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Jacksonian Democracy, Origins of the Party System

Jeffersonians, Western farmers, congressional debate, fault line, ordinary men

Neither the Jeffersonians nor their Federalist opponents admitted to being a political party. To them the term party meant the same as faction. It also meant the victory of selfishness and contention over the selfless unanimity they felt a republic needed.

However, two events caused important politicians to reconsider the value of parties. First, the Panic of 1819, an economic downturn, introduced Americans to a cycle of booming economy followed by bust, a cycle that would come to characterize the new market economy during the 19th century. Some Jeffersonians blamed the panic on the Bank of the United States, which had been rechartered in 1816. They argued that if the disciplined coalition of Southern and Western farmers that had elected Jefferson had still been in place in 1816, Congress would not have rechartered the bank and the panic would not have happened.

The second event that caused politicians to reconsider the value of political parties was Missouri Territory’s application for admission to the Union in 1818. Missouri’s proposed constitution allowed slavery, and that provision caused heated argument in Congress, revealing angry differences between representatives of slave states and free states. Congress ultimately compromised, balancing the new slave state of Missouri by admitting Maine as a free state. Congress then declared that slavery would be allowed in the Louisiana Purchase territories south of a line drawn west from the southern border of Missouri. Slavery would be banned north of that line. The immediate crisis was solved, but the fault line between slave and free states remained open.

The same politicians (Martin Van Buren of New York was the most active of them) who opposed the Bank of the United States also argued that Jefferson’s coalition of slaveholding and nonslaveholding farmers would never have permitted the dangerous, divisive question of slavery to get into congressional debate. They organized a disciplined coalition for states’ rights and limited government that supported Andrew Jackson for the presidency in 1828. That coalition became the Democratic Party.

In the 1820s, many politicians had come to believe that organized parties were essential to democracy. Parties gave ordinary men the power to compete with the wealth, education, and social connections of traditional leaders. Parties also created disciplined organizations that could control political debate.

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