The Man of the People: Part III - Birth of the National Party System

The Man of the People: Part III - Birth of the National Party System

By Scott Lipkowitz

  On February 4, 1789 the system of presidential selection set up by the Constitution's electoral college would pass from the realm of political hypothesis into the realm of cold, hard reality. On that day, electors from ten states (Rhode Island and North Carolina had not yet ratified the Constitution; New York failed to select electors) cast their votes for President. To no-one's surprise, George Washington was unanimously elected. It appeared that the system designed to create harmony among the thirteen individual states was going to be a success. The election saw no campaigning, no electioneering, and perhaps most importantly, no political parties. This too was no surprise. The government was new, its initial success demanded unity, and Washington was a trusted and venerated popular figure. The office of the President was also new; still an idea on parchment lacking the breath of life which only the office's occupant could endow it with. All of this was on Washington's mind as he prepared to take the oath of office. He understood, and rightly so, that any action he took while in office would set a precedent for all future presidents. In his first inaugural, Washington acknowledged the fragile peace created by the Constitution, which held back the regional, political, and economic factions stewing beneath the surface. Addressing the assembled members of Congress, Washington reminded them of his confidence that they would "carefully avoid every alteration which might endanger the benefits of an United and effective Government." He then went on to define his role as President in the same manner which the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had envisioned - a disinterested executive, faithfully executing the laws enacted by the 'people's legislature.' Even though the Constitution "made the duty of the President 'to recommend to [Congress'] consideration, such measures as he shall judge necessary and proper'; Washington believed that his position as the first chief executive, "[would] acquit [him] from entering into that subject." The Constitution, and not a single individual, "designates the objects to which [Congress'] attention is to be given."  Washington sought to be a unifying figure, and to do so by rejecting any concentration of power in his hands. Unity, and presidential timidity, however, would prove short lived. 

  Three key factors ensured the inevitability of a breakdown: renewed regional animosity, the rise of political parties, and Washington himself. Once the shine had worn off, the actual details of governing soon renewed inter-state animosities. Divisions which had existed prior to the Constitution's creation and adoption still remained. Hamilton and Madison, once united by their support for the new federal government and their abhorrence of the dangers of factions, would eventually come to lead opposing political parties; becoming bitter rivals in the process. Conflict between merchants and farmers, Anglophiles and Francophiles, debtors and creditors, and between those who favored a strong interpretation of the Constitution (the Federalists) and those who favored a weak one (the Democratic-Republicans), ensured that strife, and not unity, would be the guiding principle of the day. All of this would spill over into the realm of Presidential elections, and would be exacerbated by the third factor, Washington.

  Washington's influence over all future Presidential elections was two fold. First, Washington's national appeal was a singular occurrence. Those such as Roger Sherman, who argued at the Constitutional Convention that there were few, if any, national figures behind whom the nation as a whole could rally, were not wrong. Once Washington had exited the scene, very few individuals, even among the revolutionary generation, had the reputation and public profile necessary to secure a majority of electoral votes. A fact which meant that, according to the Constitution, Presidential elections would inevitably be decided in the House of Representatives. This, as you will recall, was initially favored by many of the founders; but it also carried with it a high potential for graft, corruption, and tyranny. The other way in which Washington would influence subsequent elections was more subtle. While Washington initially tried to act only as an executive, and nothing more, circumstances would eventually thrust him, and the presidency, to the fore. Carrying out the law evenly across the whole of the nation required the creation of an executive apparatus with its fingers in every state; creating the very "trail of dependents" which George Mason felt would lead to corruption. Washington, at Hamilton's insistence, helped create the Bank of the United States, and with it the Department of the Treasury; expanding the executive's reach into the financial sector. To avoid a second conflict with Britain - who at the time was at war with the French Republic - Washington negotiated the Jay Treaty in 1794; but rather than simply submitting it for Senatorial approval, or disapproval, Washington insisted that the Senate ratify. Gone was the Washington who did not deign to set a course for the country; here was a President using the power of his office to influence national policy. All of this added up to a slow but steady accumulation of power in the office of the President, an increase which has continued to this day, and which has helped to transform the presidential election process into a fiercely contested exercise. 

  Washington would step down after serving two terms, retiring from public life in 1796. The subsequent election seemed to be as straightforward as the previous two. John Adams, the Federalist candidate and Washington's Vice President, succeeded him in the executive office. Though it was close, a majority of electoral votes had gone to Adams in another seeming victory for the electoral college system. However, there are two important factors of the 1796 election which should be noted because they will have disastrous consequences for the election of 1800. At the time, there was no separate election for Vice-President; whoever came in second in the vote count was appointed to the job. This would result in Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, being appointed as Adams' Vice-President. More importantly, the election of 1796 was the first presidential election to involve "parties." I say "parties" because they were not really parties in the modern sense. There was no national apparatus or party machinery as there is today. Electioneering - the process of mobilizing voters and ensuring their votes - was done via surrogates at the local level, shilling for their candidate. Newspapers were one avenue through which this was done; but even they were a relatively new outlet for politics on the national stage. Candidates did not campaign throughout the states; the pitfalls of 18th century travel being among the many reasons why they chose not to. Perhaps most importantly, the members of these "parties" were only loosely held together by ideology. More often than not they were driven by state allegiances, regional concerns, or personal economic situations than by any sense of loyalty to a national organization. Caucuses held by the two major political "parties" were not the stage managed displays of unity that party conventions are today. They were intended solely as a way to put forth potential presidential candidates, not to solidify party support for a single individual. It must also be stressed that the United States and its Constitution were still new, its political union still fragile, and the potential for its complete collapse very real; all of which permeated the politics of the day; greatly influencing individual political leanings.

  By 1800, these realities would take a heavy toll on the presidential electoral process; ultimately placing the election's outcome upon the shifting loyalty of a single Delaware Representative. Four candidates were put forth: incumbent President John Adams and South Carolinian Charles Cotesworth Pinckney for the Federalists, and Virginian Thomas Jefferson and New Yorker Aaron Burr for the Democratic-Republicans. Infighting between Adams and his fellow Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton helped to ensure a poor showing for the Federalist ticket, with both Adams and Pinckney failing to receive a majority of the electoral vote. Neither of their opponents, however, fared much better: both Jefferson and Burr each received 73 votes. According to Article II, Section I of the Constitution, the event of a tie immediately turned the election over to a decision in the House, where each state delegation would cast one vote. Deal making and strategic calculus would now determine who would hold the executive office. Six days and thirty-six ballots later, Thomas Jefferson was named the President; but only after a Federalist, James Bayard of Delaware, jettisoned any notions of party loyalty, and instead voted in the interest of his home state. 

  Bayard was the lone Delaware Representative, and as such was responsible for the state's one vote. He shared the North's sectional animosity towards the South, and considered himself an ardent Federalist; but the deadlock in the House touched a nerve with his identity as a citizen of Delaware. Delaware was a small state with few economic resources of its own. The federal government ensured its independent existence, and kept it safe from the economic tyranny it had previously suffered at the hands of larger states such as Virginia. However, Bayard's party, the Federalists, who at the time controlled the House, were divided over the possibility of handing power to Jefferson, the leader of their political opposition. To Bayard, Federalist resistance to confirming Jefferson as President threatened the very existence of the federal government. "Representing the smallest State in the Union without resources which could furnish the means of self protection" Bayard would later explain,  "I was compelled by the obligation of a sacred duty so to act as not to hazard the constitution upon which the political existence of the State depends." Ultimately, the election was decided by one man, whose fear for his home state trumped his party affiliation. While this may have been good for the continued existence of the nation as a whole, and for Delaware, it did not seem a very reliable or stable way in which to decide who should wield the power of the presidency. Thanks to the one state, one vote rule of the Constitution, the single member of Delaware's delegation wielded as much power as the larger delegations from New York and Virginia. Perhaps most troubling, from the perspective of those who had debated the dangers of giving Congress any say in the matter, Bayard, had he been a more ambitious man, might have tried to extort favor or patronage from either Jefferson or his Congressional colleagues in return for his vote.

  In the end, the election of 1800 was hailed as a triumph of republican virtues - one party had peacefully handed over power to its rivals - but in reality, it had exposed the instability and uncertainty inherent in the electoral college system. Congress believed they had a fix. In 1804, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, altering the language of Article II, Section I, providing a separate vote for the Vice-President. Electors in 1800 were torn between their desire to have either Jefferson or Burr serve as President; if a separate vote for Vice-President delineated which candidate was supposed to be considered for which office, a future tie might be avoided. The Twelfth Amendment would also alter the number of candidates whom Congress could consider in the event that they were once again required to decide. Instead of the top five, as was originally stated in the Constitution, the Twelfth Amendment narrowed the field down to the top three; a point which would not have helped in the case of the election of 1800; but which would have consequences in the future. Ultimately, while it meant well, this patch to the system did little to fix the ultimate cause of the 1800 debacle: Congress would still decide in the event that no one candidate received a majority of electoral votes - starting the clock yet again on a countdown to electoral strife. 

  That countdown would run out during the election of 1824. By that time, fear of the union's eminent dissolution had somewhat diminished; but regional and state animosities were as alive and well as they had always been. Jefferson and his successors - James Madison and James Monroe - had continued to increase the power, authority, and reach of the Presidency. Several mid-western territories, each with their own political baggage had been admitted as new states; and in the aftermath of 1800, the Federalists, lacking any real national unity, had faded out of existence. For all intents and purposes, the United States was under the one party rule of the Democratic-Republicans. One would imagine that with only one party, unanimity would be easy to obtain for a single presidential candidate; but one would be mistaken. All of the limitations on the definition of a national "party" still remained; and while outwardly the political classes presented a united front of republicanism, the unavoidable factional divisions still seethed beneath the surface. The 1824 election made this all too apparent. Instead of fielding one candidate, who presumably would be guaranteed an electoral victory, the Democratic Republicans instead fielded four major contenders: John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, Henry Clay of Kentucky, William Crawford of Georgia, and Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. 

  Jackson was a war hero of the 1812-14 conflict with the British, and had served as governor of the Florida territory, as a representative in the House, and in 1824, served as a U.S. Senator. Crawford, an ardent proponent of states' rights, and fearful of the federal government, had none-the-less served as Treasury Secretary under President Monroe. The Georgian was of ill health in 1824, but insisted on standing as a presidential candidate. John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was without a doubt the most qualified of the candidates. Adams was a principle architect of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the War of 1812, served as U.S. minister to Russia, and played a substantial role in the creation of the Monroe Doctrine as President Monroe's Secretary of State. Lastly, Henry Clay served as Speaker of the House; a position which meant that he could potentially play the role of king-maker; crowning himself even, if circumstances called for it. 

  When the polls closed and electors were chosen - in six states, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, South Carolina, and Vermont, they were appointed by the state legislatures - Andrew Jackson came out on top; receiving 152,901 popular votes and 99 electoral votes. (Remember, only the electoral votes count; popular votes determine who the electors will be. A majority of the popular vote does not guarantee a candidate overall victory.) Despite this impressive showing, Jackson failed to receive the Constitutionally required majority of electoral votes needed to secure the presidency. Though he had soundly defeated his opponents - Adams received 84 electoral votes, Crawford 41, and Clay 37 - it was still not enough. Crucially, Clay's poor performance ruled him out from consideration in the ensuing House vote - he failed to make the top 3- but his position as Speaker would still provide him with some degree of influence over the proceedings. Months of lobbying followed. Supporters of each of the three candidates attempted to make deals and to secure the support of state delegations. Clay publicly threw his weight behind Adams - his dislike for Jackson certainly playing a role - and eventually helped to broker an alliance between mid-western and northern states to hand Adams the presidency, which they did, by a 13 to 7 vote, on February 9, 1825. Rumors implying that Clay and Adams had struck a secret bargain seemed to be confirmed when Adams appointed Clay as his Secretary of State. In response, Jackson described Clay as "the Judas of the West"; decrying his apparent disregard for both the will of the people and the electors. 

  Twice in the less than 50 year history of the United States, the President had been selected by Congress. In each instance the entire Constitutional system had teetered precariously on the edge of corruption. The twelfth amendment, which purported to solve the problem, clearly failed to do so. Three solutions - to a modern observer at least - would seem to be available to those, like Jackson and his supporters, who saw these issues as a roadblock on their path to the presidency: further Constitutional Amendments, abolition of the electoral college, or the creation of a true national party organization. Further amendments and the abolition of the electoral college were not viable options. More amendments would take time and political capital, not optimal for someone who wanted to secure the presidency now. Nor would they guarantee a water-tight fix. Abolishing the electoral college in favor of popular vote certainly would have given Jackson a victory, but the issue of large vs. small states would once again become an issue, making any change politically impossible. All that remained then was the formation of a truly national party apparatus of the kind which Elbridge Gerry fearfully warned against in 1787; and it is precisely what Jackson and his supporters - most notably Martin Van Buren - would create. 

  Van Buren, a native of New York, had spent a career deftly maneuvering through the tense Democratic-Republican landscape, organizing and unifying a portion of the party's state apparatus; turning it into a veritable political machine, called by his detractors the "Albany Regency." The same infighting and factional divisions which characterized the national political arena also characterized New York state during Van Buren's rise to power in the early 1800s. He saw the bickering among the members of the Democratic-Republicans as a guarantee of Federalist supremacy over the state government - even though the Federalists were just as divided - and believed that only by fostering loyalty to the party and its principles could the Democratic-Republicans effectively compete for state offices. By 1821, Van Buren's efforts at unification and party loyalty had paid off, and he was able to wrest control of the Democratic-Republicans from his primary opponent, DeWitt Clinton. That same year, sitting atop a state wide political machine, Van Buren would be elected, by the members of the NY state legislature, to the U.S. Senate. When the 1824 election descended into political bickering and intra-party conflict, Van Buren saw the opportunity to bring his ability for creating organizational unity and allegiance to the national stage. 

  Of course the unity which Van Buren intended to create was not the same kind of unity envisioned by the Constitution and its Electoral College system. As in New York, Van Buren sought to create loyalty to the party and its ideals; not to engender notions of allegiance to the United States as a whole, or to republican principles of government. Reality consistently indicated that the latter two were not possible; nor were they necessary to achieving the ultimate goal - putting Jackson in the White House. If the example of New York could be broadened to encompass the nation as a whole; Jackson and his supporters would hold a significant advantage over their still fractious opponents. Party loyalty was the key. Only when voters, electors, and party officials viewed themselves as members of the party first, and as Virginians, merchants, farmers, or laborers second, could the animosity which divided them be bridged.

  Building allegiance to the party as a stand alone entity was only a piece of the puzzle. Finding a way to build national consensus around a single candidate before the electoral process began was the other. To do this the Democrats would follow the lead of the Anti-Mason Party and, in 1832,  hold a convention. This convention would nominate Andrew Jackson to serve for a second term and nominate Van Buren to serve as Vice-President (he had already previously served as Jackson's Secretary of State -  a great bit of patronage if ever there was one); but it's true significance was that it rallied and solidified support for those candidates prior to the election. This meant that instead of candidates being put forth and then coalitions built around them after the fact - as was the case in previous elections - all of the haggling, deal making, and infighting were done before a single electoral vote was cast; the end result of which was consensus and support for a single candidate and his running mate. A united national party significantly reduced the chances of an electoral stalemate and the possibility that Congress would once again decide the winner; which in fact has not happened since 1824. Coupled with Jackson's novel approach of nation-wide campaigning, it seemed that the national party system was indeed the method through which securing the presidency could be reliably accomplished without the need for further constitutional revision. Over the following decades, conventions would become the norm for all of the major political parties, with state parties holding conventions to nominate delegates to the national conventions; and party platforms - agreed upon sets of beliefs or policies which party members were supposed to adhere to - becoming the norm in the 1840s.

  The crisis surrounding the Electoral College seemed to have been overcome. With candidates chosen in the lead up to the election, and a unified national machine to back them, the dangers of Congressional decision would theoretically fade into the background. Lone representatives would not be in a position to determine the national leader; and would-be presidential candidates would not be able to broker deals advantageous to their personal ambitions. Candidates would enjoy the broad national support only Washington had previously achieved; and in the end, the 'will of the people' would be placed firmly back on top of the political process. Certainly the former was true; but was the latter? Did Van Buren, Jackson, and all of those who followed their lead, create a national party system to safeguard the will of the people? I would argue that they did not. Van Buren saw a problem, identified the causes, and then created a solution which involved no alteration of law or of constitutional principle.  He simply found a way to beat the system and achieve his desired result: the attainment of political power. While the parties certainly want the electorate to believe that they are the guardians of republicanism and inseparable from the government and its institutions, this could not be further from the truth. Political parties are not required by the Constitution, and were actively opposed by its framers in page after page of both Federalist and Anti-Federalist writings. Once the presidency became a center of national power, it became an object coveted by those with lofty aspirations. Organized national parties were a result of those aspirations, not of the desire to ensure that the choice of President was retained by the people. This is why, throughout the remainder of the 19th century, party conventions remained decidedly undemocratic. The average voter or even party member was not given a say in who the party's nominee for president would be. Party officials determined the candidates behind the convention's closed doors - a candidate's potential to win being the party's only concern. Not until the beginning of the 20th century would any movement to open up the party convention system to the popular will gain any traction; and even then, the power of the party machine would prove hard to overcome.



Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Harvard University Press. 1992.

Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution (Inventing the American Constitution). Mariner Books. 2002.

The United States Constitution.1787.

Election of 1800: Electoral College Results.

Freeman, Joanne B. The Presidential Election of 1800: A Story of Crisis, Controversy, and Change.

Amendment XII. Election of President and Vice President.

Lengel, Edward G. Adams v. Jackson: The Election of 1824.

Remini, Robert V. The Life of Andrew Jackson. Harper & Row. 1988.

Martin Van Buren: Life before the Presidency. Miller Center.

Shafer, Byron E. Bifurcated Politics, Evolution and Reform in the National Party Convention. Harvard University Press. 1988.

The Man of the People: Part IV - Bull Moose vs. The Machine

The Man of the People: Part IV - Bull Moose vs. The Machine

The Man of the People: Part II - Electors of Electors

The Man of the People: Part II - Electors of Electors