Jeffersonian Ideology and the Second Party System

By Brown, David | The Historian, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Jeffersonian Ideology and the Second Party System


Brown, David, The Historian


From the demise in 1815 of Federalism, the political faction favoring a strong central government, to the rise of the slavery question in the 1850s, American political history was characterized by bitter partisan warfare on the part of the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson and the Whigs. In a remarkable departure from past and future party development, however, both of these parties understood their respective coalitions to have originated from a common ideological source, namely, Thomas Jefferson. No other American president or political party has engendered the kind of ideological flexibility promoted by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party.

While George Washington and John Adams also were national icons, their brand of deferential Roman republicanism did not survive the eighteenth century. Washington, the "Patriot King" believed his role as president elevated him above party machinations and ideological debates, and he left very little for his partisan supporters to use but his name. To a large degree, Washington's influence in shaping the political culture of the new nation did not extend beyond his death. His Federalist successor, John Adams, suffered the ignominy of electoral defeat by Jefferson in 1800, and the nation's first party government rarely competed effectively for national office afterwards. Jefferson, on the other hand, bequeathed to partisan heirs James Madison and James Monroe the blueprint for a republican political economy of westward expansion promoted by the activist agrarian state. The "Virginia dynasty" of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe won six consecutive presidential elections from 1800-24 and enjoyed the benefit of a Democratic-Republican-dominated Congress throughout.

While it is true that Federalists maintained a viable opposition to the Jeffersonians in the early nineteenth century, Democratic-Republicans never lost control of the executive or legislative branches of government. Even for the next three decades, most Americans, whether Jacksonian or Whig, considered themselves Jeffersonians. This paper will consider the ideological and partisan roles played by Jefferson, his followers, and the shapers of historical memory in the second party system. Statesmen from all sides found something in a selectively reconstructed Jeffersonianism upon which to build platforms, such that Jefferson and his coalition created or contributed to all the political ideologies in mid-nineteenth-century America. The Jefferson legacy, in other words, served both the proponents of radical egalitarianism and the champions of Southern slavery.

In 1826, America witnessed the passing of one political generation and the rise of another. On July Fourth, Thomas Jefferson, the spiritual leader of the Democratic-Republican party that had dominated American politics for nearly three decades, died at the age of 83 in his home at Monticello. Later that year, the realignment of congressional alliances that led to the second party system began in earnest. Considering Jefferson's role as the dominant statesman of his day, it was fitting that aspirants to public office invoke his name, from the states' rights oriented Virginia aristocrats to the New England Brahman John Quincy Adams.

Simply put, Jefferson was many things to many people. To some, he was the "Apostle of Liberty," author of the Declaration of Independence and the architect of a democratic vision of American society predicated on the westward expansion of autonomous farmers beyond the reach of intruding institutional restraints. In sum, this was the Jacksonian interpretation of the Jeffersonian movement. Men like Andrew Jackson (1829-37), James Polk (1845-49), and Martin Van Buren (1837-41) located the crystallization of the Democratic-Republican party as far back as the 1790s, when Jefferson and his followers opposed Federalist Alexander Hamilton's push toward economic centralization. Van Buren recorded his Autobiography that "my earliest political recollections were those of the day when I exulted at the election of Mr. …

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