The Invention of Party Politics: Federalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Development in Jacksonian Illinois

By Shade, William | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Invention of Party Politics: Federalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Development in Jacksonian Illinois


Shade, William, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The Invention of Party Politics: federalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Development in Jacksonian Illinois. By Gerald Leonard (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. 328. Cloth, $48.00).

In the 1960s, when Arthur Schlesinger Jr. announced that Americans had invented the first modern political parties in the 1790s, it seemed as clear a fact as the claim that the American Constitution was the oldest in the world. At the height of the Cold War these seemed to be crucial markers of American democracy. Today we have one of our foremost political scientists asking, "How Democratic is the American Constitution?" and many historians such as Gerald Leonard questioning exactly when and how the system of two-party competition was "invented." Of course this is not a new question and Leonard is simply building on a literature that has evolved since the 1960s when Schlesinger was so sure in his statement. Lee Benson and Richard Hofstadter, and their students Ron Formisano and Mike Wallace, have been the leaders among scholars who have charted anti-partyism in early American political culture. (While it is still a matter of vigorous dispute, a consensus has emerged that Americans did not embrace modern mass political parties and a political culture of partisanship until the end of the 1830s. Leonard accepts this and documents the story for Illinois, but his main argument is somewhat different from what most historians have said.)

Leonard is a lawyer and is interested in American constitutional history. Thus he wishes to place the Invention of Party Politics in a broad interpretation of the evolution of constitutional government in the United States. He begins by noting that political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution-Hofstadter called it a constitution against parties-and turns to Willard Hurst's enlarged conception of the American constitution, something like the British might see the matter. Leonard argues correctly that parties have become part of the larger American constitution and he is asking when and why this happened.

Leonard's answer to the question of when America invented party politics is not far from that of Roy Nichols in the old book with a similar name and the position that is something of a consensus among current scholars-about the presidential election of 1840. He uses the nomination process and the connection between state and federal politics as his key indicators of the existence of modern mass parties. But his argument is somewhat different than others who have placed the appearance of modern parties at this time. …

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