The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWELVE
"When the Honor of the Country and the Vitality of Their Government Are at Stake": The System Ages, 1865-1893

The majority of the people are so wedded to the traditions and customs of the past, and they worship with such partisan and idolatrous devotion at the shrine of party name, creed and leaders, that, like the Hindoo, they would rather be crushed beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of their fathers than to ride in the chariot of civilization that they are capable of constructing by the intelligent use of their ballots.

-- J. H. Randall, "The Political Catechism and Greenback Songbook," 1880

MANY OF THE UBIQUITOUS critics of the partisan political nation realized quickly enough how glacially things changed in American politics. Not only did the partisan system survive the traumatic events of the middle of the century, the sectional crisis, the electoral realignment, and the Civil War, but political parties reached new levels of power in the 1860's and 1870's, when the voters' commitment to them became even more deeply ingrained than it had been before the war. 1 Of course, changes had occurred in the political nation, including the replacement of one of the two major parties. But most people were still caught in their party's hold. "I love its memories and revere its past," Congressman Samuel S. Cox said of the Democratic party in 1872. Few of his contemporaries would have been surprised by such sentiments, or disagreed with them. "In a free government like ours," another congressman, Roscoe Conkling, told a Republican meeting in 1874, "parties are the best and safest means of molding the judgment of the majority into laws and giving tone to public action." They "are the inevitable outgrowth of free discussion, and their existence and activity is the sign and cause, as well as consequence, of vigor and health in the political sysem." Cox and Conkling summed up the prevailing intellectual and behavioral complex of an American political nation that stretched over both sides of the Civil War divide. 2

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