The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
"The Moral Power of Any Party": The Boundaries of Politics in a Partisan Political Nation

AS THE PARTIES ENGAGED in their vicious give-and-take, they repeatedly touched another level of discourse, one that concerned political proprieties. Certain principles and understandings appeared and reappeared in their discussion that added up to an assertion that in America political behavior, decisions, and choices were all supposed to be structured in particular ways. Engaging in pluralist popular politics with many groups and issues at play, this argument went, demanded certain behavioral constraints on all participants. These constraints included limits on how political organizations should behave; how factions and interest groups within party organizations should behave; and, finally, how political leaders should behave.

Contemporary commentators expended a great deal of energy discussing and setting the bounds of behavior. In doing so, they demonstrated great sensitivity to the set of standards they developed, and repeatedly tested individual and party behavior against them. But the behavior tested and found wanting was, not surprisingly, that of their opponents. Once the norms were set, each party constantly accused the other of unfair practices and misbehavior. That the Democrats used "the tricks of desperate gamesters" was a not untypical Whig comment or, with the names changed, Democrat. Nor was the assertion that Republicans were willing to "employ every inducement in the way of misrepresentation, professions of purity, money or patronage" in order to win. Each party labeled the behavior of the other's candidates as at best "indelicate and undignified" and more often, downright "disreputable," a "disgraceful exhibition" that was "perfectly contemptible." 1 Perhaps it was because the parties were new at the outset of the era and the demands of partisanship were becoming so compelling as this political nation grew into maturity, that so much

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