Contrary to the vast majority of my fellow scholars of American history, I have never found the account of the creation of political parties in the Founding Era and Early Republic to be credible. Admittedly, my position is one of an extremely small minority, so I do not mean to suggest that historians are ready to discard their time-honored and experienced-honed beliefs. My own skepticism began in high school history—admittedly, dreadfully dull and boring—in which the teachers as well as the textbooks would present George Washington and John Adams as “Federalists” and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as “Democrats” or “Democratic-Republicans.”
My questions, even at age sixteen, were legion. First, if Jefferson and Madison belonged to the same party, why did their political policies often conflict in numerous ways? Even Jefferson as president—consider, for example, his 1807 embargo on ALL trade with England and France, or his purchase of Louisiana Territory—seemed to contradict so much of what he had argued prior to his presidency and at the very beginning of his presidency. Aside from the humility legitimately expressed in awe of the American West, where in the first inaugural does Jefferson claim the right to claim western lands not specified in the 1783 treaty with Great Britain? Again, how can the man who argued for trade with all but entangling alliances with none force upon America his instrument of peaceable coercion, the Embargo of 1807? Or, take Madison. In the early 1790s, he vehemently opposed Alexander Hamilton and the creation of First Bank of the United States. By 1815 and 1816, he helped create the Second Bank of the United States, something that would make the second bank Goldman Sachs next to Hamilton’s mom and pop savings and loan. If there was any logical consistency and political idealism holding together the Jefferson and Madison “Democratic Republican” party of 1792 with the one of 1816, I fail to see it.
Second, as much as historians like to simplify the past by giving men and things easy labels, I couldn’t help but notice—even as early as high school history—that men such as Washington did not—at least during his presidency—refer to himself as a Federalist. Certainly, during the 1787-1788 debates on the ratification of the Constitution, he did, but “Federalist” even in 1787 was not a political party, but an organized movement struggling to get the American people to accept the Constitution. The “Anti-Federalists” have almost nothing in common with one another except for their fear of an oppressive U.S. Constitution. Their radically varied reasons for opposing the Constitution doomed them from the beginning. As president, Washington not only failed to label his position as a political one, but also actively discouraged the creation of political parties. It must be noted, when he did discourage the creation of parties, he did not discourage the breakup of current political parties. Because none existed. His worries were for the future, not the present. Jump forward several decades, and James Monroe and John Quincy Adams still argue against the creation of political parties—not the breakup of those that exist, but to prevent those that might come into existence.
In 1827, we have the first attempt to create a national political party, the Democratic Party, as witnessed by the letters of its architects, Thomas Hart Benton, Martin Van Buren, and John C. Calhoun. The three men—representing the American West, (Proto-) Wall Street, and southern plantation owners—hoped to use Andrew Jackson as their rallying point and figurehead. Never any man’s puppet, Jackson never once referred to himself as a Democrat or a democrat. From his earliest letters to his last, he referred to himself as a [r]epublican. Even during his time in Congress in the late 1790s, he admitted that he liked neither George Washington’s nor Thomas Jefferson’s politics, though he leaned toward Jefferson’s. The very first president to declare himself by his party affiliation was Martin Van Buren in 1837, exactly a half-century after the writing of the U.S. Constitution. From 1837 to the present, I have no doubt that political parties came into existence and continue to exist, but I see very little evidence of anything that we would recognize as political parties before then.
Our current mainstream understanding of political parties comes mostly from the Progressives of the conservative stripe (Teddy Roosevelt) and of the radical stripe (Woodrow Wilson) and their attempt to re-imagine parties for a mass society. Even our definitions of “first party system” (1787-1827), “second party system” (1827-1854), etc., come from the progressive historians and political scientists of the Progressive and New Deal eras. Each was trying to justify the nationalization of the party machine against the local machines that dominated nearly every major city in America.
The evidence that a first party system (1787-1827) came into existence stems from the numerous letters between Jefferson and Hamilton and Washington during Washington’s first administration. Jefferson comes across especially poor and unmanly in this exchange, with Hamilton seeming the rational son, ever ready to do his duty to country. If we interpret these letters as the beginning of American political parties, we must conclude that the divide was as much personal as it was about ideas—in particular, the ideas that Hamilton has proposed in his (in)famous Report on Manufacturers of 1791. Allied with Jefferson, James Madison anonymously published a history of American political parties as a newspaper article on September 22, 1792. Entitled a “Candid State of Parties,” and appearing in the National Gazette, Madison claimed:
The antirepublican party, as it may be called, being the weaker in point of numbers, will be induced by the most obvious motives to strengthen themselves with the men of influence, particularly of moneyed, which is the most active and insinuating influence. It will be equally their true policy to weaken their opponents by reviving exploded parties and taking advantage of all prejudices, local, political, and occupational, that may prevent or disturb a general coalition of sentiments.
The Republican party, as it may be termed, conscious that the mass of people in every part of the union, in every state, and of every occupation must at bottom be with them, both in interest and sentiment, will naturally find their account in burying all antecedent questions, in banishing every other distinction than that between enemies and friends to republican government, and in promoting a general harmony among the latter, wherever residing or however employed.
However well written, Madison’s explanation explains absolutely nothing except a “them” and an “us,” no better and certainly no more helpful than a “bad” and a “good.”
Yet, not only Progressive and New Dealer historians and political scientists bought into this. The justly-respected Herbert Storing claimed that “American politics can best be understood as an ongoing and ever deepening debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.” (N.B. This is William Connelly describing Storing’s views; not directly a quote from Storing.)
In 1827, something resembling the Democratic Party began to take shape. In that same year, a number of really angry upstate New Yorkers and allies from the other states created the evangelical “Anti-Mason Party.” By 1832 or ’33, a quasi-coherent Whig Party came into being. As noted above, the first self-identified party-member in the White House was Martin Van Buren in 1837. Add in, soon, the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, the American (“Know Nothing”) Party, and, in 1854, the Republican Party. If the grand historian and biographer, David Herbert Donald, is to be believed, even Lincoln did not identify himself as a member of the Republican Party until after taking his presidential oath of office. Indeed, throughout the 1850s, he grew increasingly angry as allies and enemies tried to “Unwhig me.”
As I write this, in 2019, American parties are in shambles, to be sure. One of my truly bright and insightful colleagues, Paul D. Moreno, even suggests that our parties are not only in shambles, but that they no longer exist in any meaningful way that a Progressive or New Deal historian or political scientist would recognize.[*]
Whether parties contribute to stability or not, I remain unconvinced, uncertain, and concerned. My own Nisbetianism and Hayekianism makes me inherently distrust any aspect of political society, always preferring civil association to all political growths and fungi. But, I am certain—whatever my personal biases—that trying to understand American political parties on a continuous line from 1787 to 2019 is just plain wrong and singularly unhelpful, whatever the mass of historians and political scientists try to tell us.
Author’s Note: I wish to thank Daniel Ritchie (Bethel College, Minnesota) and Steve Ealy (Liberty Fund, Indianapolis) and each of the participants of a Liberty Fund colloquium held April 4-7, 2018, dealing with the necessity of political parties to ordered liberty. If any of the ideas expressed here came directly or indirectly from any one of the participants of that wonderful colloquium, I ask for forgiveness. I have done my best to stick to my original notes and thoughts in preparation for the colloquium. In a very healthy fashion, though, the six Liberty Fund discussion sessions softened and altered some of my own notions going into the colloquium.
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* Moreno, Paul. “Donald Trump, Progressive Scion.”
The featured image is “The County Election,” by George Caleb Bingham.