The unanimous response to the question “are politicians and parties held in low regard by many Americans today?” was a resounding “yes” by the students in American History I last week.
My follow-up question was, why then, were political parties even invented, what need did they fill, and what contributions did they make to the early republic? William Nisbet Chambers, in his Political Parties in a New Nation: The American Experience, 1776-1809 (1963), found that smaller, often transient or poorly organized groups, such as factions, juntos, and cliques, composed the political environment in colonial and revolutionary America. The models for some groups had been borrowed from English ones. Others were extemporized to fit American needs. But none, according to Chambers, who provides a precise definition and detailed criteria, were truly modern political parties.
In the Early National era America gave the world its first such vehicles for political expression. Alexander Hamilton, with President George Washington as the essential standard bearer and figure head, created what became the Federalist party, starting with the economic proposals he made to the first Congress in 1790. Key among them were an assumption of state debts by the central government, and other paper obligations, many of them held by speculators, not by, for example, the Continental Army veterans to whom they had first been issued.
The early and vociferous reactions to these proposals, including the hated excise tax, eventually produced what became the Republican party, led at first not by Thomas Jefferson, but by James Madison. Neither of them, nor indeed Hamilton, knew what they were doing in the 1790s, where the nation was headed, or what the ultimate results would be. All had doubts about the desirability of parties. Hamilton and Washington both feared and objected to an opposition party. When the latter warned about parties, he was referring to anti-administration groups. Washington approved of what was a capital coterie or government party, the creature of his administration. His attitude was not that much different from some post-WW II presidents. Hamilton also had dark thoughts about parties that dissented from the agenda pushed and adopted by the congressional majority and the party holding the White House.
In similar fashion, Chambers describes the sunny and optimistic Jefferson as long doubting the need for parties. As late as 1796, after becoming vice-president in John Adams’s administration, he apparently believed that he could work with his old friend, feeling that both of them were more attached to the nation than to a party or even a philosophical position on the proper uses of government. James Madison, in number twenty of the Federalist, feared the danger that factions might pose. More than twenty years passed before those threats appeared in full force. Ironically, given the demise of the Federalist party, and the switch to one-party rule under James Monroe in the Era of Good Feeling, the factions were not between parties, but within the completely dominant Republicans, who soon disintegrated, bringing an end to the First American Party System.
As our national November nuttiness approaches, a season promising this year to be somewhat more turbulent than usual, Americans would do well to ask themselves who, exactly, are the rascals that need to be thrown out? Whether incumbents completing a two-year term, or congressional powers with twenty, thirty, or even more years or more of seniority, they are all there because we elected them. Like the Harvard professors who live in my little town, but who, according to the town clerk, don’t bother to vote, or even register, the majority of Americans don’t participate in the political process at any level. We don’t run for school committee or town meeting or city council; don’t hold signs and host fund-raisers for statewide candidates; and most of us don’t vote, even in a widely publicized presidential contest. By the 1820s voter turnout was shooting toward forty percent in America, though some states still lacked universal white manhood suffrage. Black men could not vote until 1870, and women nationwide at all levels until 1920, so all women, along with African-Americans and other racial minorities, were prohibited from voting before the Civil War, yet participation by white men was significantly higher than it is today. When looking for rascals to throw out, perhaps Americans should look in their own mirrors.