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Rude Republic:
Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century
Glenn C. Altschuler & Stuart M. Blumin

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 2000, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to

Chapter 1


The republic established in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 was not premised upon the active engagement of great numbers of ordinary citizens in the affairs of state. Important elements of the old aristocratic distinction between the "few" and the "many" suffused the new national Constitution, and shaped electoral practices through such provisions as the electoral college and the selection of United States senators by state legislatures. In the individual states, too, aristocratic elements of this sort crept back into some of the more democratic constitutions that had been written and adopted in the aftermath of the Revolution. There were popular political excitements in the early republican decades, to be sure—armed uprisings, hotly contested elections, and, in the Republican Party and the several Democratic Republican clubs, the beginnings of what might well be called a popular political movement. But none of these fully realized the democratic implications (what Gordon Wood has called the "radicalism") of the Revolution? Nor would it have seemed, forty years after the Philadelphia convention, that a broadly participatory democracy was the inevitable result of republican self-rule. Most of the excitements of the early decades were played out after safe passage through the seeming crisis of the Jeffersonian challenge to Federalism and the very real crisis of American involvement in the Napoleonic wars. By the mid-1820s, according to historian Ronald P. Formisano, "the vast majority of citizens had lost interest in politics. They had never voted much in presidential elections anyway, and now they involved themselves only sporadically in state and local affairs."

    Voting levels in national and state elections in the new republic had, in fact, never been high, not even in the years of greatest partisan contention. Only some sixty-two thousand voters—fewer than a third of those who were eligible—cast ballots for presidential electors in the pivotal election of 1800, and in all the presidential elections before 1828 the turnout of eligible voters never exceeded 42 percent. Voter turnout in elections for congressmen and for state governors was usually higher, but not by a great deal, ordinarily ranging, according to Walter Dean Burnham's tabulations, between about one-quarter and one-half of the electorate. Did the customary nonappearance of the majority of the electorate express a norm of political disengagement in the early republic? Formisano's own discussion of the continuing influence of political deference seems especially relevant to this issue. Deference functioned not merely through constitutional forms but in the day-to-day (and election-to-election) relations between the "better sort" and the more ordinary citizens of communities all across the United States, the latter generally acquiescing in the political leadership and authority of those who successfully claimed a more general social superiority? It is likely that the bases of this acquiescence had changed a good deal since the eighteenth century, and that a system originally manifesting the personal relations of patronage and clientage (never so strongly in the colonies as in the mother country) was evolving toward something more remote and more professional, and perhaps to some extent even more institutional. Edmund Morgan has suggested a different term, "leadership," to describe "a new way of determining who should stand among the few to govern the many." By the 1820s deference was not so much a system as a tendency, not a culture but the survival of one, that merged with and continued to influence the more democratic ideas and practices that were taking hold within a nation moving toward a more inclusive suffrage. But this is not to gainsay its power to shape, and in particular to circumscribe, popular political commitment. If most political leaders were no longer patrons and protectors in the oldest sense, they continued to dominate the public sphere in ways that conveyed to ordinary folk the feeling that the routine conduct of politics—the selection of candidates for public office, the shaping of political coalitions, the conduct of election campaigns, the definition of the public agenda—was not really the people's business. This is what was most durable about deference, and it continued to limit popular engagement in politics through the first party period, the "Era of Good Feelings," and some years beyond.

    Questions about voter turnout and the relations between leaders and ordinary citizens in the early republic tend to be swallowed up by the energies of the Jacksonian era. Andrew Jackson's challenge to what he and his followers portrayed as a revival of Federalism within the administration of John Quincy Adams fired the interest of many Americans, including large numbers who were recently enfranchised by new state constitutions. When Jackson challenged Adams in the 1828 presidential election, the total vote increased from fewer than 360,000 to more than a million, and the proportion of eligible voters casting ballots more than doubled, from 27 percent to 57 percent. Turnout would remain at almost precisely this level for the next two presidential elections as well. Would Americans now build upon a natural proclivity to engage in politics, and speak as well in their own voices to promote and protect their own interests? The Age of Jackson, in the customary language of American history, is also the Age of the Common Man, and it is to a particularly politicized and decidedly nondeferential common man that this phrase refers. Alexis de Tocqueville, whose visit to the United States occurred during just these years, wrote famously of a nearly universal preoccupation with politics among Americans, and of American democracy as the expression of a social egalitarianism that retained little or nothing of traditional distinctions between the "few" and the "many." The "political activity which pervades the United States," wrote Tocqueville, is a "universal movement which originates in the lowest classes of the people and extends successively to all the ranks of society."

The cares of political life [Tocqueville continued] engross a most prominent place in the occupation of a citizen in the United States; and almost the only pleasure of which an American has any idea, is to take part in the Government, and to discuss the part he had taken. This feeling pervades the most trifling habits of life; even the women frequently attend public meetings, and listen to political harangues as a recreation after their household labours.... [I]f an American were condemned to confine his activity to his own affairs, he would be robbed of one half of his existence.... This ceaseless agitation which democratic government has introduced into the political world, influences all social intercourse.

    A tumultuous and raucous democracy (these terms, too, are to be found in Tocqueville) is just what General Jackson brought to the White House in 1829. And yet, there is an incompleteness to the Jacksonian revolution that ought to give us pause. As Tocqueville remains so important a spokesman for the forcefulness of popular democracy in the Jacksonian era, let us note that the great writer returned to France without having observed a national election, and that in the notes he kept while traveling through America (and while speaking mainly to the most prominent members of American society) is Joel R. Poinsett's answer to the question," `Does the nomination for President excite real political passion?' `No. It puts the interested parties into a grand commotion. It makes the newspapers make a lot of noise. But the mass of the people remain indifferent.'" Indifference, too, is the theme of a letter written by Tocqueville's traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, during their American visit. It is a letter that almost directly contradicts his friend's appraisal of the penetration of politics into daily life. A people with so much free land, wrote Beaumont, "does not feel the slightest disposition to be discontent with the government. Each one, on the contrary, remains indifferent to the administration of the country, to occupy himself only with his own affairs."

    Neither a universal passion for politics nor a universal indifference accurately describes the United States during the early 1830s. Jackson's candidacy in 1828 had filled the glass of voter turnout a little over half way, but the next two presidential elections left it nearly half empty. It is important to observe that the significant expansion of voter turnout in 1828 did not initiate an upward curve of electoral participation. Why (assuming that voter turnout is roughly indicative of more general patterns of political engagement and disengagement) did not more and more Americans interest themselves in the "ceaseless agitation" of "democratic government"? This question becomes more significant when we consider suffrage and other political reforms that would appear to reflect a continuing democratic uprising against those deferential assumptions and practices that in the past had limited popular participation. Richard P. McCormick long ago identified a "hidden revolution in the electoral environment" of the first four decades of the nineteenth century. By 1832, every state but South Carolina chose presidential electors by popular vote; voice voting and hand-written ballots were giving way to printed ballots; increased numbers of polling places made voting easier for country people; suffrage restrictions on white males had been all but eliminated; and reemerging political parties were beginning to replace legislative caucuses with nominating conventions. The national Republican, Democratic, and Anti-Masonic parties all used national conventions for nominating their candidates for the 1832 presidential election, and in the years that followed, this seemingly more open and democratic means of candidate selection would spread slowly through the rest of the electoral system. On the other hand, these reforms do not seem to have resulted only, or even primarily, from popular pressure. On the contrary, McCormick and other historians have stressed the role of party leaders, who turned increasingly to sponsorship of more inclusive reforms of the political process as a way of recruiting new party members in the face of competition from other parties. Nominating conventions "had the appearance of being more `open' and more `popular' than the caucus," for example, but they were in fact initiated and in most cases controlled by party leaders. In those states that had lacked prior forms of party organization, conventions were denounced as means for dictating nominations. Suffrage expansion, too, in Chilton Williamson's estimation, was more a means of party recruitment than a popular movement for greater inclusiveness. In Connecticut and Massachusetts, he observes, suffrage expansion was followed by a slight decline in voter turnout.

    Did parties, then, do no more than create the appearance of popular enthusiasm? We must be careful not to dismiss nominating conventions, suffrage expansion, and other reforms as mere technical details of partisan competition. The idea of a democracy of white men was becoming more persuasive among larger numbers of ordinary people. Party leaders may well have initiated reforms for their own narrow purposes, but they may also have helped to open a Pandora's box of democratic feeling and action that they were not able to control. McCormick himself observes that democratic reforms "added greatly to the difficulties of party management," and we would note as well that the parties were still very much in an experimental stage, wherein "party management" was at once a task of encouraging, capturing, accommodating to, and controlling popular participation. These tasks were challenging enough during the 1830s; they would become more so in 1840, when Pandora's box opened all the way.


Eighteen forty is the annus mirabilis of American partisan democracy. In the presidential election of that year, fully eight of ten eligible voters cast ballots, a reflection not of some temporary or accidental circumstance but of a new pattern of citizen participation in national elections, and a new level of partisan activity and organization. More specifically, the once reluctant Whigs adopted and improved upon campaign techniques pioneered by Democrats, and soundly beat their rivals at their own game. Both parties were now committed to a new style of electoral politics, and the effects of this commitment would endure. The parties would soon reach a high level of institutional organization, dedicated mainly to assuring the largest possible turnout of its own voters in national, state, and in some cases local elections. And for the remainder of the nineteenth century, voter participation would in fact remain high—in presidential elections it would seldom slip significantly below the levels established in the "breakthrough" election of 1840.

    This story of the conjoined triumphs of participatory democracy and the political party is well known, and needs no further summary. What it does need is validation, or perhaps qualification, through analysis that admits of the possibility that the triumphs of politics and party were neither inevitable nor complete. What we must appreciate is that this seemingly climactic event in the formation of American electoral democracy was still very much an experiment in popular mobilization and management, and that the relations between the parties and their professed or potential adherents were far from settled and known in 1840. This leads to new questions, or at least to a more specific reformulation of ones we have already asked: Would there be a new and perhaps more democratic relation between party leaders and the larger body of party voters? Should the party be open to all who would join it, or should there be some kind of test of adherence to party principles? What kinds of appeals should be used to reach out to voters, and what role should public issues play in the election campaign? Should the party educate and otherwise involve its "members" in political affairs throughout the year, or should it merely mobilize them as voters and then leave them be? What kind of an institution should the party be? What should it mean to be associated with it? To be active within it? To lead it?

    Let us focus first on the early years of triumph, the first full election cycle of national, state, and local elections of the years 1840-42. The local party newspaper is the best source for examining the political process "on the ground," and the local community, where citizens read party papers, attended rallies, joined campaign clubs, and voted—and where they worked, worshipped, and raised their families—is the appropriate place for examining the relation of people to that process. We have selected for a close look at the new system of partisan democracy four American communities from which the newspapers of both political parties have survived. Greenfield, in western Massachusetts, and Marietta, in southeastern Ohio, were small county seats, among the smallest capable of sustaining two party papers. According to the 1840 census, the town of Greenfield contained 1,756 residents, a small majority of whom lived on the streets and lanes of the town center. Marietta contained 3,381 inhabitants; 1,814 in the incorporated village of Marietta, 692 within the corporation of Harmar, and 875 elsewhere in the township. The Hudson Valley town of Kingston, New York, and the Georgia cotton-belt city of Augusta were somewhat larger. The town of Kingston had 5,824 inhabitants, some 2,200 of whom lived in the incorporated village of Kingston, and approximately 1,500 of whom lived in the adjoining, unincorporated village of Rondout. Augusta's 6,403 residents consisted of 3,266 whites, 148 free blacks, and 2,989 slaves. Another 5,529 people (including 2,384 whites) lived beyond the city's borders in the remainder of Richmond County. Four towns, of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the South, and the West: they are not all of America, by any means, but they are sufficiently representative of the nation's major regions, and of the array of ordinary communities within those regions, to repay an attentive visit to their campaigns and elections during these early days of the second party system.

    We would emphasize first, however, that even the smaller of these towns were the economic and political centers of their immediate regions. All were river towns, all contained most of their counties' merchants, professional men, banks, and nonagricultural producers, and, as county seats, were centers of county government and justice. As communities, therefore, they were not typical of the great majority of localities that were neither economic nor political centers. This, indeed, may stand as our first observation: politics in the various regions of the United States was centered in such places as these, revolving around the courthouse, law offices, and newspaper offices of county seats, and radiating outward with variable but generally diminishing force from the few blocks around the courthouse to the rest of the town and to the more remote towns, hamlets, and farms of their respective counties. Our towns may be representative of the American political nation in the early 1840s, but for this very reason they are a biased sample of the American nation as a whole. To generalize from them, or from other centers of local political life, is no doubt to overstate the role of politics in the lives of most ordinary Americans.

    How, then, did the people of Greenfield and Marietta, Kingston and Augusta—the political centers of Franklin, Washington, Ulster, and Richmond counties—experience the new politics of this era? The differences among the towns, and among their regions and states, were significant, and we will need to appreciate the role of local traditions in shaping the effects of broader influences. But each town did participate in events and structural innovations that bound disparate localities and separate state parties as never before to a national system of voter organization and inspiration. Each, for example, adopted some version of the nominating convention for selecting local candidates, and for sending local delegates to conventions higher in the political system. The convention had spread through many state and local party organizations during the late 1830s. By the early 1840s it was, or was proclaimed to be, the centerpiece of an inclusive, grassroots democracy, wherein ordinary citizens met openly and frequently to choose candidates and delegates who formally represented the party's broader membership. Martin Van Buren's home state was probably the leader in party organization in this era, and it is not surprising that among our towns it was Kingston that had, by 1840, the most complete array of local conventions and town party meetings (or "caucuses," especially after that term had lost the odor of elite control) to select candidates and delegates. In the spring of 1840 both Whigs and Democrats in Kingston called town meetings to name tickets for the upcoming town election, and the Democrats held another to choose delegates to a county convention that, in turn, would send delegates to the state party convention. For local Democrats, this meant that there were three party gatherings, all in Kingston, within the space of eleven days. The Whigs would call their town meetings and county convention for the selection of state-convention delegates in June and July, Democrats went through the same process a second time in August, and both parties were at it again for congressional nominations in September. It is clear that political leaders intended these meetings to stimulate interest in and bind voters to the party, and not merely to conduct the business at hand. Extremely large delegations were named by town meetings to attend county conventions (151 from Kingston's Democratic meeting in March, for example, and this to a convention whose only business was to select two delegates to the state convention), and party papers boasted about and disputed over the attendance at every meeting. Delegates were certain to see their names in the paper, along with the other faithful. The presidential race of 1840 no doubt stimulated much of this, but the new system endured in the off years, to be called to life for any election, which in New York as in most places meant at least twice in any year. Kingston's Whigs and Democrats had built a participation pyramid out of durable stone.

    The caucus and convention system did not assume the same shape in all of our towns during this experimental stage of party development. In Greenfield, town party meetings sent delegates directly to state conventions, bypassing county conventions that in Kingston were occasions for building, demonstrating, and channeling partisan enthusiasm. County conventions were held for the purpose of nominating candidates for the state senate, but the towns selected small numbers of delegates (four by the Whigs in 1840, for example), so these conventions did not take on the character of mass party rallies. Marietta's nominating process was less settled than that of either of our eastern towns. As in Kingston, large delegations merged the functions of nominating candidates and creating and conveying popular enthusiasm, but the caucus and convention system was not yet firmly established. In July 1840, Whig meetings were called within the townships of Washington County for the appointment of "committees of nomination," whose recommendations would be "confirmed by the people" at the following month's county convention. Votes were apportioned by township in the morning session of the convention, before candidate nominations were made in the afternoon. Who were the "people" at this convention, if they were not the township delegates or "committees of nomination"? How did this convention really work? In the following spring, Morgan County Whigs invited party members of Washington and Perry counties to join with them in nominating state legislative candidates. The language and fact of this invitation suggests that the convention they called for was not expected in due course, and it is significant that the Whig editor of Marietta expressed regret at its necessity, blaming the Democrats for the need to organize for legislative elections? Whether or not he was sincere in this regret, or was merely pandering to a lingering antipartyism, is not important. The point is that even after the Tippecanoe campaign and the Whig victory it brought, the legitimacy of these party institutions, no less than their form, was not assured.


Copyright © 2000 Princeton University Press. All rights reserved.

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