The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
"The Country Demands the Existence of Parties"

IN THE AFTERMATH of the presidential election of 1836, John C. Calhoun complained, in a speech to his South Carolina constituents, that the United States was undergoing the most remarkable change in [its] political institutions since the adoption of the Constitution." Always a deeply committed antiparty man, Calhoun was outraged by the new partisanship that enabled powerful party leaders to control "the voice of the people." This was neither the first nor the last time Calhoun assailed political parties. Unswerving in his resistance to the growth of partisanship, he unrelentingly railed against party leaders and "the mere trammels of party" throughout his career. 1

Despite his eloquence, Calhoun was out of step with the political times. The blending together of the elements of partisanship into a powerful force had moved forward at the end of the late 1830's, thanks to the continuing "hurricane of excitement" in American politics and the intensification of "harsh controversies on Capitol Hill" and elsewhere throughout the political nation. Party lines were by now sharply drawn, and partisan activity constant and extensive. Everywhere one turned, as Richard P. McCormick has shown, there was a widespread acceptance of the party role in American politics. 2

But what was occurring went beyond mere acceptance. The sequence of party development that had peaked in 1838 was now followed by a final stage, in which partisan ideas, commitments, and organization not only spread throughout the Union but, more critically, penetrated the system deeply and completely enough to become the mainstay of the political nation. The ideological case for party became more dominant; it took on a different tone as well, less defensive, more assured and assertive, more celebratory. Spokesmen made a sustained, unambiguous case that rarely wavered. They extolled par-

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