The Evolution Of America’s Four “Political Systems” Up To 1860
It is George Washington, the only president elected as an Independent, whose Farewell Address famously warns about the dangers of political parties to the well-being of the Union. His advice, however, is quickly ignored and between 1800 and 1860 four divisive “political systems” evolve.
The 1st System is visible at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, with Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton pairing off against the Democrat-Republicans of Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists call for a strong central government shaping America’s policies, while their opponents argue that the “sovereign states” must be dominant.
America’s 1st Political System (1790-1828)
|Geographical tilt||New England||South|
|Political Philosophy||Republic/leader class||Democracy/common man|
|Concentration of power||Washington/federal control||De-centralized/state’s rights|
|Important to avoid||Indecision during warfare||Recreation of a monarchy|
|Finance||Soft money/federal bank||Hard money/state banks|
The troubled presidency of John Adams weakens the Federalists and ushers in the “Virginia Dynasty,” with Democrat-Republicans from Jefferson to Madison to Monroe occupying the White House for twenty-four consecutive years. This string ends with the stalemated election of 1828 where the U.S. House, under the influence of Henry Clay, chooses John Quincy Adams over the popular vote leader, Democrat Andrew Jackson. Adams will serve as a National-Republican while acting like a Federalist.
|1st Political System||Starting||Presidents||Dissolution|
|Federalist||1797||John Adams (1797-1801)||1820|
|Anti-Federalist/Democrat-Republicans||1789||Jefferson (1801-1809)Madison (1809-1817)Monroe (1817-1825)||1828|
|National-Republicans||1828||JQ Adams (1825-1829)||1832|
The 2nd Political System is dominated by Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812, who sets out to extend suffrage and create a Democrat Party reflecting the wishes of the “common man,” including those settlers in the inland/western states. Jackson’s strong beliefs and decisive policy actions bring about the charge that he is acting like a king, and foster a series of adversaries – notably John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay – both dedicated to his defeat. Jackson easily slaps down Calhoun’s Nullifier Party, but Clay’s Whigs, named after the anti-monarch faction in Britain, take hold for a long-run.
America’s Second Political System: 1828-1848
|Jackson’s Democrat Party||Clay’s Whig Party|
|Political Philosophy||Democracy/common man||Republic/leader class|
|Core Constituency||Small farmers||Farmers + city wage earners|
|Core Geography||South + West||Border + Northeast|
|Labor||Manual power||Manual + machines|
|Government Power||De-centralized/state’s rights||Washington/federal control|
|Federal spending||Limit it/balance budget||Invest in infrastructure|
|Tariff||Lower and on fewer goods||Higher to protect US mfrs.|
|Price to buy US land||Lower||Higher to fund investments|
|Money||Hard/specie to avoid inflation||Soft/paper to support capitalism|
|US Bank||Opposed/rigged for privileged||Supportive/control currency|
|Capitalism||Suspicious/elites/corruption||Fundamental to growth|
Jackson easily wins a second term in 1832, but his financial efforts to pay off the federal debt, shut down the privately controlled U.S. Bank, and favor hard specie over soft banknotes, all lead to the Bank Panic of 1837 and a prolonged recession. This plagues his protégé, Van Buren, and leads to the election in 1840 of the first Whig President, ex-General William Henry Harrison.
However, “Old Tippecanoe’s” death after only one month in office results in the first ascension of a Vice-President, in this case the Virginian John Tyler, who opposes the Whig charter and throws the party into chaos. In 1844, another Jackson follower, the “dark horse” James Polk, restores Democrat control and leads the nation into the Mexican War, aimed at acquiring western territory and opening it up to slavery. The war stirs further northern animosity toward the southern “Slavocracy,” and a second Whig, ex-General Zachary Taylor, defeats a weak Democrat, Senator Lewis Cass, in 1848.
|2nd Political System||Starting||Presidents||Dissolution|
|Democrats (unified)||1828||Jackson (1829-1837)Van Buren (1837-1841)Polk (1845-49)||1860|
|Nullifiers (anti-cotton tariff)||1828||None||1839|
|Whigs||1834||Harrison/Tyler (1841-45)Taylor/Fillmore (1849-1853)||1860|
America’s 3rd Political System reflects a widening of the gap between the northern and southern states. The two regions have long been divided on economic matters: the South betting its future wealth on four great agricultural crops – tobacco, rice, sugar and cotton – and on the auction value of its bred slaves; the North committed to a diversified industrialized option fueled by modern capitalism. Historically the differences have led to clashes over southern opposition to import tariffs and federal spending on infrastructure upgrades, typically resolved by political compromises. But the conflicts are exacerbated by the addition of vast new western land ceded by Mexico in 1848 after the war.
The Democrat Party, now beholden to its electoral base in the South, demands that slavery be expanded into these new territories. The northern public deems this another example of southern arrogance and signals its refusal to go along. By dint of its larger population, the North already enjoys a sizable edge in the U.S. House, and their political leaders now view the slavery issue as a path to defeat the Democrats.
America’s Third Political System: 1848-1852
|Avatar||Stephen Douglas||Salmon Chase||Henry Clay||James Birney|
|View of slavery||Positive good for society||Demeans white labor||Morally wrong||Abomination|
|Expanding to west||Absolute necessity||Fierce opposition||Ban spread||Abolish everywhere|
|DC strength||South bloc vote in Senate||House majority position||American System||None|
|Label||Slavocracy||White Supremacy||Moral Idealists||Radicals|
But forming a winning opposition party proves to be out of reach in time for the election of 1852. The Democrats, in full-out defense mode, nominate Franklin Pierce, the first of two successive “Doughface” candidates – men from northern states who are dedicated southern sympathizers on public policy. Meanwhile the Opposition is split between several very different blocs.
Salmon Chase’s Free Soil Party is focused on resisting the expansion of slavery, but it lacks internal cohesion. Its majority comprises racists who wish to “cleanse” the nation of all blacks and insist that the new western land be set aside exclusively for “free white men and free labor.” Ironically the other party members are abolitionists who regard the “free soil” banner as a path to limiting then ending slavery.
A second group is variously labeled the American Party or the Know-Nothings, and it stands not against slavery but instead the flood of Irish and German Catholics coming to America during the potato famine and anti-monarchist defeats across Europe in 1848. It regards these immigrants as a Democrat Party plot to bolster their ranks, and claims that their allegiance will be to the Pope in Rome not to the United States. The party is centered in the northeast and, although short-lived, detracts from efforts to displace the Democrats in 1852.
While the Free Soilers and the Know-Nothings are evidence of a 3rd Political System, they are not yet ready to challenge the Democrats — and that task falls by default on the remnants of the Whig Party. Its final presidential candidate is ex-General, Winfield Scott, who is soundly defeated by Franklin Pierce.
|3rd Political System||Starting||Presidents||Dissolving|
|Democrats (unified)||1828||Pierce (1853-1857)Buchanan (1857-1861)||1860|
|“Opposition” (to KN Act)||1854||None||1860|
In America’s 4th Political System, the Republican Party is founded, the Democrat Party is fractured, and the fateful election of 1860 culminates in secession and the Civil War.
After Pierce wins in 1852, Southern insistence on opening the west to slavery leads to Stephen Douglas’ pivotal 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Bill which reneges on the 1820 Missouri Compromise and outrages the North. Instead of the fixed 36”30” line designating Slave vs. Free State boundaries, the Bill calls for local voting (aka “popular sovereignty”) to make the delineation.
However when this policy is first tested in the Kansas Territory, pro-slavery forces from Missouri steal the election, and this initiates four years of proxy North-South warfare before the outcome is finally reversed. Kansans adopt a Free State designation, while also voting to exclude all blacks from residency!
The violence in “Bloody Kansas” is soon repeated in Congress in 1856 with sitting U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, an outspoken abolitionist, nearly caned to death by southern Congressman Preston Brooks after a fiery speech on Kansas. The beating occurs on the floor of the Senate with Brook’s colleagues warding off Sumner’s rescuers. Additional anger and fisticuffs follow on, and members in both chambers arrive with pistols and knives at the ready.Amidst this turmoil, the 4th Political Systems takes shape.
America’s Fourth Political System: 1856 – 1860
|Moderate Democrats||Southern Secessionists||Republican Coalition||Unionists|
|Avatar||Stephen Douglas||Jefferson Davis||Henry Seward||JJ Crittenden|
|Antecedents||Jackson Democrats||Calhoun Democrats||Free Soil/KN||Whigs|
|Expanding slavery||Supportive||Essential||Oppose||Extend 36’30”|
|Kansas solution||Slave State||Slave State||Free State||Slave State|
|DC strength||Senate||Presidential grip||U.S House||Seniority|
The Whig Party dissolves in 1856, but opposition to the Democrats remains split between the Know-Nothings, and the nascent Republicans, who first appear two years earlier. This division allows the Democrat Buchanan to slip into office with only 45% of the popular vote vs. 21% for the Know-Nothings and 33% for the Republicans.
The Know-Nothings then fade after their loss, and the Republicans become dominant. Their roots remain in the Free Soil Party of 1848, with their base being white Northerners intent on reserving the new western territories for themselves, while eliminating all racially inferior blacks. By 1858 they are also joined by an increasing numbers who have anti-slavery sympathies along with a wish to end the pro-South policies of the Democrats.
The Republicans continue to add members after the Ohio abolitionist John Brown is hanged for attempting to muster a “slave army” at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to slaughter all plantation owners. This event effectively ends all hope for reconciliation between the North and South.
At their 1860 convention, the Republicans nominate Lincoln and adopt a platform calling for a flat-out ban on slavery in the west, which the South regards as fatal to their economic future. The Democrats then suffer a fatal schism when its convention fails to support a proposal for a Congressional law sanctioning slavery. Northern Democrats nominate Douglas while Southern Democrats back John Breckinridge. Another party called the Constitutional Unionists hopes to avoid secession and nominates John Bell.
Thus the 4th Political System presents voters in the 1860 election with four parties: Republicans, Northern and Southern Democrats and Unionists. The result is a victory for Lincoln who wins with only 39% of the popular vote (zero in the South) and a slim majority in the Electoral College.
Attempts to repair the sectional breach fail, and six weeks after the election South Carolina secedes from the Union. On February 4, 1861, the Confederate States of America are formed, with Jefferson Davis as president. One month later, Lincoln delivers his Inaugural Address, pleading for an end to the schism. This fails and on April 13, the bombardment of Ft. Sumter begins the Civil War.
|4th Political System||Starting||Presidents||Dissolving|
|“Opposition” (to KN Act)||1854||None||1860|
|Republicans||1854||Lincoln (1861-1865)Johnson (1865-1869)||ongoing|
|Collapse of the Union|
|Confederate States||1860||Davis (1861-1865)||1865|
After the war, the Republican Party holds the White House all the way up to 1885 when Grover Cleveland finally delivers a win for the Democrats.
To learn more about America’s “Political Systems,” read Chapters: 9, 15, 21, 48-9, 55-6, 61, 67, 78-9, 95, 115, 122, 127, 140-2, 149, 171, 180, 185, 195, 204, 209, 250-54, 275.