Ominous Parallels: What Antebellum America Can Teach Us About Our Modern Political Regime

Many people point to the hyper-partisanship of national Democratic and Republican parties as the greatest challenge facing 21st century America. When seen through the lens of another vapidly partisan political system – that of Jacksonian America – we see that the real danger is not noisy partisanship, but the iniquity it hides: for them it was slavery; for us, plutarchy 

Living amidst the raucous partisanship of contemporary times it is hard to imagine anything different than the endless battle between Democrats and Republicans that seems to define American politics. It has not always been so. There was a time in America’s history where the Republic had no parties at all. In the days of the early Republic politics was an aristocrats game. In this world of lawyers and plantation owners political parties (“factions” as they were then known) were universally decried as the source of corruption and decay. The ideal statesman was  a man of independence and virtue; these republican qualities could not tolerate the “spirit of faction”. As President James Monroe noted his inaugural address, [it is] gratifying to witness the increased harmony of opinion which pervades our Union. Discord does not belong to our system…. The American people have encountered together great dangers and sustained severe trials with success. They constitute one great family with a common interest.”[1] 
Martin Van Buren (Image Source)

Yet as the 1800s rolled forward it became clear that the old system of disinterested, aristocratic, and above all else, non partisan politics could not last. America was in the midst of a global growth revolution, and the masses it empowered would find their way to power one way or another – if not through mass political participation, then
through revolution. [2] Thankfully, America opted for the former. The architect of what was to become the new political system was a small and clever man named Martin Van Buren. 

Mr. Van Buren honed his organizational skills as an aspiring politician in 1820s New York. His political machine was designed to break up the strangle hold the aristocratic Clinton clan had on New York politics by bringing the power of the masses to the fore. He armed his popular party with professional canvassers, campaign managersward committees, and party newspapers, soon winning elections because of it. The political theory behind this approach grew with its electoral success. As Mr. Van Buren saw it, the ‘republican virtue’ that prevented American statesmen from officially banding together was a thin disguise for very real, active, and often corrupt patronage networks. 

In place of two great parties arrayed against each other  in a fair and open contest for establishment of principles in the administration of Government which they respectively believed the most conducive to the public interest, the country was overrun with personal factions. These having few higher motives for the selection of their candidates or stronger incentives to action than individual preference or antipathies, moved the bitter waters of political agitation to their lowest depths.[3]

Replacing this political system of ‘bitter waters’ with cohesive political parties held together on ideological lines would make American politics what it should be: a contest that put issues before individuals and allowed the American public to choose between policies and platforms instead of personalities or patronage. 

This philosophy served Mr. Van Buren well in New York, but he had a more difficult time replicating its success on the national stage. The problem was that Mr. Van Buren’s new national coalition could not succeed electorally without the support of the Southern states – dominated then by the very gentry Mr. Van Buren’s system was designed to upstage. Knowing his political theory flew in the face of their republican sensibilities, Van Buren tried a different tack.  
A few years before Mr. Van Buren hit the national scene the young Republic was challenged with immense political shock. The dispute arose over the vast tracts of new land American frontiersmen were claiming from the wilderness; the dividing issue was slavery. The matter was brought before congress: should the institution of slavery be allowed to expand into the new states and territories? The explosion of emotions and outrage that followed shocked observers. Between Southern declarations like “[this debate] has kindled a fire which the ocean cannot put out, which only seas of blood can extinguish!”  and the Northern replies that followed (if a dissolution of the Union must take place, let it be so! If civil war, which gentlemen so much threaten, must come, then let it come!“) it became clear that Americans of the North and South had two fundamentally different views of American democracy, and that these perspectives were not reconcilable. [4]  Congressional leaders managed to quench the ferocious fire unleashed upon the Union with a compromise that few really liked, but settled for out of fear of what would happen if they did not. Slavery was the greatest tyranny ever sanctioned on American soil, and was quite clearly the greatest divide – in terms of demographics, economics, or values –  to be found in the young Republic. It seemed that this would be the issue that was to define the times. 
But it did not have to beargued Mr. Van Buren. A national political party could save the Union from tearing itself apart. As he wrote to Mr. Thomas Ritchie, informal leader of Richmond Junto“, Virginia’s most influential aristocratic bloc: 
 “Political combinations between the inhabitants of the different states are unavoidable and the most natural and beneficial to the country is that between the planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the North…. If [party identities] are suppressed, geographical divisions founded on local interests, or what is worse prejudices between free and slave holding states will inevitably take their place. Party attachment in former times furnished a complete antidote for sectional prejudices by producing counteracting feelings. It was not until that defense had been broken down that the clamour against Southern Influence and African Slavery could be made effectual in the North . . . . Formerly, attacks upon Southern Republicans were regarded by those in the North as assaults upon their political brethren and resented accordingly. This all powerful sympathy . . . can and ought to be revived.”[5]  
 Mr. Van Buren recognized that disputes over slavery were the natural outcome of America’s greatest  ideological and material divide, but there were other, less sectional issues available for debate. The republic was undergoing the most dramatic social and economic changes in her history and there was no unity of opinion on how a republican society should respond to this new world. That is what congressional orators and sharp tongued editors could argue about without fear of tearing the Union apart. 
The southerners, whose guilty consciences were pricked and morbid fear of slave revolts were aroused anytime abolitionist sentiment was expressed on the national stage, understood his point.[ 6] Moreover, they agreed that without Mr. Van Buren’s highly organized, popular party structure economic ideals alone would not be enough to hold a coalition together. And so began the first popular party system in American history. Mr. Van Buren and his friends were to call themselves the Democratic Republicans, or Democrats. Their opponents – who took a bit longer to coalesce into an organized and united front – named themselves Whigs.   

The next 30 years were a spectacular display of American mass democracy. With oratorical flourish that makes modern politicians sound like grade school kids, Whigs and Democrats debated tariffs and toll roads, national banks and international trade, manifest destiny and civic virtue. But never slavery. Slavery was the elephant in the room that all refused to address. The refusal’s most infamous expression was the congressional ‘gag rule’ that prohibited abolitionist petitions from being heard by the House of Representatives. With the gag rule in place the years passed on; national problems were debated, crises were resolved, and declarations of political theory were pronounced without ever addressing the great national contradiction to the young Republic’s claims it was the land of justice and liberty. The problem was ignored until it could be ignored no longer, the number of men and women living in bondage increasing to 4,000,000 before the issue was resolved. Its resolution came at the cost of 750,000 American lives. [7] 
Today the greatest structural flaw of the American Republic is not slavery, but a rentier elite that dominates the upper echelons of American society. It is a socially cohesive bloc that has repeatedly resisted all efforts to keep America’s leadership democratically accountable, financially liable, or open to the ranks of the legions below, who are often viewed with a paternalistic disdain. [8] The wealth and power of this group is simply on a different scale than that available to the average American citizen. The gap is only growing larger.  
And no politician is talking about it.  
As in the antebellum, today’s hyperpartisanship has its uses. The issues are real enough, and the cultural divide between each party’s demographic “base” is wide.  Politicians take advantage of this with over-the-top rhetoric, turning all issues into a cultural crusade against the radicalism of the progressive left or the bigotry of entrenched conservatism. The accuracy of these attacks is unimportant. The antebellum party system allowed Southerners to define themselves as ‘Whigs’ or ‘Democrats’ instead of ‘slavers’. The current system serves its purpose just as well, allowing plutarchs to define themselves not in terms of power or privilege, but as part of a culturally cohesive group that represents ‘real’ America. With partisan issues taking the fore, politicians, lobbyists, and corporate big wigs  can plunder the American economy and strip American citizens of their liberties in a decidedly bipartisan fashion. [9] And thus the greatest structural faultline in America’s body-politic and the most dangerous challenge to the integrity of her republican institutions and the liberties of her citizenry continues onward without public comment. And all of this without a gag rule. 
If the comparison of the antebellum Republic’s political regime with its ailing modern descendent seems a bit chilling – well, it is. The last time America’s sins broke through the partisan politics designed to hide them  the result was the most destructive war of her history. It is an ominous precedent.   

[1] James Monroe, “First Inaugural Address.” 4 March 1817. par 19. (link) Perhaps this reflected President Monroe’s desires more than it did the realities of his inauguration day. It was, however, a major policy objectives of his administration, and it is difficult to argue that his strategy to reduce overt partisanship (see this letter to Andrew Jackson) was unsuccessful.

 [2] I detailed some of the ‘revolutionary’ changes of the growth revolution in “The Dynamics of Human Civilization: Notes on the Growth Revolution, pt 1“. The Scholars Stage. 4 August 2010. 

As the growth revolution rolled forward mass political movements become more and more common, usually revolutionary in character. In many ways, the popular political parties of the antebellum were the ‘republican’ answer to this challenge. See Harry Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. 2nd ed. (New York: Hill and Wang ) 2002. pg. 17-41 and more broadly, Lawrence Frederick Kohl, The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era. (New York: Oxford University Press). 1989.

 [3] Martin Van Buren. Inquiry into the Origin and Course of the Political Parties of the United States. ed. Abraham Van Buren. (New York: Hurd and Houghton). 1869. chap 1, par 4. (link) H/T to Watson, Liberty and Power, p. 68-69.

 [4] The first quote is Representative James Tallmadge of New York; the second is Representative Thomas Cobb of Georgia. Both quotations taken from Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 2007. p. 148.

 [5] Martin Van Buren to Thomas Ritchie Washington. 13 January 1827. [link] Emphasis added. H/T to Watson, p. 88.

 [6] Slavers were deeply troubled with both guilt they felt for becoming wealthy off of a system of institutionalized tyranny and the fear that disturbance in the application of said tyranny might lead to insurrection. These feelings of guilt and fear were at the root of Southern society’s fanatical reaction to even mildly abolitionist rhetoric and the draconian measures they took to stifle public discussion of the issue. See William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836. (New York: Oxford University Press). 1965. pp. 11, 49-52, 64-72. 

 This is another facet of the antebellum politics that offers telling parallels with the present political order.

 [7] The statistics come from Jenny B. Wahl, “Slavery in the United States” EH Net. (Economic History Association. ) 2 June 2010. and Guy Gugliotta, “Civil War Toll Up By 20% In New Estimates.” New York Times. 2 April 2012.

 [8] See T. Greer “America’s Greatest Challenge – and Danger.” The Scholar’s Stage. 16 January 2010. While this crisis is rarely touched upon by mainstream politicos, the challenge has been detailed by perceptive observers of various political stripes.

 A short list worth perusing: Walter Russel Meade, “Establishment Blues” Via Media. 12 May 2011; Charles Murray, “Coming Apart: The New American DivideWall Street Journal. 21 January 2012; Mark Safranski, “Guns and the New Paternalism” 27 December 2012; Bill Myers, Matt Taibi, and Chrystia Freeland, “The Plutocracy Will Go To Extremes to Keep the 1% in Control” 19 October 2012;  Angela M. Codevilla, “America’s Ruling Class — And The Perils of RevolutionAmerican Spectator. July-August 2010.

Notable book length studies include: Christopher Lasch. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co). 1995; Glenn Greenwald. Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. (New York: Metropolitan Books). 2011; Sheldon S. Wolden. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and Inverted Totalitarianism. (Princeton: Princeton University Press). 2010.

Chrystia Freeland, Charles Murray, and Anegela Codevilla have also written books along the themes presented in their articles above.

 [9] The PATRIOT Act and the various federal ‘Bail Outs’ bills are the most obvious and egregious examples of this type, but the 112th Congress has given us plenty of other opportunities to see Congressional bipartisanship at its worst.

 For example: Hr347 “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011” (Analysis: Mark Safranski, “The Era of the Creepy State is Here” 6. March 2012.)

 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (Analysis: Glenn Greenwald. “Obama to Sign Indefinite Detention Bill Into Law.” Salon. 15 December 2011).

 “Fiscal Cliff Bill” (Analysis: Timothy P Carney, “How Corporate Tax Breaks Got Inside the Fiscal Cliff Deal” The Washington Examiner. 2 January 2013. and Timothy P. Carney, “Tax Hikes on the Rich to Pay For Corporate WelfareWashington Examiner. 9 January 2012.)

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Great article. The next time someone feeds me the "lesser of two evils" line, I'll refer them to this essay.

Seconded. I know little of US history before 1900, and assumed the that 2-party power structure was permanent. Your description of 1800-Van Buren sounds like a battleground of essentially small-time political warlords in shifting alliances. In this light, Van Buren was a Bismarck or Tokugawa-like figure, rolling up the small-timers into juggernauts.

A two-party system has proved the most durable in America's history. There are only a few times when she has not been so divided.

George Washington was elected to the Presidency with a unanimous vote. By his second term, however, his policies had garnered some criticism. Washington hated political parties (one of the central messages of his farewell address is that Americans should never have parties) but the folks w(John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, and others)who followed in his footsteps did not detest them quite so much, and ended up acting together as group that was later called the Federalists. The Federalists prime opposition, led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, called themselves Republicans.

Historians call this the "1st Party system." It lasted for less than two decades; at this point the Federalists had been completely marginalized and everybody called themselves a Republican. This was the point in which Martin Van Buren entered the scene, calling his group the Democratic-Republicans, later to just become the Democrats.

The party system he helped create (the one this post focuses on) is called the "Second American Party System." It was eventually torn apart by slavery, and the Whigs could not keep a national coalition together. There was a good two elections or so where it was just the Democrats and a few other smaller parties against it. The most successful of these was the Republican Party, whose great enemy was slavery. Their first President was Abraham Lincoln. The cost of this victory was war. After the Civil War the contest was between Democrats and Republicans, and has remained so to this day. This is called the "Third Party System."

So out of the 200+ years of American history, the Republic has seen less than 30 without a strong two party structure.

A question is being overlooked here. The Republican-Democrats tried to dodge the issue of slavery for fear the debate would exaserbate(sp?) geographic faultlines. Where are the geographic faultlines in the plutocracy debate? Or are the faultlines elsewhere?

@Michael – . In 1830 the biggest divide was geographic. In 2013 the biggest divide is class. Those up top and those below. Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1965-2010 is a good look at how great the divide is and how artificial appeals to "real America" by politicians are.