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USA - 1828-1854 - Second Party System

The divisions between political parties in the early 19th century seemed almost insurmountable. Instabilities in politics threatened not only the effectiveness of the government, but its very stability.

The presidential election of 1800 marks a turning point in US national history no less important than does the adoption of the constitution. It signalized the initial victory of the first political party which profest to represent the American people. The career of this party is in complete contrast with the vacillating course of the shifting factions described in the administrations of Washington and Adams.

Nevertheless, it has been popular to refer to the Republican party as one wholly given over to the support of states rights and compact theories of government, and to quite ignore the broader and more permanent features of its platform and organization. This has been especially noticeable in the election of 1800.

By contemporaries the election was called the triumph of the masses over the intelligent minority, a victory for an unthinking mob led by a reckless intriguer (Burr) and a cold blooded atheist (Jefferson). Historians have not always descriminated between the Anti-Federalist of 1788, the Jacobin of 1793, and the Republican of 1800. Hildreth writes: "The Federalists had their strength in those narrow districts, where a concentrated population had produced and contributed to maintain that complexity of institutions and that reverence for social order, which, in proportion as men are brought into contiguity, become more absolutely necessaries of existence."

Henry Adams makes a careful analysis of the Federal election of 1800 in New England and comes to the following conclusion: "In 1800 one half the population, represented under property qualifications by only some twenty thousand voters, was Republican. The other half, which cast about twenty-five thousand votes, included nearly every one in the professional and mercantile classes, and represented the wealth, social position, and education of the Commonwealth (Massachusetts)."

The overwhelming victory of the Republican party had so weakened the Federalists as to practically leave but a single party in the field. By the splitting off of successive factions of the Republican party new vitality was imparted to the party of the opposition and the impending war gave to these isolated opposition groups an appearance of solidarity as deceptive as it was transient. Considerably before the end of his second term Jefferson's leadership was waning, nor were there wanting earlier signs of his lack of control.

This transitional period in the history of political parties occurs in the period so unfelicitously called the "era of good feeling," 1815-28. Party divisions disappear with the end of the War of 1812, and no new issues emerge to recrystallize public opinion along party lines until the era of Jacksonian democracy.

But party disintegration had already begun as early as 1811. This can be seen in the discussions in Congress over the recharter of the National Bank during that year. The leading Republican, Gallatin, as Secretary of Treasury, defended its recharter as a necessity, while his party adherents were much divided. The distribution of the vote in the House of Representatives, by which the recharter was defeated, January 24, 1811, is very significant. Hardly a state does not show a divided delegation. Support and opposition are inextricably mingled in such a way as to leave no hint of that party cohesion which is so evident in the vote on the declaration of war a year later.

The appearance of such new questions as protective tariff and internal improvements and the revival of the old Federal bank question did not result in the division of the nation into clearly defined political parties. As in Washington's administrations there is plenty of evidence of factional divisions on the great questions before Congress, but party lines do not appear.

As the country recovered from the war, industrial progress in the East and the spread of population into the West called for a further extension of the principle of protection and larger expenditures for internal improvements. President Monroe followed Madison in a conservative yielding to pressure from these two sections. Leaders in Congress shifted ground continually, abandoning now one and now the other of the positions they had at first assumed on these questions.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:29:12 ZULU