The period of time between the election of Thomas Jefferson as our third president in 1800 and the election of Abraham Lincoln just 60 years later was marked by the rise in power of “the people.”
Jefferson had always represented an ideology that was more populist than that represented by Adams and the strong federal government types in the Federalist Party. Over time the Jeffersonians (Democrat-Republicans) grew in number and political strength and the Federalists virtually faded from the scene.
What developed in the wake of this change is somewhat akin to what is happening today within the Republican Party which is undergoing an internal battle between the Old Guard and the TEA party. In the 1800s the Democrat-Republicans began to factionalize.
For several cycles the power of the Democrat-Republicans grew and eventually they dominated the selection process for president. This period of near one party rule was called the “era of good feelings.” But by 1820 things had changed. New states split old electoral strongholds and the issue of extending slavery into the territories along with the power of the “western states” eroded the dominance of the old guard Democrat-Republicans. New factions formed and out of them, new parties.
John Quincy Adams won the presidency in 1824 at nearly the end of the period of one-party rule and that election is notable because it is the only election since the 12th Amendment required electors to vote for president and vice president, rather than the second-highest presidential vote getter ending up as V.P., which ended up being decided by the House of Representatives. It is the first time a candidate won the presidency without winning the popular vote. However, the popular vote was not measured the same everywhere. Some states did not count a popular vote, leaving the choice up to the state legislature.
Four years later Andrew Jackson, in a rematch with Adams, split off the southern faction of the Democrat-Republicans and formed the Democratic Party, thus heralding in an era of the “two party” system which continues in name to this day. I say in name because over time many 21st-century observers could easily conclude that the policies of Congress and the presidency over the past 100 years have much more in common with the factions of the period of one-party rule under the Jeffersonians than the two-party system, which began with Jackson and really came on full force with Lincoln and the emergence of the Republican Party.
You will often hear TEA party folks today talking about how the Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., all seem to be one big club. The politicos of 1828 had themselves tired of a similar thing, and that election was a major break from tradition.
In that election John Quincy Adams began to refer to his wing of the party as “National Republicans.” Jacksonians called themselves “Democrats-Republicans.” The National Republicans were predecessors to the Whigs, and out of the Whigs a number of people broke off and formed the Republican Party. Of course Jackson is the father of the Democrats.
Four years later Jackson, now the incumbent running under the “DemocraticParty” banner, defeated Kentucky’s Henry Clay. During Jackson’s first election the Congressional nominating caucus process had dissolved and by 1832 nominations for each party were made in national conventions, a process which continues to this day, even though the real nominations are accomplished by state primaries and state caucuses where committed delegates are chosen.
In the run-up to the election of 1832 all of the parties held conventions in Baltimore,which was the favorite venue for decades to come. In that election the very first “Democratic National Convention” was held and along with Jackson, Martin Van Buren became the vice presidential nominee, four years later went on to become president.
In 1836 the incumbent Van Buren was so despised by the Whig party that they decided upon a strategy to defeat him, which seems very odd. The Whigs actually ran four candidates under their banner in various parts of the country, hoping to so scatter the electors as to throw the decision into the House of Representatives where they could oust Van Buren. It didn’t work; Van Buren won a majority of the electors and became the last vice president until 1988 to succeed by election to the presidency.
The next few elections saw the Whig party scrambling to keep its footing. After the deaths in office and succession of two vice presidents, the annexation of Texas and the ending of the Mexican-American war, those who stood in opposition to the Democrat needed a new issue around which to rally their base. They got one, but in the process lost their party identity to a new upshot organization which met in a small schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisc., in March of 1854.
Primarily opposed to the expansion of slavery into new territories, a group of “conscience Whigs” and “Free Soil Democrats” began conversations about how to oppose the “Kansans-Nebraska Act” which opened the Kansas and Nebraska areas to slavery. Introduced to Congress by Stephen Douglas the act was supported by virtually all Democrats in both the South and the North.
At an “anti-Nebraska” meeting in Ripon the name for a new party opposed to slavery was born. It would be known as “The Republican Party.” It drew a large number of its members from various churches and, as such, the members of the early party carried into politics a strong moralistic view of governing that not only stood in opposition to slavery, but also “sin.”
What was about to happen with the birth of the new party was in a greater sense than anything else in American history, a truly second revolution.
Next week I will continue with this series and remind you how the battle lines were drawn and how a very cunning political strategy, which you might find particularly familiar this year before the upcoming Republican National Convention, was put in motion by the man who, second only to Washington himself, has become known as the next greatest president in the history of our nation.
Everyone assumed they knew the likely nominee would be as the brand new Republican Party prepared to meet in convention in 1860. The world was confident that the nomination would go to the more popular, better-funded candidate.
But a humble man with great faith in God had a strategy, and before the gavel of adjournment fell this raw boned Kentuckian who had failed so many times before in life was nominated as a candidate for president, an act which propelled him toward his tragic meeting with greatness.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a daily commentary for KyForward.