Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On the Dynamism of American Political Culture

Politics in 19th century America can be divided into two great epochs, separated by that great Second American Revolution, the American Civil War. The period ending with the Civil War began after the First American Revolution and the adoption of the federal Constitution in 1789. During this period, the Union was absorbed by the question of its own identity at a time when immigration of non-Protestants, the expansion of the slave population, and an accelerating westward expansion began to change the locus of political power within the states and the Union itself. The epoch of American national political consolidation that followed concluded only with the end of the "Progressive" era and the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Renewed immigration on an unprecedented scale, industrialization, the creation of national markets and westward expansion contributed to a substantial change in the character of a union now striving to become a nation.

Much like many theories of the origins of the universe, American political culture began as a diffused and fluid set of political factions among a small elite, the members of which considered themselves the guardians of the true meaning of the instruments creating the federal union. By century’s end, these diffused and fluid factions had slowly, painfully and sometimes violently stewed, simmered and coalesced into two large national political parties, Democratic and Republican. These two parties, along with any number of smaller and shorter lived factions, became the preeminent vehicles for the effective expression of political ideas in the United States. American political culture, and political parties as the expression of that culture in government, arose in large part from out of the major political event of the century -- the conflict over the essence of the Republic, its resolution by the conquest of the Confederate States of America, and the construction of a new nation in the aftermath of the war. This event occupied much of the century, providing the background against which most of the political struggles of the day were fought, from war with Britain in the early part of the century, to slavery, tariff policy, expansion westward, industrialization, imperialism, and infrastructure.

The major political parties that arose before the Civil War all constituted coalitions eager to impose their vision of the nature of union, and in the implementation of this vision, to further their particular political agendas. Among the most important of these parties were the Federalist Party of Hamilton, Adams and the mercantile elite of the Northeast, operating from the 1790s through the 1820s; the Democratic-Republican Party (eventually the modern Democratic Party) of Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, John C. Calhoun and the farmers and planters in the West and South, which began as a center of opposition to the more strongly centralist agenda of the Federalists; the short-lived Whig Party of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and traditionalist merchant, planter and industrial elites; and the Republican Party of Lincoln and its abolitionist, nativist, interventionist, elitist, and nationalist allies which became the heir not only of the anti-slavery elements of society, but also of the merchant, industrialist and planter classes formerly sympathetic to the Whig Party.

Yet other events also played a large role in forming the character of American political culture in the 19th century. Successive waves of immigration substantially disrupted and fractured politics in the nation and within virtually every state. Immigration created the opportunity for immigrant elites to arise and use the instrumentalities of government for their own and their communities' benefit. Corruption and localism became important markers for political culture especially after 1865, as large urban political machines began to affect the business of the political parties. The Tammany Society of New York was a prominent example. Although the campaign to create a merit-based civil service reflected a reaction against the corruption of the machine system, it was also perfumed with the aroma of nativism -- the idea that foreigners were introducing "anti-democratic" mores to the places they controlled. Immigration sharpened divisions based on religion and race. For the substantially Northern European and Protestant majority population of the first part of the 19th century, politics was molded by a healthy dose of the art of containing or assimilating the increasingly Catholic, and later Jewish, Southern and Eastern European immigrants who began to vie for control of the political machinery and culture first at the state and then at the national level. For Whigs, and then Republicans, for example, who feared the radical effects of suffrage extended to the growing numbers of immigrants, immigrants were people in need of training and containment. Indeed, during the 1850s the fairly radical and strongly anti-Catholic and nativist No-Nothing or American Party captured the governorships of Massachusetts and Delaware before splitting on the slavery question and losing ground to the Republican Party in the early 1860s.

For all European groups, first arrivals or latecomers, the "color line" was also a considerable part of the mash of political culture. Indians were to be pushed out into small areas of settlement, or to be made to disappear either by assimilation or physical destruction. But even successful assimilation did not result in Indians= social or political parity with even the lowest orders of white society. Slavery became a key political issue between the time of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Civil War. While the major parties included elements on both sides of the issue, splinter factions arose from time to time. Among the most important was the Free-Soil Party, which emerged in 1848 for the purpose of keeping slavery out of the new territories. While abolitionism played a part in the formation of these parties, the availability of land for white men, free of the debilitating competition from farmers using slave labor, also played a role. After the Civil War, neither great party was the friend of the African-American. The newly freed descendants of Africans were either used as inferior allies or disenfranchised and pushed into their own "reservations" to avoid mixing with the rest of the population. The former slaves looked to the Republicans for help. The Republicans, with a voter base in the relatively African-American free North, were willing to use African-Americans as their instrument for containment of the Democratic party in the newly conquered South until the re-establishment of the Southern elites, when African-Americans were abandoned.

Immigration also provided fuel for the policing of morality in local, and then national politics. Prohibition was meant partially to help save and control the waves of potentially unruly immigrants, Indians and African descendants. Prohibitionists, like abolitionists before them, played an increasingly important part in party politics, especially within the Republican Party. The loose morals of immigrants, especially of people from supposedly inferior racial, ethnic or religious stock, also produced popular agitation (in part for the protection of the members of the superior racial/ethnic stock) for state removal of children from nonconforming environments, and protection against "white slavery."

Equally important were the effects of industrialization on political culture. The growth of national networks of business enterprises contributed to a political culture sensitive to issues of social stratification, urbanization, and class struggle. Industrialization produced elites capable of molding political parties for the protection of their interests. As heirs to the Whigs, the post Civil War Republican Party became strongly attached to the interests of the merchant, industrialist and wealthy agricultural landlord classes. But, as the 19th century closed, the growing power of business became linked with political corruption requiring reform. Stratification and the class struggle gave birth to radical workers parties in northern cities before the Civil war, for example the Locofocos. The short lived anti-Jacksonian National Republican Party, an 1830s offshoot of the Democratic Party, and the Whig Party in the 1830s through 1850s, became a magnet for the wealthy of both North and South who were willing to compromise their sectional differences in defense of their collective wealth and position in society. Later in the century, the class divisions in the cities gave rise to other groups with ties to European class radicalism, most notably the Socialist Labor Party founded in 1877, and the Social Democratic Party founded by Eugene Debs in 1898 which in 1901 joined with Christian Socialists to form the Socialist Party. The less radical elements of these movements found a home in the Democratic Party machines of northern cities.

Before the Civil War, urbanization and concentrations of wealth in the industrial sector in the Northern states led to a strong culture favoring tariffs in the North as well as Southern planter sectionalism (and thus helped fuel the controversy over the power of the general government). After the Civil War, those forces gave rise to numerous factions of farmers rising against a monetary policy favoring industry, and eventually to populism and a racist and anti-immigrant tinged anti-urbanism as well. Among these were the Granger Movement, the Farmers Alliances of the 1870s, and the Greenback Party and Greenback Labor Parties of the 1870s and 1880s. These farm-rural movements joined with the Knights of Labor to create the People=s Party or Populist Party, active from the 1890s through the early 1900s. The Populists favored inflationary fiscal policies, nationalization of the railroads, direct election of Senators and an eight-hour work day. Some of the social programs advocated by the Populists were later taken up by progressive Republicans, including the insurgent Bull Moose Party, and later by the Democratic Party.

The history of 19th century American political culture can be usefully summarized through the histories of the political factions and parties which gave that culture tangible expression and which rose and, to some extent, disappeared during the century. The two great parties of the 19th century represented opposite poles in the popular conception of the union. Democrats were generally wary of federal power, and tended to include many factions co-existing in uneasy alliance. State’s rights and localism served to provide outlets for the many potentially antagonistic allies within the party. Republicans were a more single vision political unit. They tended to be ardent nationalists, heirs to the ideas of Hamilton and the Federalists. Republicans meant to use the power of the federal government to mold a nation and preserve the power of the traditional elites.

Ironically, on the eve of the twentieth century, these two great parties each stood poised to completely reverse their respective political philosophies, at least with respect to federal power. The Democratic party, for almost a century the stalwart supporter of states rights and a more "unionist" approach to federalism would become, within a generation of century’s end, the great party of national intervention and shrinking state authority, retaining only a minority faction of traditional democrats based mostly in the states of the former Confederate Republic. The Republican party, within that same generation, would transform itself as well from the great radical "nationalist party" of its first generation to a more "unionist" party advancing the power first of "business" and then "markets" over that of national and even state authority. Yet the Republican Party would still retain its moral-cultural elitist, essentially Whiggish, tendencies, reserving federal power for the protection and management of the good morals and culture of a hodgepodge of immigrant peoples badly in need of assimilation for the preservation of business, prosperity and good conduct.


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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