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Party of the People: A History of the Democratsby Jules Witcover
AN UNWANTED PREGNANCY, 1775-1792
THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY of the United States, the oldest existing in the world, was in a sense an illegitimate child, unwanted by the founding fathers of the American Republic. They had no intention of bringing about the birth of any such institution, and in fact the first president, George Washington, warned darkly against the conception of any political parties.
The American colonies had managed without them through their early political struggle for independence from the British, and in their first efforts to create governing mechanisms of their own in the newly declared independent states. The Continental Congress came and went without party structure, and the Articles of Confederation offered no provision for parties. They were widely regarded as hostile to the pursuit of a harmonious society and were seen as the agents of all manner of special interests. Thomas Jefferson once famously observed: "If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all."
This attitude was not surprising in a young nation that was being shaped out of a European tradition that had also essentially shunned political parties-organizations created to embrace and advance common positions across a broad range of public matters. Rather, it had been the practice for like-minded individuals to come together temporarily to advance specific, narrow interests and to disband upon the success or failure of such alliances. They were usually called "factions" or "interests," never "parties." Americans of the time were conditioned less by internal political differences than by their opposition to the British crown that led to the American Revolution.
When independence was won, their most prominent political figures, largely patrician members of the landed and commercial gentry, found themselves engaged together in the heady and positive task of building a new government. Washington, the military hero of the Revolution, stood above politics and was universally recognized as the new nation's unifying figure.
But the fierce competition of ideas between two other brilliant men-Alexander Hamilton, the dashing, stylish aristocrat bent on shaping a national government of privilege based on the British model, and Jefferson, the unpretentious defender of the pioneer spirit determined to establish an unprecedented representative democracy-was at the core of the series of events that eventually led to the existence of parties and, ultimately, the Democratic Party of today. Many other men were involved in the fight, most notably James Madison, principal architect of the Constitution, as the chief ally of Jefferson. But in essence it boiled down to whether Hamilton or Jefferson would have his way.
Hamilton had a colorful if questionable pedigree. Derided by John Adams in his autobiography as "the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar," Hamilton was born in 1755 on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean West Indies. His mother was a brilliant and attractive French Huguenot who recognized his talent as a writer as well as his industry and ambition. Sent to America at age fifteen to be educated, he attended King's College (later Columbia), fought in the Revolution, became an aide to Washington and a literary celebrity who gained entry into the world of aristocracy, of which he became an outspoken protagonist.
He was short and slender, with reddish hair on a large head of fair complexion. Historian Claude G. Bowers described him as "graceful and debonair, elegant and courtly, seductive and ingratiating, playful or impassioned, he could have fitted into the picture at the Versailles of Louis XV." But he also was, Bowers wrote, a vain egotist "singularly lacking in tact, offensively opinionated, impatient and often insulting to well-meaning mediocrity, and dictatorial. He did not consult-he directed. He did not conciliate-he commanded. . . . He was a failure in the management of men, and only his superior genius made it possible for him to dominate so long."
Jefferson was a contrast to Hamilton in heritage as well as political creed. Born in 1743, his mother was a Randolph, an aristocrat, but his father was a middle-class farmer in frontier Virginia, and the son preferred to dwell on that lineage. Dismissively, he observed of his mother's family that it traced its "pedigree far back in England and Scotland, to which let everyone ascribe the faith and merit he chooses." He started school with backwoods classmates, but adjusted easily to the aristocratic ways of the College of William and Mary, while still adhering to his frontier roots.
William E. Dodd, in Statesmen of the Old South, observed that it was not difficult "to see how the great principle of Jefferson's life-absolute faith in democracy-came to him. He was the product of the first West in American history; he grew up with men who ruled their country well, who fought the Indians valiantly. . . . Jefferson loved his backwoods neighbors and he, in turn, was loved by them."
Jefferson was also a far cry from Hamilton, his junior by twelve years, in appearance, manner and style. He was tall and slender, with red hair tied in back, a man who, in Bowers's description, "dressed conventionally, because men must, and was careless of his attire." He had a look, Bowers wrote, "more of benevolence than force, more of subtlety than pugnacity. Nor, in that day of lace and frills, was there anything in his garb to
proclaim him of the élite. . . . His tact was proverbial. He never sought to
overshadow or overawe. . . . Considerate of his foes, he never hurt the sensibilities of his friends through offensive methods."
Hamilton and Jefferson led the principal factions based on regional interests from which a party system would emerge. Although the party of Jefferson was not the first created-the short-lived Federalists of Hamilton preceded it-it would prove to be the most enduring. By the twenty-first century, it had survived with modifications for more than two hundred years, an existence unmatched anywhere in the world. In chronicling the birth and development of today's Democratic Party, however, it is essential at the outset to review the early dominance of the Federalist faction, opposition to which by Jefferson, Madison and others midwifed their new party and gave it its purpose and direction.
Long before the American Revolution, societal forces in the colonies had foreshadowed the existence of a two-party system. The earliest settlers in the piedmont locale of Virginia and other Eastern seaboard regions had established themselves not only in agriculture but also in commerce and trade, and took leading roles in what self-governing existed. Planters of tobacco were among the aristocrats of the time, tied closely to British tradition and lifestyle. Later arrivals, from Maine to Georgia, were obliged to move westward for land and a more primitive agrarian life, and were known-often disparagingly in the East-as backwoodsmen. In colonial affairs, they were underrepresented and overtaxed, more susceptible to Indian attacks and, saddled with debt, resentful of their more comfortable brethren often living in more favorable conditions under the Crown.
At first, these settlers of the Western regions were heavily Scotch-Irish who bought or squatted on land of Eastern speculators. They were practitioners of various Protestant religious sects outside the Congregational Church in New England and the Episcopal in the South, but often were taxed to support them, adding to their resentment of the older settlements of the East. The Scotch-Irish focused particularly on Pennsylvania. William Penn's secretary, James Logan, wrote in 1729 that "it looks as if Ireland is to send all its inhabitants hither, for last week not less than six ships arrived, and every day two or three arrive also."
Soon German immigrants were also moving west and south into Maryland, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Their commitment to the soil, and local life, and their hostility toward the aristocrats of business and commerce in the Eastern towns, made them natural recruits against any centralized government in the colonies, be it British or colonial.
A hundred years before Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, some Virginia backwoodsmen fell in behind Nathaniel Bacon, the owner of a frontier plantation ravaged by Indians, and rebelled against Virginia's royal governor, Sir William Berkeley, an exploiter of the Indian fur trade. The so-called Bacon's Rebellion produced more protection and forced some social reforms, but when Bacon died the rebels paid for their behavior at the hands of vengeful piedmonters. The clash between the established settlers and the frontiersmen, between the men of commerce and farmers, in many cases between the wellborn and well-educated and the toilers of the soil, was a forerunner of the eventual factional struggle that was played out in the writing of the Constitution, and in the subsequent evolution of bona fide political parties.
Before that could happen, however, the oppression of both segments of the early American society by the British brought them together in the fight for independence. For the six years of the Revolutionary War, 1775-81, men of the seaboard and of the frontier joined forces against the foreign power that increasingly taxed them, intruded on their trade and on their liberties, until independence created the conditions wherein the old domestic factionalism inevitably reemerged.
A leading early defender of the backwoodsmen in that competition was William Findley of western Pennsylvania, a Scotch-Irish settler who challenged establishment in his state of the first Bank of North America in 1782, on grounds it benefited only the wealthy propertied class. A group of "Constitutionalists" gained control of the Pennsylvania assembly and threw out the bank. Similar clashes in other states heightened the interest of the propertied classes in establishing a national government that could check development in the states deleterious to them. The Articles of Confederation ratified in 1781 and the Continental Congress it created had proved in their eyes to be inadequate to the task, and pressure built for a stronger political framework among the states.
At the time, the new nation had a population of only about 5 million, of which nearly one person in five was black and in slavery. The bulk of all these new Americans lived along or near the Atlantic seaboard, overwhelmingly in rural towns and villages. The largest city was Philadelphia, with about 70,000 inhabitants, with New York next with 60,000 and Boston third with 25,000. Farming and shipping, over woeful roads, were the main occupations, and manufacturing was a minor undertaking. Schools were run by churches or the aristocracy, which also dominated politics.
In the 1780s, the Federalists (sometimes called the Nationalists) were the leading faction behind Hamilton, a patriot who nevertheless had a strong residual admiration for all things British, and John Adams of Mas-sachusetts, a bald, portly, vain man of high temper twenty years his senior. The brilliance of Hamilton's mind and cunning compensated for the difference in age in establishing his dominance over Adams in the faction. The Federalists were propertied gentlemen of business and trade from seaboard New England, New York and other Eastern states, along with large landowners, all advocating a strong national government that would defend the caste system. Many had been officers in the Revolutionary army.
The Federalists were what the name implied-citizens who wanted greater concentration of power at the national level, with economic, banking, taxation and foreign policies controlled by the federal government, the better to protect their property and wealth. As their leader, Hamilton had what amounted to contempt for the basic concept of democracy, if that meant equality of rights and power between the aristocracy he represented and the common man, on the farm or in the town. He preferred a government on the model of the British monarchy, to the point of favoring a president-for-life with broad and arbitrary powers.
The Federalists' opposite numbers, known simply at first as anti-Federalists, were men of agrarian interests largely from the backwoods South, as well as small farmers and business operators, all of whom favored decentralized government. Most foot soldiers in the Revolutionary army found their political home here. The anti-Federalists were more locally oriented farmers and townspeople, often debt-ridden, and defenders of individual and states' rights who looked to a central government as oppressive, much as they had viewed the British crown. They often referred to Federalists as "Tories," after the British party, and after fighting for and winning independence from England, they did not want to come under the thumb of any other national entity.
Although Jefferson was a champion of the interests of agriculture and the workingman, and was cool to any Federalist national government benefiting the wealthy and wellborn, he never cast himself as an anti-Federalist. Indeed, he took pains to dissociate himself from that faction, which he saw as merely reactive to the Federalists. He adopted a more positive posture, looking to the sort of democracy that he believed was the goal of revolutionists in France, where he had served with great personal relish as American minister. His purpose in public life, he wrote on one occasion, was to eradicate "every fibre of ancient or future aristocracy." It was easy to see why Hamilton and Jefferson would soon find themselves on a collision course in charting the political framework of the new nation.
While Hamilton could be said to have fathered the Federalists as the first American political party, they did not survive as a real force beyond the early 1800s. As for the anti-Federalists, they were pathfinders for, but not the founders of, Jefferson's party, which in its evolution has far outlived not only the Federalists but also such other subsequent parties as the Whigs, the Know-Nothings, the Progressives and a host of lesser entities. By the time of the birth of the Republican Party of today in 1856, what by then had come to be known as the Democratic Party was already seventy-three years old.
The post-Revolution competition between the older, landed and commercial interests and the frontier agrarians was at times bitter and fierce. The seaboard mercantile class continued to impose harsh and unjust burdens on farmers, particularly in debt collection that brought with it the threat of squalid debtors' prison. In Massachusetts in 1786, a Revolutionary War officer named Daniel Shays led raids on state courts to disrupt debt judgments against farmers, and tried to seize arms from a Continental arsenal. The raid was put down but what came to be known as Shays's Rebellion did produce some reforms.
In the late spring of 1787, both the Federalist and anti-Federalist factions-not yet organized parties in any real sense-became involved in the sensitive labors leading to the writing of the Constitution and its ratification by the original thirteen states. A convention for the purpose was called in Philadelphia with Washington as its president and delegate from Virginia. The Federalists greatly outnumbered the anti-Federalists and took the lead from the start. They had local chapters in key Eastern states, and were experienced in politics through colonial assemblies, state legislatures and town meetings, notably in New England.Copyright© 2003 by Jules Witcover
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