Monday, June 04, 2012

Which came first--the First Party System or the Second?

Professor Joyce Appleby, in her presidential address to the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic, provocatively suggested that the American Revolution was the second great democratic revolution; the French Revolution was the first.

What she meant by this, she explained, was that the French Revolution forced a reevaluation and reinterpretation of the American Revolution, a process led by Thomas Jefferson, giving a meaning to the experience unknown and unanticipated before.

I would like to suggest that something similar occurred in the late 1820s with regard to parties. A number of the papers at the recent Princeton conference, "Jeffersonian Democracy: From Theory t o Practice" (May 17-19) suggested a far greater sectionalism and lack of coherent party discipline and purpose to the Jeffersonians than has typically been assumed. By the end of the conference, I was beginning to question whether one could legitimately call it a "party system" at all. Certainly, the anti-party animus of Washington's Farewell Address stands as a beacon for the period, and Ralph Ketcham's Presidents Above Party and other works demonstrate the persistence of this outlook. My own work on the Missouri crisis argues that President Monroe sincerely believed in a non-partisan (or "uni-partisan" republic and tried to implement it during his administration--only to be thwarted by the professional politicians who came of age well after the Revolution.

Did the First Party System come into existence after, and as a consequence of, the Second? Did Martin Van Buren play the role of reinterpreter that Jefferson did of the Revolution? If so, does this not require us to reevaluate the period from 1791 to 1828 in the light of the Democracy's myth-making?

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