George Washington, our first President, warned against political parties. The English had already seen by the 18th century that there was bad feeling between the Conservative and Liberal parties in Parliament. The two parties survived to serve two factions of the public educated enough to vote: the land owners whose wealth was entirely in inherited land ownership and the new, growing sector in the great industrial revolution. They had different needs and expectations in laws and governance. The working and impoverished classes had no say as yet in governance.
The development of government in England over time was characterized by the gradual expansion of those permitted to vote for their Parliamentary representation.
The new United States were initially modeled after that of their British homeland, but with an additional model: Roman and Greek democracies. In those ancient lands, property-owning citizens chose their leaders by voting—until their democracies fell to kings and dictators. Rome and Greece were studied by our Founding Fathers (and all educated English-speaking men in that day) and provided the base of our governing system.
Despite Washington’s warning, his first two successors, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, started two parties. Adams was a Northern lawyer, small farmer, and city man, founder of the Whig (conservative) party. Jefferson was a great property owner and owner of slaves, a system already becoming unsavory to the North; but he was also by nature a visionary for what he hoped the United States would become in the future. He and most of the other southern founders couldn’t figure out how to end slavery in their own time; it was an economic necessity, but they hoped that it would “melt away” in 60 years.
Another difference between the north and south was that the south did not need immigrants. They already had a workforce. The north, however, was urban and welcomed settlers and later as industrialization came, workers to build the railroads, factories, and in New England, ships to carry out our growing trade.
The Whigs and the Democrats thus emerged, representing the different economies and needs of their regions. However, they did remain on the same path about their belief in the democratic values established by the Founders: Congress, Senate, Presidency and administration, justice system and Supreme Court, and elections.
No president attempted to remain in office after one or two elected terms. Our system worked, to the astonishment of monarchies and the delight and admiration of the needy around the world who aspired to live like that.
Over time, the issue of slavery grew more contentious. The Democrats were defenders of slavery and the Whigs grew ambivalent over time. That party was split over the growing movement to emancipate the slaves, and began losing elections.
In the 1850s, the Supreme Court ruled that a runaway slave in the North must be returned to his master, and the country went viral.
While the Whigs stumbled around, a new party emerged, comprised of champions of emancipating the slaves, and a new young leader emerged to be elected president, a lawyer from Illinois, self-educated and a great orator, Abraham Lincoln. Our country lucked out. He led the war that reunited the country and abolished slavery.
The emancipated slaves began to win elections to government and started an enthusiastic integration into American society. Then disaster struck: Lincoln was assassinated and our second bad president of the 19th century, Andrew Johnson, took office and set about undoing the reconstruction. Southern thugs continued Johnson’s process and created a reign of terror and lynchings that blighted Black integration for the next century.
In the next column, I will trace the next transformations in our party system. The conservative segregation party, the Democrats, slowly became liberal and urban and the once moderately business and small town and rural party became the Republicans. The parties had almost switched positions.
A third transformation has roiled the country: the moderately conservative Republicans have grown more religious, rural, and angry and the election of an unanticipated demagogue, Donald Trump, have transformed many Republicans into a cult willing to turn our republic into an autocracy.
Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer and author of “How Do You Know That?” Her views expressed are not necessarily those of the Pajaronian. Contact Farhat-Holzman at [email protected]