divisions is to be found in certain defects of those governments… and that we have happily avoided those defects in our system.” In his inauguration address he lambasted “discord’, calling America “one great family with a common interest.” Such an opinion would seem laughable even in 1817, let alone today. Yet an unrelenting theory of American exceptionalism and unity drove Monroe’s political calculations throughout his presidency. In 1820, he ran for re-election unopposed.
In 1824, parties came back from the dead and took modern form. The reasons for this include the vast expansion of direct voting for the presidency, the slavery issue, and new campaign methods that eerily mirror the tactics used to this day. In the sixth and final installment of this series, we shall evaluate how Andrew Jackson’s political operation created a template for the modern campaign, and why strong , permanent political parties were necessary in this political landscape.
Thanks for reading. This series will conclude, hopefully tomorrow, with Part VI: The Jacksonian Political Machine. Part VI will feature the rise of our favorites, the Democratic Party.