Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The new republic: a populist democracy

George Washington in 1796
painted by Gilbert Stuart

The decades following the creation of the United States saw major developments:

  1. the emergence of political parties
  2. shifting relationships with Europe
  3. social and economic changes
  4. the opening up of the frontier.

The rise of party politics

On 30 April 1789 George Washington took the oath of office as President.  In December 1792 he was unanimously re-elected as President, with John Adams re-elected as Vice-President. He was to serve until 4 March 1797. He was a unifying figure, the national hero who stood above party politics in a way that was not possible for his successors. Yet he left office a worried man. In his farewell address delivered in Philadelphia in September 1796 he denounced’ factions’ promoted by ‘artful and enterprising’ politicians, but there was nothing he could do to stop the rise of party politics.

Divisions had emerged within his own cabinet. The Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), an immigrant from the British West Indies, was an instinctive conservative, admitting that ‘this American world is not for me’. In order to fund the national debt and assume state debts he created the First Bank of the United States in 1791. He raised money by a tariff on imports and a highly unpopular tax on whiskey that led to the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794. Hamilton took this revolt so seriously that he put on his former military uniform and with Washington led the troops across the Appalachians to crush the protests. 

Alexander Hamilton
first US Secretary of the Treasury
by John Trumbull

Hamilton’s supporters formed the first American political party, the Federalists. It was a party of strong government and sound finances. It was centred in the North and was the party of merchants and wealthy landowners.

Hamilton was born on the British West Indian island of Nevis. See here for more on his Caribbean roots.

The Secretary of State, Thomas Jeffersonrepresented a very different view of what America should be. He was suspicious of big government and his Democratic-Republican Party attracted small farmers and urban workers. He viewed great cities as ‘pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man’. Whereas Hamilton was a supporter of a strong central government, Jefferson was an advocate of states' rights. Although a slaveholder he was a political radical. 

The election of John Adams 

John Adams
2nd President of the United States

In the election of 1796 Washington’s vice-president John Adamsstood as a Federalist against Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr of New York, who stood on the Democratic-Republican ticket. Adams was elected by a narrow majority (68 votes to 71) and, following the rules at the time, Jefferson became his vice-president. This was therefore a government with deep ideological divisions, which intensified with their different reactions to the French Revolution.  With Adams now firmly hostile to what he saw as French subversion, he and Jefferson were no longer on speaking terms. Party politics had well and truly arrived.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson
3rd President of the
United States (1801-09)

In the very lively presidential election 1800 Adams  lost narrowly to Jefferson by 65 to 73 electoral votes. New York cast the decisive vote but Jefferson owed his victory to the South’s inflated electorate, which counted slaves as three-fifth of whites. Burr became his vice president. The election might have been dubious in many respects but it marked the first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. 

Jefferson was re-elected in 1804. The election followed the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitutionwhich specified that the electors were to vote separately for the president and vice-president. Jefferson, who had never trusted Burr, dropped him from the ticket in that election

In July 1804, Burr shot Alexander Hamilton dead in a duel and fled to South Carolina, but he was never tried.

The most important achievements of Jefferson’s presidency concerned the expansion westwards. He used his influence to bring Ohio into the Union in 1802. In 1803 he purchased Louisiana and in 1804 he sent out of the Lewis and Clark expedition (see subsequent blog posts). 

The War of 1812

In 1808 Jefferson announced his intention to retire from politics and his Republican successor James Madison of Virginia easily won the election of that year. In June 1812 the resentments caused by Britain’s continued pressing of US servicemen erupted into war. 

The War of 1812 has been seen as one of the most unnecessary in history.  The United States had long been resentful of British attacks on its shipping but Britain had finally altered her policy (6 June) just before the war was declared (18 June). But the boarding of American ships in order to impress merchant seamen into the Royal Navy was not the only issue. The British were blamed for stirring up an Indian revolt.

With the exception of the New Englanders, Congress was enthusiastic for a war that they saw as a defence of American honour - and, more prosaically, as a defence of the northwest territories against British encroachments. The so-called War Hawks were led by two men from the southern and western districts, Henry Clay of Kentucky (1777-1852)  and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina (1782-1850).

Neither side gained much from the war. The Americans attempted three invasions of Canada, while the British failed to launch an invasion from the Great Lakes. 

painting by Anton Otto Fischer
depicting the victory by USS Constitution
over HMS Guerrière

One of the most notorious events was  t
he British burning of the Presidential Mansion on 24 August 1814. When it was restored it was painted white and has been known as the White House ever since. The composition of what was to become the American national anthem, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ by the lawyer Francis Scott Key, was written while the British blockaded Fort McHenry, Baltimore, on 14 September 1814.

In January 1815 General Andrew Jackson's force of 4,000 defeated a British force almost three times its size at New Orleans. But the battle did not have great military significance, as it occurred a few weeks after the peace was signed.

General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans
as imagined by painter Edward Percy Moran in 1910.

The Treaty of Ghent

In August 1814 peace talks began in the Flemish city of Ghent. By this time the British had decided that the war was not worth the cost. They were preoccupied with the negotiations at the Congress of Vienna, British merchants were eager to resume trade with the United States, and the British public was war-weary. The British returned territory near Lakes Superior and Michigan and in Maine to the United States; the Americans returned Upper Canada to Britain. It was almost a return to the status quo.

The war with Britain generated a new patriotism and launched the United States toward economic independence. 

The new politics

The period after the ending of the War of 1812 was described rather complacently by a contemporary journalist as ‘the Era of Good Feelings’. It has been associated above all with the presidency of James MonroeWith his retirement in 1825, and his replacement by John Adams' son, John Quincy Adams, the Virginia Dynasty (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) ended. 

The country was changing rapidly. By 1820 there were twenty-two states in the Union and a population of 9.6 million. America was becoming more distinct from Europe and the classical pattern of the American political system was emerging. 

One distinctive feature was the ‘spoils system’first seen in New York and then increasingly widespread.  This was the principle of ‘The the victor belong the spoils’, under which whenever power changed hands it was followed by the dismissal of all office-holders of the wrong party and their replacement by adherents of the new administration.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court was showing itself to be a very active body,
John Marshall,
by  Henry Inman (1832)
upholding Federalist principles even after the party’s demise.  Under Chief Justice John Marshall, who served from 1801-35, a series of landmark cases established the primacy of federal over state law and the power of the judiciary to determine the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. 

In the first of these, Marbury v. Madison (1803), Marshall laid down the principle of judicial review and judicial supremacy: 

‘it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is…So if a law be in opposition to the constitution; if both the law and the constitution apply to a particular case: the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case.’ 

This was the first case in which the Supreme Court declared a federal law unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated provisions of the Constitution. 

Economic developments

As settlers poured westwards, the United States developed a transport infrastructure to cope with the movements of population. In 1806 congress authorized the National Road (also known as the Cumberland Road), America’s first interstate highway. Construction started at Cumberland, Maryland in 1811, and the road reached Vandalia, Illinois, in 1839.  The West was becoming increasingly significant. 

Since 1817 the Erie Canal had been under construction and was opened in 1825. At  363 miles long and with 83 locks it was the longest canal in the world, and it cost $7 million dollars to build. By linking the Great Lakes with New York City via the Hudson River, it connected the Western interior to the Atlantic. 

In 1828 the cornerstone for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad was laid on 4 July 1828.  At the end of 1829 it carried passengers on the first completed 13-mile stretch. By 1850 America had nine thousand miles of track. 

Cornerstone of the B&O, laid July 4, 1828
by Charles Carroll of Carrollton,
now displayed at the B&O Railroad Museum.

Agriculture remained central to the American economy: cotton and tobacco in the South, grains and livestock in the North and West. Industry was also growing, as skilled immigrants brought with them their knowledge of British production technologies. In 1822 Boston investors opened the mechanised Lowell cotton mills along the Merrimack River. However the majority of American towns were commercial rather than manufacturing centres, providing goods and services for the surrounding farms. It was only after the Civil War that industrialization seriously took shape. 

Jacksonian Democracy

In the 1824 presidential election  John Quincy Adams defeated General Andrew Jackson, the victor of the battle of New Orleans, in an extremely bitter contest. Jackson won the popular vote but not the necessary majority in the electoral college that was needed to win and the result was controversially decided by the House of Representatives. 

The election showed that the Federalist party (which Adams had left in 1803) was dead. It had failed to expand beyond its New England base and produce leaders who could appeal to the nation as a whole.

Andrew Jackson
7th President of the
United States (1829-37)
The extremely scurrilous election of 1828 was Jackson’s revenge.   The electorate had now increased to comprise all white males in all states except South Carolina.  Adams lost the election by a decisive margin. He retained his support in New England, but Jackson won the rest of the states, picking up 178 electoral votes to Adams' 83 votes. Significantly, he picked up votes from the Irish immigrants. Adams and his father were the only U.S. presidents to serve a single term during the first 48 years of the Presidency (1789–1837). 

In March 1829 Jackson entered Washington like a conqueror. On inauguration day  (4 March) the White House was invaded by a triumphant mob. The revellers pushed into the White House, where a reception was scheduled for all who chose to come. They surged through rooms, broke dishes and leaped onto the furniture in an attempt to shake the president’s hand.  

The inauguration of Andrew Jackson
From the Library of Congress

This disorderly behaviour seemed to mark the beginning of the age of the common man.  By 1832 Jackson's movement had a name: the Democratic Party. The president governed through his close inner-circle, called his ‘Kitchen Cabinet’, which included newspaper editors as well as politicians. His party was suspicious of elites and vested interest, hostile to high tariffs that kept up prices and bitterly opposed to bankers.
Henry Clay
leader of the Whigs

In 1834 the enemies of 'King Andrew' formed the Whig Party, a conservative, business-oriented party that copied the Democrats' campaign tactics of mobilised torchlight parades, miniature log cabins, and hard (i.e. alcoholic) cider. The Whigs supported the supremacy of Congress over the presidency and favoured a programme of banking and tariffs to stimulate manufacturing. Their pre-eminent leader was Henry Clay. Both parties went out to win the support of the common man, by appealing to his prejudices, libelling the opposition, and addressing large crowds. They had more in common than they cared to admit.


In the second quarter of the nineteenth century the patrician republic associated with the Virginia Dynasty gave way to the frontier democracy of the Jacksonians. Europeans noted the change. 

In 1835 the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville published his two-volume Democracy in America. He saw the United States as the
prototype of an egalitarian democratic order, lacking an aristocracy, governed by majority rule and maintaining order through voluntary associations and strong religious beliefs. In describing this society, he coined a new word – individualism.

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