Tuesday, November 20, 2007

***The Heroic Age of The Democratic Party

Book Review

Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party, Robert V. Remini, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 1951

For those political propagandists, including this writer, interested in an independent working class political realignment in American politics an important point to understand is the way that political realignments are created- and taken advantage of. Thus a little look at history, in this case the history of American parliamentary politics, is called for. For openers careful study will show that such dramatic shifts do not occur often so that we had better be prepared when and if it happens. Elsewhere in this space I have commented on the creation of the Republican Party from the remnants of the Whigs, Free Soilers and other forces just prior to the Civil War. (See Review of Free Soil, Free Labor by Eric Foner in an entry entitled The Heroic Age of the Republican Party). The book under review here is a detailed look at the creation of the Democratic Party in the mid 1820’s that was solidified by the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 (and his reelection in 1832). And what better place to look at how that occurred that at the career of the master mind of that creation Martin Van Buren, who would ultimately benefit by that realignment himself both as Vice President in Jackson’s second term and as his immediate successor as president in 1836.

This book is narrowly focused on the creation of the Democratic Party and Van Buren’s role in it. Thus the time frame for the work is essentially the elections of 1824 and 1828. The story as it unfolds here shows that Van Buren did not come to prominence out of thin air but has done yeoman’s work in creating the embryo of the Democratic Party in New York State with the famous Albany Regency that controlled, or attempted to control, New York politics during this period. The strength of the Regency lay in its control of patronage, its policy of only rewarding its friends and devotees, its adherence to a uniform political line and of fighting for organization, organization and again organization. Those are not bad lessons to learn even today. Strangely in reading about this organization and its rules and regulations I was reminded of a proto-Leninist vanguard organization-without its revolutionary aims.

Of course strong organization only helps if you have some access, or potential access, to power and in American politics the coin of the realm is control of the American presidency. And for that purpose the election of 1824 gives a text book lesson in all the strengths and weakness of the presidential electoral process. Many changes had occurred in the first fifty years of the American Republic as it moved away from the bucolic agrarian/mercantile society of the 1780’s. These included the relentless driving of the frontier westward, the increased role of capitalist production and technology in linking communications and transportation systems and the cry of the masses for more political participation in the electoral process. Those factors were the social basis for Jackson’s ultimate victory.

But not in 1824. At that point the Monroe presidency and its so-called ‘Era of Good Feeling’ had theoretically blunted the political party concept at a time when, as now, the class divide was growing. One of the strange things about the 1824 election is that the several candidates all professed to be of the same ‘party’ from the closet monarchist John Quincy Adams to the plebian hero Jackson. Something had to give. What gave immediately, to Jackson’s detriment, was the popular outcry against the Congressional caucus system where that body essentially provided the official candidate. Van Buren was the master of that system and it died hard with him. In any case no candidate got a majority of the Electoral College votes and thus the election was thrown into the House of Representatives for settlement. In the end Henry Clay’s electoral votes and whatever promises he received from Adams determined Adams’s victory. 1828 would, however, be a different story

Van Buren learned the lesson of that 1824 defeat well. He went through out the country trying to build a coalition of forces that would create a national party based on a set of principles, essentially taken from Jefferson’s philosophy of government and a strict constructionist school of interpretation of the Constitution. In the process Van Buren basically formed the modern political party by uniting forces from the West, the South and New York to give the New England-centered Adams a thumping. Having a popular candidate like Jackson obviously did not hurt. One can argue with the author about the weight of Van Buren’s role in the Jackson victory however one cannot argue that Van Buren knew which way the wind was blowing and created a powerful plebian based party that fought for power up until the Civil War with some success. For good or evil Van Buren also became the proto-type for the professional politician that we have today come to know and loathe. But that is a separate story. Here we can give a retrospective tip of the hat to the old Red Fox of Kinderhook.

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