On Slavery, Sectionalism, and the First and Second Party Systems

Alexander Hamilton (Source: Wikicommons, public domain)

The “First Party System,” according to Donald Grier Stephenson, pitted the Federalists (created by Alexander Hamilton and including John Adams, Fisher Ames, and John Marshall) against the Republicans or Antifederalists (created by Thomas Jefferson and including James Madison, Albert Gallatin, and Philip Freneau) and “took shape at the national level soon after government under the Constitution got under way in 1789.” (1)  Gerald Leonard points out that the Constitution was, by design, against parties,  and so these first party-like-organizations were not “mass-based” but existed “more as parties in the government than as parties in the electorate.” (2)  They were, in effect, political cliques.

“In supporting or opposing policy proposals in Congress, members found themselves increasingly voting with the same group of colleagues on one side of an issue or the other. In turn, members sought reelection by defending their positions on legislation and so carried to the electorate the disputes that had divided Congress. Partisanship thus filtered down to the voters, leading them to associate one kind of policies with one group and different policies with another. The result was that congressional factions acquired local followings that duplicated congressional divisions.” (3)

Until the early 19th century, the first party system focused on the issues surrounding political and economic structure. Federalists favored centralization and a strong national government that was more closed and elitist-based. They pushed for an active economic policy. Republicans championed more dominant state governments, openness, and thus less elitism.

Thomas Jefferson

With the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800, Republicans replaced the Federalists as the dominant party. Jefferson expanded the powers of the president, reasserted a focus on states rights and agrarianism, and expanded the nation with the Louisiana Purchase. The Federalists gradually faded away as a credible political force and by 1820 could offer no candidate for the presidency. “Rivalry among Republican leaders for the presidency and the reemergence of major national policy issues marked the end of the first party system between 1810 and the mid-1820s.”(4) The years between I8I6 and I824 saw a regression of sorts toward anti-partyism and the period “lacked major national issues of the intensity that had earlier sparked partisan combat. The period thus came to be called the ʻEra of Good Feeling.’”(5)

But economic developments in the 1820s caused a resurgence of interest among the populace in politics as they sought to influence their own circumstances through control of government. Southern fears of anti-slavery sentiments surged as the debate around the fate of Missouri’s statehood galvanized many to take interest in the polls. Grass roots political energy began to emerge indicating a clear deathblow to The First Party System, which pushed policy from government down to the populace. This would no longer do.

Historian Michael Holt, who approaches the questions surrounding causation of the American Civil War from the angle of politics, posits that what makes a democratic republic like the United States work is a political structure that allows for discord on issues to be managed as a part of debate among varying points of view. (6) Constructive debate works best when there exist at least two political parties with elected officials who can, at the national, state, and local level, wrangle with the issues and make decisions that direct civic direction. Citizens can align with the party that best represents their perspective and interests. Choice between party platforms provides opportunity for change via regular elections.

A single party system does not facilitate competition between ideas. In fact, Holt suggests that the lack of a two party system can cause people to align around other identifiers such as the region in which they live. “Sectional antagonism was most marked, powerful, and dangerous precisely at those times when or in those places where two-party competition did not exist.” (7) By contrast, these “sharp section lines often disappeared” when two parties were present effectively diffusing sectional antagonism. “When it persisted, party loyalties neutralized it so far as shaping political behavior. As many politicians recognized, in short, inter-party competition was an alternative to naked sectional conflict.” (8)

Martin Van Buren Credit: Former President Martin Van Buren, half-length portrait, facing right. Photographed between 1840 and 1862, printed later. LC-USZ62-13008 DLC. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present.

Thus the ebb and flow in the severity of sectional conflict in America can be traced to the relative competitive strength or weakness of a two-party system. Holt suggests that two strong parties did not exist in the years between 1819 and 1821 when the decision of whether Missouri would be admitted to the union as a slave or free state was being considered. Sectional strife resulted. To prevent the sectional strife from fully permeating politics, “Martin Van Buren helped form the Jacksonian Democratic party in the 1820’s specifically to revive a two-party system as a substitute for sectionalism. (9) The intent was to counteract feelings of sectional prejudices by encouraging party alignment. In this way, issues surrounding slavery contributed to the reemergence of strong parties, and thus  “The Second American Party System.” As the Second Party System emerged between 1824 and 1828, the Democratic-Republican Party split into the Jacksonian faction, which became the modern Democratic Party in the 1830s, and the Henry Clay faction, which was absorbed by Clay’s Whig Party. Unlike the era of “The First American Party System,” this period saw mass-based parties that could mobilize the electorate. Voters could thus feel empowered to effect change through suffrage. Sectionalism and thus many of the critical questions surrounding slavery were, once again, contained within the boundaries of political debate, at least for a time.


(1) Donald Grier Stephenson, Campaigns and the Court: The U.S. Supreme Court in Presidential Elections (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 27, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=111837005.
(2) Gerald Leonard, The Invention of Party Politics: Federalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Development in Jacksonian Illinois (University of North Carolina Press, 2002)
(3)  Stephenson, Campaigns and the Court: The U.S. Supreme Court in Presidential Elections, 27.
(4) Ibid., 28.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s ( New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983).
(7) Ibid., 6.
(8) Ibid., 6 – 7.
(9) Ibid., 7.

Political History Word of the Day – Jingoistic

partyoffearI ran across the word “jingoistic” tonight in my reading of a fascinating book, The Party Of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement by David H. Bennett.

fanatically patriotic [syn: chauvinistic]

Extreme nationalism characterized especially by a belligerent foreign policy; chauvinistic patriotism.

jin’go·ist n., jin’go·is’tic adj.jin’go·is’ti·cal·ly adv.

Here is a snippet from Bennett’s book to show the context of his use of the word.

The greatest upheaval was the clash between the North and South. The issue of slavery, and the sectional conflict it helped to generate and exacerbate, was inextricably connected to territorial expansion. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 temporarily resolved that issue, setting the famous line (36° 30″) to the Pacific, north of which the South’s “peculiar institution” could not be extended. But the question flared anew with the Mexican War and the prospect of a rich California territory and a new estate in the desert and mountain West available for American settlement and development. This war of expansion did not unify the country as have international conflicts in some tranquil times. Nor did that other jingoistic outburst against the British in the debate over division of the Oregon territory in the far Northwest. (2)

(1) jingoistic. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/jingoistic (accessed: December 20, 2008)

(2) David H. Bennett, The Party Of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement [book on-line] (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988, accessed 20 December 2008), 95; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=105437276; Internet.

Exploring Causes of the Civil War – Part V: The Rise of Sectional Disputes

This post continues a series on Exploring Causes of the Civil War. Other posts can be read by clicking on any of the following links: Part I: Introduction, Part II: Antebellum America, Part III: The Antebellum South, and Part IV: The Antebellum North.

Sectional disputes rose and ebbed numerous times in the years before the war. Modernization created social tensions Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention, 1833because, as pointed out by James McPherson, “not all groups in American society participated equally in the modernizing process or accepted the values that promoted it. The most important dissenters were found in the South.”[i] The South’s failure to modernize was perceived by many of her citizens as actually desirable.

Sectional arguments expanded to include topics like internal improvements, tariffs, and whether expansion west and south would upset the parity between free and slave states. Foundational to the latter was the belief on the part of the slaveholder in their right to a slave-based social order and a need for assurances of its continuity. Equal representation in government was perceived as critical to that goal.

The rise of abolitionism – largely in the North – put the proponents of slavery on the defensive. The formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society marked the beginning of militant abolitionism and an unprecedented crusade that would rival any modern national marketing campaign. Barbed attacks against slaveholding southerners were launched. They were called the great enemies of democracy and flagrant sinners.[ii] The anti-slavery crusade thus became both a moral one and imperative for the preservation of democracy. Abolitionists created in a section’s consciousness the belief in a “Slave Power.”[iii] Historian Avery Craven suggests that when politicians successfully linked expansion and slavery, the Christian masses accepted as de facto the Abolition attitudes toward both the South and slavery.[iv] Civil war, he contends, “was then in the making.”[v]

The pro-slavery faction fought back with their own “sweeping ideological counterattack that took the form of an assertion that slavery, far from being a necessary evil, was in fact a ‘positive good.’”[vi] “The section developed a siege mentality; unity in the face of external attack and vigilance against the internal threat of slave insurrections became mandatory.”[vii] To insulate itself from the influence of the anti-slavery North, some in the South called for its citizens to shun Northern magazines and books and refrain from sending young men to northern colleges.

The debate over slavery thus infiltrated politics, economics, religion and social policy. Not surprisingly, those who felt most threatened began to speak more loudly of secession.

Next post: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity

© 2007 Rene Tyree

Library of Congress: The African-American Mosaic.
“Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention Assembled in Philadelphia, December 4, 1833” R[ueben] S. Gilbert, Illustrator Philadelphia: Merrihew & Gunn, 1833 Broadside Rare Book and Special Collections Division
“Anthony Burns” Boston: R.M. Edwards, 1855 Broadside Prints and Photographs Division
[i] James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 22.The Civil War and Reconstruction
[ii] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 150.The Coming of the Civil War (Phoenix Books)
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 51-52.
[vii] Ibid., 52.