History 3.3
15-27-29 Nov. 2001

The Age of Martin Van Buren:
Party, Democracy, and Nationalism

I. Functions of Political Parties

A. Political organization as a necessity for "responsible" government.

B. Constitutional structure made parties a nationalizing, sectionally-unifying force.

1. Absolute majority of Electoral College required to win presidency.

2. Implications of this rule:

a) In most cases, by end of race, there would only be two serious candidates at most.

b) Winner had to be nationally popular.

c) Created tendency toward system of 2 national parties that had incentive to find common ground among different sections.

C. Big Problem: National party system depended on NOT facing the issue of slavery.

II. The Era of Mixed Feelings:
Problems of Nonpartisan Politics After the War of 1812

A. James Monroe and the "Era of Good Feelings": became president in 1817, determined to end party conflict, traveled to Federalist New England.

1. Founders had not wanted parties, many leaders felt partisanship had gone too far during war, and that parties were no longer necessary.

2. Evidence that harmony was only skin deep: Compensation Act of 1816.

B. Backroom Politics of the Monroe Administration

1. Many bold initiatives taken to strengthen government & develop country, without much popular support.

2. Issueless, disorganized struggle among three Cabinet members (J. Q. Adams of Mass., Calhoun of SC, William Crawford of GA) & Speaker of House Henry Clay to become Monroe's heir apparent.

C. Political Frustration and Potential Disunion: Problems arising from lack of national parties and leadership.

1. The Panic of 1819: Economics and politics

Unaccountable, mismanaged & corrupt, 2d B.U.S. failed to restrain state banks during western boom, then helped cause an economic depression (Panic of 1819) by suddenly restraining them too much.

10,000s ruined (esp. in west), much anger in state politics, but no parties to express anger at national level.

2. The Missouri Crisis (during depression): Lacking need to keep Southern allies, Northern congressmen voted to ban slavery from new state of MO.

Wake-up call for South: North was getting larger in population & would act against slavery when it had the chance.

Resolved by drawing permanent line between slavery & freedom for all future states.

Stirred up terrible fears about future of union, just at time when many were feeling more patriotic about it.

D. Underlying changes setting up the revival of political parties.

1. Westward shift of population.

2. The rise of "universal" (white male) suffrage in new state constitutions.

Blacks & women sometimes lost voting rights they possessed under older system of property qualifications.

III. Martin Van Buren and the Revival of National Political Parties

A. The Election of 1824: Presidential selection by back-room deal and the death of nonpartisan politics.

1. Adams and Crawford were the front-runners, with Crawford nominated by an ill-attended congressional nominating caucus (the last one), despite the fact that he had just had a debilitating stroke.

2. Gen. Andrew Jackson emerged as popular choice of new voters, West, and areas hit hard and frustrated by the economic depression.

3. Jackson won popular vote but no majority in Electoral College; Adams won the election when he got the support of Speaker Henry Clay in House of Representatives vote.

4. The "Corrupt Bargain": Adams named Clay Secretary of State (heir-apparent) and Jackson vowed revenge.

B. Martin Van Buren, Re-Inventor of the Party System

1. Profile of the "Little Magician." Click here to watch a short video that will help explain Van Buren.

a) Tavern-keeper's son, raised in tolerant, rather backward & unhurried atmosphere of Hudson Valley, rural Dutch area of NY. Rose from humble beginnings by getting along with everyone.

b) Steeped in Middle States political culture, long accustomed to competition, organization, & compromise.

c) Deep down, an old Jeffersonian, believing that rural life was best, that economic development should not rushed or allowed to create inequality, that government should rule w/o coercion.

2. Van Buren's "Bucktails" among first to defend political parties. Argument was that politics should be about "Principles, not men" or mere financial interest. Took NY away from De Witt Clinton despite the Erie Canal.

3. Bucktails attacked as the "Albany Regency."

4. Van Buren in national politics: Bring back the old Republican party.

C. The Election of 1828 and the Birth of the Democratic Party

1. Trying to resurrect party, Van Buren forces had joined with Virginia "Old Republicans" behind William Crawford in 1824.

2. For 1828, Van Buren proposed a new, wider alliance of the "planters of the South" and the "plain republicans of the north" behind Andrew Jackson, whose popularity would fuel rejuvenation of party.

3. Jackson elected after first truly popular presidential campaign ("Adams who can write, Jackson who can fight"), forming basis of Democratic Party. Swept South, West, & just enough of Middle States.

IV. Political Parties and the Union under President Jackson

A. Jackson's actions in office inspired the organization of a competing national party, the Whigs. Among major issues (all non-sectional):

1. Indian removal, very popular in West and South, not as popular in New England or with those influenced by religious reform movements.

2. Jackson's opposition to federal spending on more transportation development within states ("internal improvements.")

3. "Bank War": Jackson's utter destruction of 2d B.U.S, first by vetoing its charter, then by removing federal deposits.

B. The Nullification Crisis (1828-1833): Jacksonians and Whigs joined to crush a political rebellion in South Carolina.

1. South Carolina Exposition and Protest (1828): Vice President Calhoun used "Principles of '98" to claim that SC had right to nullify very high Tariff of 1828 within its borders.

2. Helped inspire new ideas in North about the indivisible & eternal nature of the Union, rejection of "compact theory": the Webster-Hayne debate (1830).

3. Putting Calhoun's ideas into practice, SC held convention to nullify the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832.

4. Jackson's Proclamation to the People of South Carolina, Dec. 1832.

5. The Force Bill and Clay's Compromise of 1833.

C. By time Van Buren replaced Jackson as president in 1836, national political parties were more popular and better organized than ever before & glue that held nation together.