Patrician Partisans: New York in the House of Representatives, 1789-1803

By Harp, Gillis J. | Canadian Journal of History, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Patrician Partisans: New York in the House of Representatives, 1789-1803


Harp, Gillis J., Canadian Journal of History


PATRICIAN PARTISANS: NEW YORK IN THE

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 1789-1803

Historians have long debated how genuinely democratic the politics of the founding era were. Since Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution first appeared, the discussion has become more sophisticated but scholars continue to differ, for example, over whether the early republic's politics were fundamentally elitist. Tied to this question has been a recurrent interest in the emergence of a national two-party system. Here, the traditional approach, that saw Federalist and Republican parties arising directly from deep ideological differences played out in congress, has been challenged by those who stress sectional or regional alignments or by those who recommend discarding the idea of the First Party System altogether.

Perhaps a slightly different approach, one that tackles these perennial questions at both the state and national levels simultaneously can shed new light on the subject. By studying the state delegations that were sent to congress during the 1790s, one can test some of the conclusions drawn by earlier, more generalized studies. The following analysis of New York States congressional delegation serves to confirm the elitist portrait drawn by some studies, while it also highlights the significant political differences that quickly came to divide the governing elites that represented the Empire State on the federal level. In short, this essay demonstrates that the relationship between social location or regional identification and political behaviour is not as simple as some have assumed.

I

New York society in the Federal period evidenced a unique political culture. Ethnically, the state was a mixture of English, Dutch, Scots-Irish, and German settlers who had emigrated at different times, settled in different parts of the state and achieved varying levels of economic success. Several English families had arrived in the mid-seventeenth century, and built over the years, especially in New York City and its immediate vicinity, an English establishment of considerable size, power, and influence. Though the Dutch shared much of the Hudson and New York City with the English, they dominated other parts of the state such as Albany, Richmond, and Kings counties (just south of New York City proper). The Scots-Irish and less affluent Dutch, tending their small farms, peopled most of Orange and Ulster counties (just of the Hudson, while farther north and west German settlers dotted the frontier in a few small enclaves.(1)

Historians have differed regarding the importance of the ethno-cultural connection, in early New York politics. Though E. Wilder Spaulding believed that at the close of the Revolution there seemed to be little race [that is, ethnic! consciousness left" other more recent analysts have re-emphasized the significance of ethnic and religious factors in the states partisan alignments.(2) Robert Kelley has cast New York's party squabbles, from the revolution well into the 1790s, as an outgrowth of the fundamental conflict between the localist Scots-Irish and their allies, and the English and Dutch cosmopolitan establishment.(3) Even if one does not characterize the revolution in New York as essentially a battle between Anglicans and Presbyterians, the ethno-religous element clearly had considerable significance in the states politics during the Federal era.

The Federalist party drew heavily from the states Anglicans, particularly those living in and around New York City. The city's mercantile and professional elite was, for instance, overwhelmingly Federalist and the party also found support among late elements of the conservative Dutch population.(4) New York's great aristocratic families such as the Livingstons, Morrises, Schuylers, and Van Rensselaers were all at least nominally Federalist in though there would be key defections as the years passed. …

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