Political Parties and Legislatures
Partisan spirit has always been high in America,
although often denounced. In the hubbub it generates,
one can rarely distinguish between emotion and enthusiasm
on the one hand and an actual confrontation
over meaningful issues on the other hand.
Politics, though vociferous, have been
vaguely focused and opportunistic.
What happened all along, as today, was that the significance of an
issue came to be measured by the turbulence surrounding it.
Jacksonian democratic and populist politics frequently have used
acoustical waves to make a hash of issues. A few men who want to
succeed with an issue, for whatever reasons, try first for secrecy,
but, if that will not work, will deal in decibels.
In 1850 the only country in the world with a political party in the
modern sense of the term was the United States. Elsewhere in
constitutional regimes, factions, clubs, and political circles could be
found. The British had not gotten around to organizing at the lowest
levels, complete with intra-party elections and conventions; the
suffrage was still quite limited. By this time, the American party
consisted of its present forms in large part; it was a sprawling,
unmanageable network of committees at all levels of government,
clustered like phagocytes around the aspirant to office.
There were as many different versions of the political party as there
were local, county, state, and federal governments. Fortunately, the
varieties were homologs: know one, know all. A useful definition
of the American Party in those times would be: a hopefully national
network of persons who believed that they had enough in common
to warrant their cooperating in electing selected
candidates for public office.
There was a great deal of talk in the early years of the republic about
the evils of factionalism in a country, as if any government in the world
ever lived without factions, or with factions all good. The Framers
have to be docked points for not appreciating the significance of this
fact for their baby. They knew all about the Tories and Whigs of
England; could they not have drawn the conclusion about themselves:
there would be parties. All the more so, since there was no monarch to
confuse the issue. How to organize them was the question.
The problem solved itself, non-constitutionally.
The political elite could hardly wait for George Washington to bow
out of the scene before dividing into two factions overtly to
dominate the succession. John Adams managed a difficult term
denying the need for a formal opposition. Then came the horrendous
election of 1800. The party system arose from the mire of politics
full-blown. No better proof of its existence (many doubters and
wishful thinkers were still about) could be had than in the results of
the electoral college.
Every elector who voted for Jefferson voted for Aaron Burr as well.
The Federalists, more sophisticated, arranged so that Adams would
have one more electoral vote than his acknowledged vice-Presidential
candidate, Pinckney. However, Jefferson had a clear
majority and so Burr. But each had 100 and it took 36 ballots in the
House of Representatives before Jefferson could out-tally Burr. (I
pointed out earlier that this episode so frightened everybody that the
Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution passed quickly, so as clearly
to distinguish who was running for what office.)
Although it is true that the first parties to form were recognizably
divided according to those who thought the well-to-do should rule and
those who thought all adult White males should have a crack at ruling,
there were other reasons for parties to establish themselves and
reasons why, once established, they could only go so far in
running the country.
The main reason for parties to occur was not that there would
always be two or more sides to every question, nor that the
government needs to have a concerted set of policies to act upon, nor
that people should know who is responsible for the mess they are in,
nor etc., but basically it is twofold:
politics is so confused and nonsensical
that some simple explanation of it all has to be given,
enabling people who elect the people to run affairs
to group themselves in some semblance of order
for the purpose of choosing.
Second, and tightly tied into this, is the need
universally felt on occasion for
some kind of change, meaningless though it be, and the
superior sense of power it gives people to know that
they can effect such a change.
As for what happens once the change occurs, that is
anybody's guess. If one took all the pledges, prescriptions, programs,
agendas, plans, policies, manifestoes, declarations of principles,
platforms, etc of all the parties and then associated them,
after cleaning them like fish,
alternately with the blade of one party then of the others,
and afterwards compared these results with the historical record,
the correlation of claimed goals with subsequent real
happenings would be low and
equally low for both parties in a two-party system.
For three or more parties the result would be the same.
They raise a sharper set of issues, but they are therefore
shunted aside with their faithful small fraction of votes.
That is, party programs were practically nonsense
in the golden period of party formation in America;
voters for one party might as well have belonged to the other party,
from the viewpoint of the legislation and the
administration of the laws that followed.
Profoundly, the very act of voting begs its own proof: that the total
nominating campaign, electoral campaign, results and effects in the
processes of legislation are and were and would be rational. The
meaning of the party, as of the vote, is that the voter is facilitated in
a triumphant exercise of self-deception. He can, in casting his vote,
unite himself with the mass of people in a universal rite. He is at the
same time assured, just as surely as by a priest at a sacral ritual, that
the political party has framed his views into a universal demand and
presented them for enactment by the Godlike State, and that
all that happens subsequently is therefore his work, too.
The party is the priest that helps the voting acolyte get to
heaven. That the voting participation may range from 20% to 90%
of those eligible means little, here, only that people are often
backsliders. But they will be back in church perhaps at the next
election, if only the party religionists would invent more persuasive
promises and assurances and explanations as to
why his dreams died the first time around.
Hardly had Andrew Jackson come and gone when several first-rate
theorists were rationalizing the American political party. Francis Lieber
immigrated to South Carolina from Germany and wrote the first
systematic book of political science since that of John Adams. He
defined the political party, which by now was witnessed all about him,
as a group of men organized in lawful pursuit of a
common interest that they thought sincerely would help the country.
He believed citizens should join a party, or be considered weak or
self-interested. Importantly, he believed that "it is impossible for
civil liberties to exist without parties."
John Hammond wrote a history of New York (1842), affirming
throughout lengthy volumes, that parties must and should exist. They
clarify public issues, argue policy, check corruption, and are a peaceful
substitute for political violence. He supported the use of the spoils
(that is, a free replacements) system as a way of getting things done
expeditiously. He also stressed and advocated stronger party
discipline, a common demand and plaint ever thereafter.
Frederick Grimke, remarkable brother of the great sisters,
like them, moved North, where, in seclusion, he wrote
The Nature and Tendency of Free Institutions (1848),
under the inspiration of Auguste Compte and Alexis de Tocqueville.
He offers the singular theory that the system of checks and balances
is inadequate. It must be socially holistic.
"Parties take the place of the old system of checks and balances.
The latter balance the government only,
the former balance society itself."
The composition of the party being so diverse, the accommodations that
parties make become social compromises of large scope and effect.
The clash of opinions is healthy, vital; the encounter of rival
opinions imposes a discipline of thought upon the society.
There is no place for unanimity, a false notion.
The structures of political parties of America have burgeoned
since the beginnings, often of their own accord and often
by dint of reform movements which sought to improve them.
Essentially, then, as now, the party system came to display the traits
that I already indicated in the first paragraph above, the plethora of
committees. And the whole was extremely decentralized.
Generally nominations began with state laws prescribing an
application or filing and a number of supporting signatures. The
parties, however, "owned" a valuable label and
sought to pin this label only upon approved candidates.
Therefore, before long, party leaders in a legislature,
often in touch with influential outsiders,
would designate the party's candidates for the
various offices to be contested.
Then, since a hue and cry was raised against caucuses for being
undemocratic, the parties began to set up conventions in the
county, the city, the state, and the nation. In this regard
state parties were innovative: a new and weak but
obstreperous party, the Anti-Masonic Party, was the
first to hold a national nominating convention.
This pushed the great parties also to hold
Presidential nominating conventions, with
varying ways of bringing together a number of
elected and specially chosen party stalwarts.
The Anti-Masonic Party was a grouping of religious
fundamentalists, liberals, and Catholics who sympathized
against a common enemy, against what they believed to be --
helped in this by a sizeable paranoia --
a secret conspiracy by non-believers to take over the country.
All this excitement was occasioned by the alleged murder
by Masons of an ex-member, who threatened to tell all.
It expired after several years of influence in
local and state elections and was a flat failure with a
Presidential candidate in 1832.
But it denigrated the Masonic order in America for decades.)
Another minor party later on was the Know-Nothing or
Native American Party, officially termed (and not Amer-Indian),
a native workingman's party mostly, for agitating and legislating
against the foreign-born, Catholics, and African-Americans.
It, too, waged several campaigns in the states with
limited success and raised a large vote,
which fell into the lap of the oncoming Republican Party.
(Samuel F.B.Morse was an excellent painter and
an inventor of the telegraph,
but also a bigoted author who accused American Catholics of
conspiring to destroy liberty, and who
ran for office with the "Know-Nothings" in 1836.)
The two-party system was multiple, not only in these cases of novel
competing parties, but also from the split factions of the larger
parties, the Whigs and Democrats (Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans).
These splits were fatal and exhibited the ineptitude of
the American party system.
The Constitution did not preclude anyone who was a natural-born
citizen of the United States from running for the Presidency.
So how could the possibility be eliminated?
There were now parties, but no one laid down a law
preventing anyone else in the party
from running for President.
In 1824 the question became critical. The congressional caucus that
had taken on the nominating function was discredited by democratic
sentiment. First the Tennessee Legislature nominated Jackson. Then
the Georgia legislature, which favored William Crawford, resolved
that only the congressional caucus of the Democratic Party could
legitimately nominate the candidate. So a minority of congressmen
made up a caucus and nominated Crawford. Three other candidates
were nominated by caucus or convention:
Clay, Calhoun and Adams.
For the second and last time, the House of Representatives received
the job of selecting among candidates no one of whom had a
majority of the electoral vote. Adams was elected then
by the House (with the states' delegations casting each a single vote).
The thought that there would be several candidates often,
and that the House would be soon electing the President,
was too much for the country to take, and the
national convention of the party for the nomination of
Presidential and vice Presidential candidates
took over the task forever after.
The effects of the decentralization of the American party were great.
Its beneficiaries defied numerous attempts at centralizing, and
succeeded, because decentralization was locked into the system. The
Framers, without quite realizing it, accomplished their chief aim of
keeping any party from developing and representing a majority that
would be fixed upon a sentiment opposed to their interests.
But what they wanted instead - a nice nest with eggs of their own
kind perennially hatching at the time of election in the name of the
whole undivided nation - did not come about either. They did not
get what they wanted, but they denied what would have been the
heart's delight among the party organizers and the great mass of the
public, an unconscionable majoritarian centralized government
enacting one set of foolish laws after another.
The parties became rickety electoral machines.
They could never manage to get complete control
over their party operations in all states.
They could not select nearly all of the candidates that the
top elite would have preferred. They could not get their
candidates to work in unison, or to sacrifice anything substantial for
the common cause. They could not guarantee any
program of legislation or administration.
They could not guarantee that the President and a majority of
one or both houses of Congress would be of the same party.
They could not make either the President or the party
congressional leaders the actual leaders of the party
over the whole country; the same-named parties
in state legislatures and local governments would rarely
feel compelled by them.
Thus we had a complete decentralization of
parties, making impossible of realization
the concept, idealized in many liberal minds, of a
responsible party government in the United States. The remote
possibilities, looked at from the perspective of that day, were that
the executive branch of government in Washington could control so
many jobs that a party of patronage would tie in all of the party
offices around the country - which happened only once,
during the New Deal, as we shall see - and
a second possibility, more remote
than it sometimes appeared to be -- the possibility of a national leader
with such charismatic powers that he might obtain a centralized
party working for his program and under his will,
regardless of the formal limits to his power. In such a case,
there would be the danger of a government of a single-minded party,
as was feared by some in the time of Jackson, Lincoln, and
Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Given the effective federal system and state control over elections
central control was practically impossible.
(Congress, strongly tied to local interests within its districts,
always delegated the conduct of federal elections to the
states, although the Constitution would have readily
permitted Congress to set up a separate federal system.)
Given sectionalism, too, there would be no central party program
except at the risk of offending North or South or west, or
Inasmuch as political parties were not mentioned in the
Constitution and were at least in their beginnings fully extra-legal
voluntary associations, there could have been little support in
Congress for granting to the parties nationwide authority
to control and discipline their membership;
furthermore, any attempt to dictate party organization and
membership to all state and local candidates
would have correctly aroused a clamor of "unconstitutional"!
Hampered by the Constitution and by it own dependence upon local
politicians, and by its resulting modest estimates of itself,
Congress did not give the impression that it would a century later, of
being the most powerful legislative body in the world.
The individual state legislatures had many more powers
over their constituents. But they, too, were kept by the doctrine of
limited government and by their own modesty
from undertaking grand projects.
The Erie Canal and other such works, and the railroad land and bond
arrangements were indeed large and important. State
legislatures were almost forced to act in these cases; it was the
Governor of New York, Clinton, it will be recalled, who backed the
Erie Canal vigorously for some years to get it finally inaugurated.
Ordinarily the legislatures were content with budgets and fiscal
flows the size of a supermarket's on today's typical mall.
Their vast police powers went unused. They worried over
many matters of election administration,
land titles, and the naming of people to the still few offices.
They worried over their own election, and over the
elections of their friends and enemies down to
the most local of elective offices.
The idea of justifying federalism by the innovative designing of laws to
fit the geo-social-economic conditions and human welfare of the state
was nowhere perceptible; possibly one could detect it in
Massachusetts on occasion. State legislatures, whether 13 or even
more so when 30, were like a collection of vases whose slight
variations in style and lip would pass quite unnoticed by
most observers, although the slight differences might
arouse furious debate among connoisseurs.
Congress adopted most of the very rules of the Congress of the
Articles of Confederation. It took no pleasure in innovation. Its
members were not usually intimate with the President and Cabinet,
no more than today. It relied upon
ad hoc committees for many
issues coming before it. It began then to appoint standing
committees, to whom bills of special types might be
referred by the Speaker.
Presiding over the House and determining often the introduction and
passage, or the death, of all legislation, the Speaker, elected by its
members, became for a time the most powerful officer of the
Federal government, a kind of Prime Minister. Henry Clay of
Kentucky played this role for many years. He had his troubles with
the sometimes unruly and disorderly House members. He dueled
with one of them, a nasty chap named John Randolph, whose conduct
was regularly so obnoxious that, if he had been anywhere
except upon the floor of the House, he would have been booted out
as crazy. If he had been anybody but a Randolph of Virginia, he
would have been incarcerated in one of the foul lunatic asylums of
the time. Neither man was hurt in the exchange of gunfire.
In the Senate, standing committees also developed. So long as the
House had a membership not too greatly in excess of the Senate, and
because it controlled the purse strings without challenge, the House
was the more powerful and respected of the two bodies.
Other factors favored senatorial power and prestige.
For one, like it or not, only the Senate,
affording a disproportionate representation of the
Southern population was upholding the crisis of
sectionalism in the country.
And Senators had long terms of six years.
Too, in a later development, the allowance of unlimited
debating time and the resulting right to
filibuster ad infinitum ad nauseam to block
disfavored legislation fell to the Senators.
When, two political generations later,
direct election by the voters of the state was prescribed for
Senate seats, instead of selection by the legislatures,
the Senate gained new authority in the public and political mind.
Soon now, one could say that Congress was ruled by a system of
standing committees, whose chairmen gained their exalted position of
command over the bills relative to their committee by the customary
rule of seniority. Like the malapportionment already
apparent, that was giving rural areas preference in all legislatures
and in Congress over urban areas, the seniority system in the
Congress and legislatures gave the "safe districts" of the legislature -
seats whose incumbents (and political party) were invariably reelected
- much greater than average influence and power. Since
such safe districts came disproportionately from the more
unchanging country than from the cities, the system was once more
predisposed to the rural point of view.
The great issues of the first memorial generation, 1790-1860
- meaning by issues specific economic-social preferences that
politicians and people believed to be the subjects of their disputes -
were only six: whether the tariff schedule generally should be high
or low; whether the federal government should actively manage the
banking and currency of the country; whether the government should
actively promote public works construction; how the public
land should be granted and sold; whether and how slavery should be
contained; and how far a state might go in rejecting the application
of federal law within its borders (states rights).
To these would be added the questions of war and peace: how did
the parties differ on the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, and in
the Indian Wars and in the boundary disputes with England in
Oregon, and Spain in Florida.
The resolution of these questions has already been revealed or will
soon be. The tariff was continuously raised and lowered as elections
seemed to demand. Often what was at issue was not a general tariff
schedule, but a tariff on specific items to which one region or even one
district of the country was sensitive. The tariff issue continued forever,
and a scholar would be rash to denote high or low tariffs, and any
particular tariff, as generally beneficial or harmful.
The South wanted low tariffs, the North high, the agrarian West
low. The idea (Hamilton's), we recall, was that high tariffs
encouraged American industry and allow higher workers' wages.
The former is true in that the extra charge on a foreigner's goods
profited entrepreneurs, letting them not
only stay in business with higher costs, but also giving them extra
money to invest in expansion or new enterprise. Planters and
farmers would have to pay higher prices for domestically produced
machines and stuff, and also for foreign-produced material.
The worker's wage was kept level by low-wage immigrants, slavery
and the political system.
But there are several intervening variables: both foreign and
domestic producers might become more efficient in the situation,
one because he must, the other because he has the larger production
and advantages of scale. Too, the country should welcome a charge
on its goods occasioned by tariffs, if as a result its life and industry
become more varied and its population more skilled.
However, against this goes the pollution resulting from industrial
production. The trading partner may now slap a duty on incoming
cotton or wheat or tobacco either in simple retaliation or to use the
money in some way to support its own injured people. Smuggling
goes up and down with the tariff, too.
These are mere beginnings of the complex causal interactions that
occur with (or without) tariffs. It might be useless here to go to great
lengths in the analysis of even a single tariff struggle.
People of direct democratic persuasion were likely to be agrarian
(most of the country) and favor easy money, meaning by this the easy
availability of ordinarily inflated currency that can be used to pay back
debts, because farmers were usually in debt. Furthermore, with easy
money, one could borrow to buy more land with which to speculate,
and to plant additional land once the present land collapses from
exhaustion; to buy slaves; to buy the machines
newly coming upon the market; and to buy consumer
goods, also becoming available in large quantities from the
industrializing countries and the East.
Most bankers were not frauds and therefore would wish to have a
stable currency. If they were frauds they would play several kinds of
games to extract wealth from others. They would issue bank notes
without gold or silver backing, or the backing of one of the world's
stable banks (although none were available except in the
several large American centers of commerce).
They would obtain assets in cash, titles, and possessions,
hide them and declare bankruptcy.
(Foreign observers were struck by the readiness of the better class
of citizens to declare bankruptcy whenever convenient,
maintaining one's social position, and then returning
to banking or another risky enterprise
with newly obtained or retrieved capital.
The early experiences were not forgotten:
rather than diminishing over time, the number of
bankruptcies reached an all-time high in 1997-8.)
The United States National Bank came and went twice and would
soon come again. The Treasury of the United States would also be
used as a central banking agent for the mixed-up internal fiscal affairs
of the government, and it would issue bonds or convert
bonds. State legislatures engaged in highly risky practices (showing
that the reluctance to innovate does not arise out of a fear of taking
risks so much as from a void of principled motives).
They brought on a steady stream of bankruptcies by letting bankers
issue paper money, and by selling land to people without the ability
to pay for it. (No matter how "ridiculously cheap," the mass of
people was too poor to buy.) Corruption in land and banknotes were
a normal part of legislative proceedings in all parts of the nation.
Both federal and state legislatures occupied themselves regularly with
debate and legislation over the disposal of public lands. Ultimately the
issue became tied up with the slavery issue and the secession-states
rights issue. For, do you give land only to men without slaves, or to
anybody otherwise qualifying. And the great stretches of land bred
one congressional struggle after another. In a chapter to come, we shall
return to this complex of issues over the
creation of territories and the admission of states.
While apparently doing little in the way of constructive legislation for
improving the welfare and culture of the people of the country, the
state legislatures and particularly Congress began to position the Union
for disaster over apparently unresolvable issues.
They failed, the party system failed, the Constitution failed,
in providing the chief and most beneficial operation of government,:
to block access to power of those who would
paralyze it, bring it down, or rule it absolutely.
The next most beneficial operation - that of creating a climate of
free opportunity and creativity - failed, too.
As for civil rights,
some could be had, by some people, here and there.