As Americans begin already to sicken of the 38th presidential contest between a Republican and a Democrat, a historical review of the first 37 is a delightful distraction. In two separate volumes, Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans by Lewis L. Gould and Party of the People: A History of the Democrats by Jules Witcover, Random House has provided such a history.
These books, ostensibly biographies of the two surviving political factions in America, are really pop historical chronicles of our nation’s unique process of electing our leaders. While both authors try valiantly to cover the numerous topsy-turvy off-year congressional elections, they both focus mainly on presidential campaigns.
Taken together, they are the transformative story of how the party of succession came to champion big, centralized government and, conversely, how the party that crushed states rights came to represent a renewed spirit of federalism.
Of the two, Whitcover has more fun with the Democrats than Lewis does with the GOP. Of course, he has more to work with. The Democrats have been around a lot longer (they are the oldest active political party in the world). And let’s face it, the Democrats have had a more piquant cast of characters than the Republicans.
Whitcover dedicates his detailed first chapter to the origins of the Party. He takes us back, further than the factional fights between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, to colonial times. “Long before the American Revolution, societal forces in the colonies had foreshadowed the existence of a two-party system,” he writes.
Poor, agrarian, Scotch-Irish immigrants and their offspring were America’s first class warriors in what would become the anti-Federalists, then the Republican Party, then the Democratic Republicans, and finally, the Democratic Party. That first class war pitted these farmers in the Piedmont region of Virginia and their Eastern Virginia and New England overlords.
Those overlords, loosely known as Federalists and embodied by the proto-industrialist Alexander Hamilton and the monarchist John Adams, sought to centralize power with almost all control of the economy in the hands of the federal government.
THE DEBATE OVER THE Constitution found these two factions at odds. The anti-Federalist opposed the Constitution as a “frail and worthless fabric” because they saw it as a violation of the principles for which we demanded independence from England.
The Federalists, of course, sought to write into the document as many clauses to protect their property and political superiority. Thus were the seeds of factional discord sewn in the U.S. From these disaffected anti-Federalists — who by-and-large lost their fight over the Constitution — sprouted the Republican (Democratic) Party.
The first two attempts to counter the party of Jefferson (and later Jackson) were failures. The Federalists died out shortly after John Adams lost his 1800 re-election campaign to Thomas Jefferson. The Whigs, too, petered out over their sectional ambivalence toward slavery. Several other fringe parties had little success.
From this fen emerged the Republican Party, held together by the moral sense that what Americans had done and allowed to be done to their countrymen of African descent was wrong and needed to be remedied. Sadly, Gould dedicates only a few scant pages to this story.
Both books hit their strides during the Gilded Age. At the time the fight was so bitter because the political stakes were so low. Then, as today, America was a 50-50 nation, more-or-less. Then, as today, candidates won the presidency with a majority of Electors, but not a majority of the popular vote (Rutherford B. Haynes, Benjamin Harrison). And then, as today, ad hominem hatred fueled the passions of the other side.
Indeed, post-Civil War sloganeering was personal and hateful and therefore great fun:p> em>Blaine, Blaine
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