The Keystone in the Democratic Arch: Pennsylvania Politics, 1800-1816

The Keystone in the Democratic Arch: Pennsylvania Politics, 1800-1816

The Keystone in the Democratic Arch: Pennsylvania Politics, 1800-1816

The Keystone in the Democratic Arch: Pennsylvania Politics, 1800-1816

Excerpt

Few Americans stop to consider that the fact of their self-government constitutes one of the most amazing phenomena of modern history. Less than 170 years ago, thirteen British colonies scattered along a thousand miles of the Atlantic Coast and bound together loosely in a weak confederation received recognition as an independent nation. Severe as had been the trials of the revolution in which the colonies had achieved their independence, they were no greater than those which faced the new country in the succeeding years. Despite the magnitude of these problems, there emerged a government and a nation sufficiently virile and enduring to master a territory of continental extent, to weather a civil war of titanic proportions, and to achieve a position of economic and political leadership in the world today.

The elements, internal and external, which operated to bring about this astonishing change were many and exceedingly complex; and each may be studied with great profit. One of the most important was the development of political techniques capable of making an intricate federal system based upon an ambiguous written instrument function effectively in a wide area and under the most diverse circumstances. National political parties, with their peculiarly American incongruities, furnished the chief device for the accomplishment of this task. The story of party politics in the United States therefore illuminates the process through which broad democratic principles, written frames of government, and the conflicting desires of antagonistic groups were translated into practicable popular rule.

The first national parties appeared soon after the establishment of government under the Constitution. The Federalists, founded by Alexander Hamilton and directing the administration in the formative years, sought to create a strong central government devoted to the protection of life and property and to the maintenance of conditions favorable to commercial prosperity. Conservative by nature and distrustful of the masses, they were firmly convinced that government was the prerogative of men of birth, wealth, and education. It was natural that they should violently oppose the French Revolution and should favor the British in the wars which flowed from it.

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