Monday, May 9, 2011

American Politics and the Second Coming of the Tea Party Part 2 (a)

By Miriam B. Medina

"In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place, oblige it to control itself." - Alexander Hamilton

This piece, part two of a two-part series, will pick up where part one left off, at the demise of the Federalist Party and the emergence of the Democratic-Republican Party. It will then explore the remaining history of American political parties up to this day.

The party system in the United States was born as the Federalists, in favor of central government and industry, and the Anti-Federalists, in favor of states rights and farming, struggled for power. As part of the deal that ended with the ratification of the Constitution, the two parties agreed that a body elect would choose the President and the Vice President, not the people themselves. This was the method of choosing the President until 1824, when the system we have now was put into place. George Washington was unanimously elected by electoral vote as the first President and John Adams was his Vice-President.

The Federalists' demise began in 1790. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson took opposing sides on the formation of a central bank and the beginning of a national debt. Jefferson became head of what would become the Democratic-Republican Party, denouncing the Federalists as no better than the king himself. Washington and Adams were voted in again, and The Federalists hung onto power. Nonetheless, the makings of the first real American Heavyweight bout were underway. In the champion's corner, was John Adams for President representing the Federalists. In the challenger's corner, were Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party. Washington decided to retire as his Administration was harshly criticized over policy. In the ensuing election, Adams received 71 electoral votes to Jefferson's 68. So much for unanimous elections and harmonious political existence! The result was that Adams became President and Jefferson became Vice-President.

Into the 1800's, the Republican and Democratic parties remained aligned with the Republican party growing in strength. As a result, the federal government grew and strengthened, as well. The government was growing in scope of power too. The "Sedition Law," which punished "any false, scandalous, or malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President," was considered a despotic act. Jefferson and the Republicans won in 1800 and Aaron Burr, the Democratic Party leader, became Vice-President. The Federalist Party was no more. The Democratic - Republican Party for the time being would reign supremely. The effort to strengthen the central government excessively at the expense of the power of the states had come to naught, and the Federalists, as a well-defined party, gradually vanished from existence.

With the Democratic-Republican Party firmly in power, many unpopular laws were repealed, and the federal government went back about its business. Over the next 30 years, the Democratic-Republican Party slowly became two more distinct parties.

In 1834, as the National Republican Party faded into the background, the Whig Party was born with leaders like Daniel Webster, who favored Congressional power over Presidential power. The Whigs wanted to expand the national government (and the country itself) westward. In 1840, the first Whig president, William Henry Harrison, was elected. The last Whig president, Zachary Taylor, was elected in 1848. The Whigs were not around for very long. Mediocre sitcoms on television have lasted longer than the Whigs. In 1854, the Republican Party reformed, bolstered by support from the tattered Whigs and the independent Free Soldiers.

By 1860, the issue of slavery and state rights dominated the political landscape. The country was divided North and South. The Democratic Party literally split in two, just like the nation would a year later. The Southern Democrats were in favor of the federal protection of slavery in the western territories, the Northern Democrats were not. They wanted the Supreme Court to handle the issue. This led to the election of a Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, who firmly believed that the Union would be held together by the federal government at all costs. His policies and the divided nation's conflicting views led to the bloody, divisive, four-year long Civil War that lasted from 1861 until 1865. The Reconstruction Years that followed saw the South lose most of its political sway for the next few decades.

By the 1890's, the Democratic and Republican parties, mostly as we know them today, were firmly entrenched as the two major political parties that controlled United States Politics. Republicans became known as the conservative or right-wing party, and Democrats became known as the liberal or left-wing party. The parties themselves became entrenched in their positions, growing further and further apart in their philosophies, getting more and more concerned with Republican or Democratic values and less concerned with the values of the American citizens they governed. The divide between party values and American values varied so widely that Teddy Roosevelt broke his own party apart during the election of 1912.

Continue: Part 2 (b)
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