Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Factionalism and the Two-Party System

Americans may stick to the two-party system as an artifact of the founding fathers' fear of faction. By limiting the number of parties to two Americans limit the number of explicit political divisions.

In Elkins and McKitrick's Age of Federalism* the authors emphasize the universal fear and dislike of faction among the public and the founding fathers in the 1790s and earlier. This came in part from the belief that competition among factions had divided and harmed democracies in antiquity. Madison and Hamilton wrote about this in the Federalist, but the discomfort with factions or private associations of any kind (other than religious ones) was widespread. One exception was the Sons of Liberty during the revolutionary period and another, which Elkins and McKitrick don't mention in their masterful work, was the Freemasons. Also, there were incipient labor unions in the 1790s. Labor courses don't typically discuss the dislike of labor unions evidenced in the famous Philadelphia Cordwainers case as associated with a broader distrust of associations of any kind, but that may have been the case. In the Cordwainers (shoemakers) case a Philadelphia court held the union to be a criminal conspiracy. The criminal conspiracy doctrine was changed in the 1830s under the means-end doctrine enunciated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Hunt. The point is, though, that the shift in attitudes toward unions coincided with a shift in attitudes toward associations more generally. Usually the shift is described as responding to greater power of workingmen in the 1830s associated with Jacksonian presidency.

But the point is that in general private associations of any kind were viewed with suspicion, and minor political parties may be sensed in this way.

During the 1790s, Elkins and McKitrick point out, there was the rise of an early association called the Democratic Societies. The purpose of these clubs was mild, basically to discuss political issues and oppose corruption in government. President Washington viewed these clubs with suspicion, calling them "self-created societies" as did many leading politicians. Two Democratic Societies in Washington Town and Mingo Creek, Pennsylvania were involved in the Whiskey Insurrection in western Pennsylvania in 1791-4 in which tax collectors were tarred and feathered; Inspector of the Excise John Neville's house was burned after an open battle; and as many as 6,000 armed Pennsylvania militia massed on August 1, 1794. President Washington handled the situation masterfully and ultimately sent militia to quell the revolt, but there was no violence beyond scattered incidents.

Elkins and McKitrick point out that Washington blamed the Democratic Societies for the insurrection (p. 484):

"If Washington ever had a fixed obsession, it was these societies, "self-created in the sense of having no sanction in popular authority, societies which had been up to nothing but mischief since the first ones were formed...He had felt very early that if they were not counteracted they would 'shake the government to its foundations'; and 'now if this uprising were not subdued, we could bid adieu to all government in this Country except Mob and Club Govt.'"

Washington wrote that (quoted on p.494, Elkins and McKitrick)

"all combinations and associations under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities are destructive of this fundamental principle (of the duty of every individual to obey the established government)...They serve to organize faction; to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful enterprising minority of the community, and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans, digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests."

Elkins and McKitrick quote a Senate resolution recorded in the Annals of Congress:

"Our anxiety arising from the licentious and open resistance to the laws in the Western counties of Pennsylvania has been increased by the proceedings of certain self-created societies...proceedings in our apprehension founded in political error, calculated if not intended to disorganize our Government, and which...have been influential in misleading our fellow citizens in the scene of insurrection."

Might this early distrust of associations, which had disappeared by the time De Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835, be the source of the American commitment to the two-party system? While the conflict between the Republicans and the Federalists in the 1790s amounted to a battle between centralizers and decentralizers; proponents of government subsidy to business and proponents of Whiggish suspicion of centralized authority, and so was unavoidable, might the fear of more factionalization than the Federalist-Republican or later Democratic-Republican division be the distant remnant of this early American fear of faction?

*Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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