Ironically, it was the authors of The Federalist Papers — a treatise on the dangers of political factions — who jump-started our two-party system. While 1st Prez George W. doubtless appreciated hearing disparate opinions from his closest advisors, as James Monroe’s and Alexander Hamilton’s views became more polarized, it created the very factions they abhorred. Hamilton-led Federalists wanted a strong central government, a centralized banking system, close ties with Britain, and even closer ties to America’s wealthiest men. Taking their lead from Monroe and Thomas Jefferson, Anti-Federalists, aka the Democratic-Republican Party, opposed everything the Federalists stood for.
By 1800, the Federalists’ elitism was so unpopular, their party was basically done for. Regrettably, the seeds of sectarianism they’d helped sow had already taken root in the American volksgeist. Just 17 years after winning independence, the young Republic was clearly divided: free states in the North, slave states in the South.
On the other hand, just 13 years after the Constitution gave slavery tacit approval, several states had outlawed it.
There was a modicum of abolitionist sentiment in America from the get-go, and not just among slaves and ex-slaves. Quakers were the critical white impetus to the anti-slavery movement, here and across the pond. Paradoxically, though the “Society of Friends” (as it was known then) was among the first denominations to condemn slavery, its members figured prominently in the colonial slave trade, and many, if not most Quakers were slave owners.
But if America was born tainted by the sin of slavery, the Friends ensured it was also born with a tiny conscience. Pacifists who believe all people equal in God’s sight and every human capable of receiving the light of God’s spirit and wisdom, they could not long deny that slavery was morally wrong.
Quakers established America’s first anti-slavery group in 1775. In 1776 they prohibited their brethren from trading or owning slaves. For the rest of that century and most of the next, they steadily upped the ante on their activism, sending anti-slavery petitions to a dismissive government, presenting anti-slavery arguments to an inimical white populace, helping slaves escape, and helping escaped slaves — all while having a dang hard time believing Blacks their spiritual equals in the Meetinghouse.
As slavery became less essential to the economic well-being of some regions of the country, the Quakers’ abolitionist views slowly gained converts. Other organizations, like the African Methodist Episcopal Church (est. 1816) and American Colonization SocietyFF (also 1816), bolstered the Quakers’ cause.
- Fun Fact: The ACS was born out of fear of POC; the “colonization” part of their title refers to removing the nation’s Black population to a “colony” they intended to build west of the Mississippi or in Africa.
Pro-slavery sentiment was growing as well, especially in more agrarian areas of the country, because America was growing. Constantly. Adding to her already vast bulk by invading new regions, clearing them of their occupants, and re-populating them at a phenomenal rate.
At the end of the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris (1783) granted the nascent United States title to prodigious tracts of land that neither the Brits nor the Americans had any right to claim or bestow. As a result, the brand-new USA stretched east-west from the Atlantic Coast to the mighty Mississippi and north-south from the Great Lakes almost to the Gulf of Mexico. Britain, Russia, France, Spain, and Mexico all had counter claims and holdings west of the Mississippi and south to the Gulf. Through land deals, purchases, and war, America eroded their claims and acquired their holdings until, less than 70 years into nationhood, its own claim tallied more than 2 million contiguous square miles.
As each acquisition was brought under the Union umbrella, the increasingly incendiary question to be decided was: will this region be Free or Slave?
Despite that the Federalists had run out of steam and Congress was basically operating as a single-party system, the issue of slavery divided the legislature into two discrete factions. The free/slave state parity evident in the 1800 US map above was no accident. It was an imperative.
Since the population of the North was increasing at a much faster rate that of the South, the balance of power in the House, where representation is based on state population, skewed toward the northern states. Maintaining equilibrium in the Senate, where each state gets two representatives regardless of population, was key to keeping the southern states happy enough to stick with the Union.
Congress’ work-around was to admit all new states in Free/Slave pairs, with admissions occurring within a year of each other. Indiana (1816) and Mississippi (1817), for example.
In 1820, the hot couple was Missouri and Maine. Only this time, it wasn’t so simple.
The area that would become the state of Missouri was acquired in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, a land deal with France that just about doubled the size of the US, pushed its reach well beyond the Mississippi, ceded it “ownership” of immense areas (that, again, were sovereign tribal lands and never France’s to begin with), and included the acreage of 15 future states of America and 2 future Canadian provinces.
When Congress decided to carve out Missouri from this massive chunk of the continent, it brought the entire purchase into question. Simply having Missouri and Maine stagger their entrances wasn’t going to cut it. So they passed the Missouri Compromise. Maine was admitted as a free state, Missouri as a slave state, and slavery was prohibited in the Louisiana Territory above 36o 30’ north latitude.
I suppose they thought they’d nailed it. One free state, one slave state, and a transverse incision across America that essentially extended the Great Divide. But southern farmers were irate that Congress had preemptively outlawed their primary means of production in the rich, virgin farmlands of soon-to-be Kansas, Nebraska, and eastern Colorado. Far from improving North-South relations, the Missouri Compromise exacerbated North-South tensions.
A decade later, those tensions triggered a re-boot of the two-party system. Calling it quits, the Democratic-Republican Party split into the Whigs and the Democrats, led by Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, respectively.
As far as scumbags go, our 7th President, Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, was on a par with #45. He was a populist, the first guy to win the office via a direct appeal to the masses. Childhood trauma during the American Revolution left him with a lifelong antipathy toward Great Britain. As a newbie attorney in the frontier settlement of Nashville, he built his rep by being a ruthless debt collector and made a point of getting chummy with Tennessee’s powerful land owners and creditors, whom he molded into his political base. He did a stint in the House, another in the Senate, and one on the 1800s version of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
In early 1812, as war with Britain was looming, Andy put out a call for 50,000 volunteers to prep for an invasion of Canada. As soon as war was declared, he offered his services and militia to the US government. When they finally took him up on his offer and gave him a field command, it wasn’t in Canada, but in his backyard; he was ordered to secure the southern frontier by fighting the indigenous Creeks, who had allied with the Brits.
White history still lauds Jackson’s victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend as “so decisive that the Creeks never again menaced the frontier” (I’m quoting Brittanica here, fer feck’s sake). The Muscogee Nation more accurately remembers the Battle of Tohopeka — the largest loss of Native American life in a single battle in this nation’s history — and the ensuing treaty that took more than half their land and turned it into Alabama and southern Georgia.
Decimating the Muscogee put Jackson in the southern spotlight. Subsequently chasing the Brits from Pensacola to New Orleans and defeating them there propelled him onto the national stage as a war hero, and eventually into the White House.
Jackson and his Democrats believed the executive branch should reign supreme over the other branches of government. They opened the floodgates to westward expansion by promoting “Manifest Destiny”; the truly obscene conceit that white people were a master race with a God-given deed to the continent and a “divine destiny” to “establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man.” High on a whitey superiority complex, they passed the Indian Removal Act, giving Jackson the power to evict Native Americans from their lands in the South and force them onto reservations on the far side of the Mississippi. (If your knowledge of The Trail Where They Cried is scanty, click the link.) In solidarity with southern slave-owners, Jacksonian Democrats denounced modernization programs on the grounds that they benefitted industry at the expense of the farmers.
Jackson’s policies and actions so appalled some folks, they formed a new party to oppose them. The WhigsFF championed modernization and the supremacy of Congress over the President.
- Fun Fact: The Whigs took their name from the English antimonarchist party to drive home their contention that Jackson was less a president and more a “King Andrew.”
Unfortunately, the Whigs were in much the same quandary as today’s Democrats. Their base was an incredibly mixed bag of industrialists, abolitionists, people who deplored the government’s harsh treatment of Native Americans, people who deplored Jackson’s penchant for ignoring Supreme Court decisions and the Constitution, Evangelical Protestants lobbying for moral reform, leftovers from the Federalist Party, disaffected members of the flash-in-a-pan Republican/Anti-Jacksonian Party, defectors from the Democratic Party, and a few folks from the Anti-Masonic Party.FF Striving to please their wildly diverse constituency kept the Whigs squarely in the middle of the road, unable to make substantial socio-political changes even when they had one of their own in the White House.
- Fun Fact: America’s first viable 3rd party was based entirely on a virulent hatred of the Freemasons.
Pulled in all directions, the Whigs finally came apart at the seams in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Knowing he needed southern support to pass his pet railroad project, Senator Stephen Douglas (yes, that Stephen Douglas) brought “An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas” to the Senate floor. The act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise. Under the terms of the Compromise, slavery was illegal in the lands west of Missouri. The new act divided those lands into Kansas and Nebraska. If Douglas got his way, the question of Free or Slave in the new territories would be decided by popular sovereignty, meaning the people who settled there would get to decide for themselves. Or rather, a portion of the settlers would get to decide, since white guys were the only ones who could vote.
After a bit of heated debate, the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed easily, the Senate vote being more straightforward in those days and southern Whigs siding with the Democrats. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers immediately rushed to Kansas, hoping to tip the scales in their favor. The Great Divide widened, and things got ugly in “Bleeding Kansas” … a preview of the ugliness to come.
The Congress of 1854 was scary-similar to our current Congress. The Democrats, like today’s Republicans, stood rock-solid united. Then it was in defense of slavery, now it’s in defense of white privilege and supremacy. Same dif. The Whigs, like our Dems, were disjointed; some of them deeply sympathetic to the pro-slavery cause, some of them so outraged at their party’s inability to protect the Missouri Compromise, they couldn’t abide it.
In direct response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Whigs broke in two — an intra-party split over the issue that was splitting the nation — and the Republican Party was born.
Next time, The Cold Civil War – Part III: WHISTLING DIXIE (working title).