March 14, 2009


Can I once again thank Sulla for giving some great posts (the New England one I found particularly fascinating) over the period I was away. My job sometimes calls me from my computer- but I'm now back probably through the summer at least. Its going to be hard to meet the standard of the last couple of weeks from him over that period.

Avarice and Secularism: George Herbert's view

MONEY, thou bane of bliss, and source of woe,
Whence com'st thou, that thou art so fresh and fine ?
I know thy parentage is base and low:
Man found thee poor and dirty in a mine.

Surely thou didst so little contribute
To this great kingdom, which thou now hast got,
That he was fain, when thou wert destitute,
To dig thee out of thy dark cave and grot.

Then forcing thee, by fire he made thee bright :
Nay, thou hast got the face of man; for we
Have with our stamp and seal transferr'd our right :
Thou art the man, and man but dross to thee.

Man calleth thee his wealth, who made thee rich ;
And while he digs out thee, falls in the ditch.

Avarice is a poem by George Herbert, Anglican divine and metaphysical poet. What I find so interesting about the poem is that it is of course not about avarice- it is about the state and furthermore it is about the relationship between the state and religion. Avarice hardly features in the poem at all- and we shall return to why it is titled avarice at the end of this essay. What Herbert is interested in here is the process that gives money value: there is the process whereby metal is transferred from its 'cave or grot' and hammered into coins and then just as importantly there is a process by which money is hammered with man's face. What Herbert means by that is that money is given a face, a stamp, a right to command the labour of men and the produce of the earth. We make money both physically and through our consent- we turn it into something that has value. And of course whilst we possess money, we think that we are wealthy- but as Herbert points out in his ironic last line, the value of money is perpetual and our possession of it is ephemeral.

The base meaning of the poem- the sentences and the way that they come together is obvious. But as ever with Herbert, the point is more interesting and it bears reflecting on, if we are to understand the way that Christianity and government relate and have related in the West. Government, as Locke was to argue years after Herbert wrote his poem, is often about tacit consent: we consent to believe that the copper coin in our hands (worth less than nothing) is actually worth anything up to two pounds or that a scrap of paper is worth 100 dollars or a million pounds. Consent is the basis for our monetary system and in that sense maintaining the money supply and its value, and our belief in its value, is not merely an economic question reflecting on inflation but a political one that reflects upon the authority of the state. In a sense, the actions of the state, without which civilised government of any stripe is impossible, tend to obscure this relationship.

Herbert draws our attention to it because he wants us to see that the consent and contract upheld by the state can become a competitor to his own view that humanity is a God driven and purposed entity. If our priorities are only heavenly- and if you strictly believe the words of the Bible how else can they be- then money and the whole apparatus that protects earthly happiness (the state itself) is a disguise- a disguise that may lead to doom. Christ of course turned down the kingdoms of the world and Herbert is suggesting that we too should turn down a money that cannot accompany us when we drop into our ditch and that is a 'bane of bliss and source of wo'. Money and government are the insignia of sin: not merely in the sense for Herbert that they perpetuate sin (the Rousseauian and Marxist point) but that merely by existing they are the definition of sin, they create a goal, a God to worship over God.

Money in Herbert's vision is only valued as an expression of man's intentions- his earthly desires. Herbert of course believes that fallen man can never acheive any happiness- money is thus a source of wo and bane of bliss because it is created by man and not by God. Herbert's title is crucial to interpreting the poem- by calling this Avarice he wants us to analyse the poem in the Augustinian way that I have done. What Herbert offers us as a definition of Avarice is a poetic definition of money and that poetic definition of money ties money right into the political acts of consent that create it. You don't have to endorse Herbert's view of the world- Augustinian and profoundly Christian- to understand the power of his point. His argument is that Caesar and Christ can never be followed together: render unto Caesar what is Caesar's- the coin of the empire (and remember at this point England is an 'empire entire to itself') and render unto God what is God's (the soul). Too much preoccupation with the former leads to a neglect of the latter and consequently what Herbert argues for here is both quietist and revolutionary: he does not argue for a new kind of politics or economics, he argues against politics and economics as ways of thinking about human kind.

It is worth considering this, even if you disagree with Herbert's line of thinking, because what it reminds us is how secular modern politics actually is. Everyone today is a secularist in Herbert's view. Herbert did not see a political system as evil- he saw political systems in themselves as a perversion of the higher aims that we all should have. Money for him is a part of the political world- it is created by consent afterall- raised to become a King. But his argument is that as soon as we care about money, we lose the ability to care about God. I do not agree with this position- but it is worth understanding that it exists. Herbert's world view is more foreign from that of Newt Gingrich than Karl Marx's world view is, because it denies the very legitimacy of any argument about political systems or political entities save as a pathway to heaven. This radical Christian impulse- and it is shared in other religions- is an important strand in the theology of politics: in a sense it goes back to Augustine for whom the civitate mundi was filled with conflict and destruction, the civitate dei was the only refuge. Herbert would have endorsed that.

New England exceptionalism-the odd one out in the early Republic

Who was the true "speical" or "unamerican" region in the history of the early American republic? Southern exceptoinalism in early US history as we have seen while real was limited. That is it consisted mostly of direct and indirectly of slavery .However an alternative candidate a very credible one was New England- the Six States Vermont, Massachusetts Rhode Island, Connecticut Maine and New Hampshire-at the north east corner of the United States then as now.

They were historically perhaps the most distinctive part of the United States at that point. Most American states were crown colonies or states essentially formed out of them (this was even true of somewhat Quaker Pennsylvania and somewhat Catholic Maryland-they were closely tied to royal patronage).. The earlier Massachusetts colonies were the product of religious dissenters-people who disapproved of early 17th century England as too Catholic and insufficiently "godly". This took the form of the closest thing to a protestant theocracy (one of the very few Christian commonwealths to have the death penalty for adultery-and one of the few to punish female sexual behaviour more than male) In what became the core of Massachusetts On the other hand Rhode Island (rather less topically) led to probably the nearest thing to freedom of religion and no church establishment the modern Christian world had seen. These roots were fundamental for understanding early New England-even as the religion of New England evolved massively.

Also very important Anglicans were consequently marginal Anglicans after 1660 Congregationalists and to some degree Baptists were the British equivalent of the bulk of New England. Thus when the "war of independence" (which most historians prefer to call the Revolutionary War) began new England was probably the most united region behind the revolution. This meant more of the pre revolutionary establishment survived in New England (particularly the older parts-Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island). Indeed this often included the old established churches- so protestant dissenters stated established (into the 1810'; and beyond) long after the Anglican establishments of the South which are perhaps better remembered today had crumbled into dust. Congregationalists proved more vigorous and in a sense more reactionary than the Anglicans of the South-who swiftly moved to quietiism in the wake of the Revolution.

This is turn helped shape the politics of New England. For a start the supporters of the establishment and its opponents (Baptists, Methodists even Anglicans now renamed "Episcopalians" to wash out the British taint) tended to struggle. Rhode Island was the last state to keep a clearly restricted franchise for white men (Virginia and North Carolina were the nearest rivals)-indeed so long it erupted into the Dorr War of 1841-1842. This was in large measure because Rhode Island had religious toleration. In the other states near universal white manhood suffrage was achieved in alliances with members of the existing electorate who opposed the church establishments-that is wanted to remove taxes for the payment of Congregationalist churches and lifting the restrictions on political office on non Establishment men. But the struggles went on for decades-as already mentioned the Whigs and Democrats in the 1840's were often divided along those old lines- with the result for example that Methodists were probably much less Democratic than they were in most of the rest of the United States.

AT the same time it remained militantly protestant-even if not necessarily Orthodox in Christology. When Catholics arrived in massive numbers in the 1840's and 50's the backlash was most intense in Massachusetts- where the “American" party managed to win in one election every congressional seat. Piety even if not always orthodox was strong- anti New England polemics of the early republic cast them as religious fanatics threatening a secular or pluralist nation. The United Evangelical Front was stronger in New England than anywhere else in the United States-helped by the fact even many Unitarians (an "unorthodox" denomination even then) would support its policies if not its basis. When it rallied fully rather than half heatedly behind the New Republican party the old divisions between the established and the excluded were thrown aside and it became the heartland of the new party.

Similarly New England was very different in a large number of economic and cultural ways. It combined badsoil-indeed almost uniquely bad with a strong mercantile and from the 1810's industrial tradition-it was very much a mercantile area of the United States. At the same time and linked with the piety it was an extremely literature area of the country. AS already mentioned the South allowing for literacy was typical of the United States-New England it was much higher.

Similarly its racial attitudes as the 19th century wore on were very distinctive- often blacks had equal voting rights and something resembling equal civil rights were in New England a far cry from elsewhere in the US- it should be pointed ut the black population was very low in New England. Indeed this was the case even in New Hampshire a Democratic stronghold. Indeed Massachusetts abolished it's segregated schools in the 1850's! As late as the 1860 the one area where referendums of white men led to votes in that state was t. ideologically as opposed to institutionally it was arguably New England which was odd on race-not the South.

Another moderately distinguishing factor was the lack of a frontier from very early -there was not a natural extension of it the way there was for the South (with mini Georgas springing up in Alabama, Mississippi and even Texas). Even the vague central region of New York/ New Jersey had clearer migration routes after the Revolution. Michigan was the nearest thing in the early republic to a New England migration state and behaved rather like one. The "presbygentionist" (segregationists who'd moved west under the so called" Act of Union" forming an alliance between presbyterians and congregationists ) sought to hijack its politics in the Whig party -created a huge backlash and Democratic dominance more or less uninterrupted till the mid 1850's. Then anti-Catholicism and anti-slavery smashed Democratic domination and Michigan was a republican stronghold for almost eighty years.

Most New Englanders thus migrated to areas filled with other settlers- New Englanders emerged as a distinctive force in Ohio and New York for example. They had a reputation for religious zealotry, moralistic authoritarianism, education, arrogance and commercial skill bordering on greed-none of these stereotypes being without basis. They were also clannish-John Quincy Adams the only New Englander to be president en 1796 and 1852-won enough of those states and the white House due to absurdly high support in the New Englander "Yankee" areas-the "burnt over district" and the Western Reserve.

This was linked to another aspect of the distinctive nature of New England -its political distinctiveness. Again and again in the early republic the rest of the United States united against New England-it's true the south did more so but it stuck out less. Once (in 1796) a clear majority of New England twice defeated a majority of the South. By contrast the South again and again prevailed over New England in a clear choice whether in 1800 or 1812 or 1828-and it did so because again and again the rest of the country preferred the South's chosen paladiains to the mercantile moralists of New England. The "federalists"-seen by many historians as the only party to defend the classes against the masses explicitly were rapidly reduced to an (overwhelmingly) New England stronghold-and it was there they made their best stand. The National Republicans (who included many federalists and many old Republicans) ended up suffering form the same problem.

These distinctions of religion, politics, ideology behaviour and economic interest can be seen most distinctively in 1812. 1812 saw probably the worst defiance of the federal government until the civil war-much worst than anything that happened in the South (including South Carolina's rather marginalised stand). America was in a struggle-seen as a struggle for survival with the United Kingdom. The British burnt down the White House. Meanwhile New England states were nearly all mobilized by federalists against the war -motivated by ideological (they were the most opposed t the French Revolution) , religious ( the establishments mobilized against "infidel" Jeffersonians and Madisonians) and most of all perhaps commercial-the British were their trading partners and the American government . Nor was this a "patriotic" opposition. They refused to send militia-while lending and supplying the British. Indeed British soldiers just back form the war was lionized in Connecticut high society at one point! The exception oddly was Vermont-on the border with Canada and a war zone- perhaps the Whigs were so strong latter there because they lacked the taint of federalists "traitors"

The extreme example of this was the "Hertford convention" -a convention called in protest at the war. It included elements who wanted to talk of secession. It should be added they were then marginalised-the then federalist and latter leading Whig Daniel Webster gave a great speech opposing secession and the. Nonetheless I hope I have shown the previous actions suggest New England was taking civil disobedience to near treasonable levels. Indeed We have a record of the writing of a girl who was taught at school (a very New England institution) and at Salem that most arch typically New England of towns- the richest town in the US through trade in the 18th century)

"Abagail Jane is my name, Salem is my dwelling place
Christ is my salvation and New England is my nation"

New England note-not the Union or the United States.

So why has New England's distinctness been so downplayed compared to South in so much of what is written and imagined about the early republic. I think the biggest single problem is the weight of subsequent history-a very common one in historiography. New England was very different once Catholics poured in and it was dominated by Catholic Protestant rivalries. Now New England is overwhelmingly Catholic and the New England that existed before the 1840's is even harder to imagine and reconstruct than the South of that era- in a sense the Yankee culture has deceased. Most of the entire South's bloody rebellion overshadowed the history between the Revolution and the civil War. Also after the war as this excellent work suggests the values of the Yankee culture in so many ways became the values of late 19th century America. In a sense the New Englanders were victims of their own success in the 1860's and after. They overcome their growing demographic irrelevance by making Yankee values whether an obsession with education or a pro forma belief in racial equality "American values". The fact the term Yankee became a term for northerner-and ultimately for citizens of the US as a whole is perhaps the surest proof of this. When you call an American a "Yankee" you are registering the long ago triumph of what was once had been America's most ignored , "aristocratic" and irrelevant region.

March 13, 2009

The limits of Southern Exceptonalism-the South in the early republic

Historians of the United States-indeed a lot of non historians even a lot of non Americans are used to thinking of the South as (at least historically) the truly unique area of the US. The area which (at least with it's white population) lost a war was poorer rather than richer than most of European history, that had a partly unique system of segregation through law ,that was monolithic Democratic for decades-and then swung hard and erratically to the Republicans-giving by far the best results to no Hooper Barry Goldwater. It should be noted there are powerful arguments that over the last few decades Southern exceptional ism has got a lot less salient for example in politics. The gap between the South and the rest of the United States has certainly shrank for example.

This is often extended to before the Civil War.And of course there was one enormous difference-slavery indeed with a few borderline exceptions that defined the South and it's history does today (some states like Delaware where slavery was very rare though legal and some states like Florida whose have had so much non southern migration) . In the rest of the nation's states chattel slavery of those of African descent had always been quite rare and was illegal by the 1830's-in most cases well before.

This was obviously hugely important-it was key in causing the Civil War after all! But it had loads of additional implications. Some were obvious a huge % (over a third) of the south's population was African American for example. Others followed the south was much less densely populated, much poorer per person (though not per white person-in capital terms South Carolina was the richest state in 1860) for example. It had huge impact on the South's nature-but at the same time virtual all the distinctions. There are arguable exceptions-the South had a strong "honour" culture That is the culture in which dueling or beating was the ultimate respectable resort to insult, the former in reaction to an equal the latter a subordinate. However this was arguably true of parts of the North too , and in any case that arguably owed something to the role physical violence played in slavery-and the perceived threat of slaves to a women's "honour".

However sans slavery on so many perceived differences the South actually fitted in much better. The South was not necessarily that anti tariff- Louisiana (whose products benefited from tariffs) was quite pro tariff for example and in the 1840's Southern Whigs voted similarly on Tariff bills to Northern Whigs. Southern "illiteracy" has been grossly exaggerated. It seems it was low density of population more than anything else that drove illiteracy-the sparsely populated states of Indiana looked very like the South in illiteracy. The worst illiteracy was in North Carolina- not the most "southern" southern state-but the least densely populated with the population spread among it's 100 counties. Politically it often voted like the nation- for example it was quite similar in the 1840 election and often though far from always swung on national ties- til the 1850's when slavery came to monomaniacally dominate political discourse.

On these issues there was another area that stood out more- New England. And it is to this I shall next turn.

March 11, 2009

Democrats and Whigs-Foreign policy

How did these divisions between Whigs and Democrats in the mid 19th century affect the foreign policy of the early United States?

One area whee there was some difference was trade- as already stated the Whigs were more sympathetic to protection. This was not invariable Pennsylvanian Democrats often claimed to be pro "protection" -particularly at election time though in fact it was Buchanan the mightiest Pennsylvanian Democrat who as president pushed successfully for the lowest tariff of the era. This helped create a deficit and also lead to him being blamed for the "panic" and recession of the late 1850's.

The Democrats under Jackson in particular pushed trade agreements. The Jacksonians agrarian bias did not necessarily or always mean an indifference to markets for all their strength among Subsistence farmers. It also led them to support new markets for agrarian products-it was the subsidisation of production rather than its trade they objected to. Whigs though keen on tariff revenue did not necessarily oppose such measures-though their greatest achievement in this regard was China under Tyler-who in many ways was as discussed previously an extreme Democrat in his views and was disowned by his own party.

However the biggest difference emerged in the 1840's-and was a new push towards territorial expansion. First there was the annexation of Texas. However there were also attempts (ultimately wisely solved through compromise) to gain territory claimed also by the United Kingdom on what is now the western US-Canadian Border. Finally there was the American-Mexican War- and even more the sucessfull attempt to gain the US territory beyond Texas . each case the more "aggressive" and expansionist position were supported by Democrats. Whigs were much less enthusiastic and by a large majority opposed Texan annexation, were more generally more sceptical of pushing Britain too far on the boundary dispute, rapidly turned against the American-Mexican War (even setting up an inquiry which concluded the war had been dishonestly started by the Democratic president Polk). During the war they mostly managed to unite behind a general cry of "no territory"- demanding no further territory of Mexico (beyond Texas). Democrats by contrast overwhelmingly supported the eventual acquisition of half of Mexico (in terms of land area only a small percentage)

Oddly this was not true under Jackson. The main land dispute with Mexico lay in the future which was one major reason. However Jackson was actually very cautious with Britain on territorial disputes-. This same caution was followed in his refusual to annext Texas over Mexican oppostion and British scepticism. One says oddly because Jackson and his supporters made and to some degree still make much of his supposed Anglophobic and aggressive personality. Indeed a "Jacksonian" foreign policy is oftne used as a label for an aggressive and hawkish one. If one excludes Indian removal (not seen as a foreign policy issue at the time)this would suggest Jackson's foreign policy as president was not very "Jacksonian"!

Jackson's keenness on trade and arguable his worries about threats to slavey ensured he was very worried about upsetting Britain whihc was both America's most important trading partner and an incresingly anti-slavery superpower.It's also worth pointing out that the notion of Jackson being blindly driven by his emotions is just very dubious. John Quincy Adams at one point referred to Jackson's "utmost calculation"-and his foreign policy as with his many political moves suggests that actually Jackson may have been much less driven by "unreasoning rage" than his opponents.

However in the 1840's foreign policy ended up being a huge area of conflict between the parties. This was as so much in the Democratic party partly a result of Jackson's' influence- he was key in getting another protege the pro annexation (and it was to prove pro land acquisition of Mexico) James K Polk selected over the former president (and also a Jackson protege)Van Buren in part because Van Buren took a Whig line of wait and see on annexing Mexico. Even more important was Tyler and Polk. Tyler raised the issue of Texas annexation-in large part in a vain attempt to gain enough southern support to win reelection as a president who was now without a party. Polk was key to the decision both to wage a large war against Mexico-and to annex huge chunks of land as part of the victory settlement. Indeed Polk was furious with his negoitator for the eventual deal-he thought he hand't got enough territory.

So partisanship was a powerfull motivation in the divisions between the parties on Foreign policy- Democrats mostly supported Polk and were tepid on Tyler. The Whigs ultimately loathed both. However these differences also reflected the ideology and support bases of the two parties and it's worth examining why.

As already shown the Whigs wer the party which attracted more Evangelicals and anti-slavery zealots. Texas was a slave state and Mexican land looked like it could become one (Mexico had banned slavery so this would be an extension). Naturally such groups were hostile to the idea. Northern "yankee" (new engalnder) and evangelical culture also recoiled from the details of the beginning of war for example apparent American aggression much more than the dormant forces in the Democratic coalition they bought into a moralistic vision of Foreign policy.

Paradoxically the fact Whigs by the 1840's were getting the votes of most slave owners reinforced this tendency. All slave owners already had plantation land (or worked on it in the case of plantation hands) - southerners without an economic link to slavery (much more strongly Democratic) were often eager to acquire new territory to have their own plantations.

Of course being the party of slave owners and anti-slavery zealots also meant Whigs were very wary of acquiring new land-because the federal government would have to have a policy on slavery as regards it-and two key parts of their coalition would clash on it threatening the party as a whole. This problem was not helped by their active view of government power and elitist model of political representation. Democrats at least northern one's by contrast hit upon an expedient to manage such division-the notion of "popular Sovereignty" white men should decide whether slavery was true or no.

This notion was summed up well by Stephan Douglas (to a certain degree as much as any man it's inventor) in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates (a few years after the fall of the Whig party but in which he was defending essentially the same stance) "there is no man in the State who would be more strenuous in his opposition to the introduction of slavery than I would; but when we settled it for ourselves, we exhausted all our power over that subject. We have done our whole duty, and can do no more. We must leave each and every other State to decide for itself the same question. " This kind of reasoning was to fail Democrats in the 1850' for southern Democrats support of slavery proved unmanageable-but it wasn't' really a starter for Whigs.

The different attitudes of the two parties to economic-and even more industrial and urban development also drove their differences on Foreign Policy. The Whigs arguably saw American development as taking place through something like the type of economic growth we are familiar with. At the very least they saw it as being based on the development of commerce. Thus expansion was not necessary for a more prosperous United States-indeed the risks war posed for commerce might hurt it. Democrats on the other hand tended to be more likely to see agriculture and hence land as the core to prosperity-more land for the people of the united States meant more prosperity-and indeed for most of human history this had not been bad rule of thumb.This led the Democrats to a much more sympathetic attitude to expansion.

Another reason was location-the most Western States most notably Texas but also Illinois, Indiana or Missouri were mostly Democratic strongholds Thus their call for expansion and the desire of people of that state to gain more land and room for movement resonated more strongly among Democrats. They also reasonably thought any new states were likely to be Democratic. Ironically most of the states ultimately carved out of the cession were designed to be anything but-but by the Republicans not by the long dead Whigs.

One irony of this was that the Democrats the party of small government and suspicion of credit were the party that in the late 1840's raised expenditure and borrowed considerably in order to finance the war. This reminds us that in the early 19th century the expenditures of wars-even relatively modest ones were the biggest expenditure of the State. The Democratic party Agrarian oriented politics led theoretically to low expenditures . In practice however this was complicated by the hawkishness and expansion that same politics helped underpin.

This picture shows various points of American expansion-note the three great territorial expansions of Texas, the Oregonian Territory and the Mexican Cession. Eight current US States, and large chunks of another five date from the agreements of the 1840's. These are lasting monuments to the success of the Jacksonian Democracy in achieving so much of it's mighty foreign policy aims.

March 09, 2009

What's in a Name-The American Whigs

We have now considered the politics of the mid nineteenth century United States and why the "Democrats" the party that still exists today chosethat name initially. But what about their less successful rivals-the Whigs? What was the basis for their name? It took a long time for them to settle on this nominator -which only came into common usage in the mid/ late 1830's.

The immediate historical resonance of the name would have been the "Whigs" in the sense of "Patriots"- that is those who had opposed George III's (in American eyes) arbitrary personal rule and stood up for the rights of the colonial legislatures. They in turn had intended were seeking to bring a resonance with the British Whigs of the late 17th and early 18th century-who at least in American popular memory had opposed the arbitrary powers of kings and stood up for the rights of the legislature. It should be noted if had next to nothing directly to do with the "Whigs" of early 19Th century Britain-whose connection to the earlier Whig party was extremely tenuous.

The Whigs started off as a coalition of those opposed to Andrew Jackson-and in particularly his supposedly arbitrary and personal rule. Many southerners in the Whigs professed admiration for Jackson but were clearly uncomfortable with his latter policies on banking for example. Many argued that his use of the veto was an example of this. The US President in a legacy of the British monarchy can veto legislation. This is used fairly routinely today but in the early republic there was a widespread consensus that it should be used sparingly and only when the president believed the legislation unconstitutional. Jackson was the first president to use it when he just disliked a policy.

Even his constitutional veto's were more common (he vetoed more bills than all previous five presidents put together) and more controversial The Whigs generally took a more "loose" view of the Constitution-simply the "general welfare" power of Congress included the bank so congress could authorize it. The Democrats took a stricter one pointing to the lack of any specific banking power and the 10th amendment's limitation on the powers of the federal government.

Together these veto's were seen as a revival of monarchical power in the eyes of Jack sons' critics reminiscent of George III in its dangers. A new Whigs were needed to counteract this dangerous threat. Indeed the Whigs were to make a fetish of objecting to the Veto. Whig presidential candidates would make opposition to it a major part of their platform-it was a frequent Harrison pledge for example.

The economic agenda of the (or rather most) Whigs as outlined here fit in well with this view of the presidents function. The structure of congress was such as to provide at least an element of the Whigs' programme naturally. In particular congressmen would "log roll" internal improvements . Moreover at least earlier in Jackson's tenure congress was fairly supportive of the bank and even opponents of the bank were often sympathetic to a bank.For example one in the District of Columbia(not a sovereign state of the Union) rather than one that hind ed state rights by being in a state Pennsylvania and immune from Pennsylvanian states taxes. This proposal many Southerners who supported Jackson in 1832 were keen on. Thus the veto was the most obvious obstacle to so much of the Whig programme.

Similarly the Whig Programme had prospered in the era of "no party" often dubiously called "the era of good feelings"-where the Republicans were so dominant the distinctions had cracked down. A new bank had been rechartered and a programme of internal improvements and the like had flourished. It was Jackson's party or the "democrats" who seemed to provide an effective obstacle to this. Inspired by Van Buren they embraced a party in principle-as an obstacle to big government and "aristocracy". The earlier Whigs (though they soon forget this) tended to see themselves as a machine with a temporary function to break this party-to end "tyrannical" and "monarchical" rule and then return to this lost golden age. This was another reason to take this name it emphasised their temporary nature-at least at first. The very fact that the earlier "Whigs" had died after the American revolution/ War of Independence had succeeded was the very model the latter Whigs wanted to take. Jackson and Van Buren were the wicked Tories of the day seeking to promote arbitrary government and forging a party to threaten republicanism.

However it was another action of Jackson which for Whigs was pro bally the most outrageous. This was the removal of the deposits. In this Jackson withdrew the deposits from the Bank of the United States before its charter was up . This sent it it into bankruptcy and in the short term causing a massive contraction of credit partly deliberately encouraged by the banks management in a counterproductive effort to cause public outrage against Jackson. But for Whigs (including many who were Jackson men in 1832) this was simply an abuse of power- Congress had chartered the bank to hold government deposits. Jackson was behaving like George III-and down this route lay the prospect of a new George III-a tyranny crushing free born Americans under foot. Like Charles I Jackson had removed subordinates who refused to go along with his wishes. Ironically subsequent scholars have provided convincing reasons why Jack sons actions may well have been constitutional. Nonetheless the Whigs outrage was sincere. Indeed a majority of the Senate (including former supporters censured Jackson-only for the Democratic Party to regain control and then obedient to Jackson to the last expunge the censure's very record. This in turn further fed Whig fear and paranoia that the days of monarchy were returning.

This concern about the arbitrary nature of Jack sons actions there could appeal to politicians and voters who did not share the normal Whig economic programme. The same was even more true of outrage over another Jackson act-his opposition to the attempts by South Carolina to ignore federal custom duties and to refuse to pay them. Jackson supposedly threatened to "hang them higher than Haman" if resistance was given to federal officials. The great leader of dissent on this was John C Calhoun who helped found the Whigs even though his views on most issues were in agreements with the extreme end of the Southern Democratic party -very pro slavery and more relevantly very hostile to most activities of the federal government(tariffs for example)-indeed Calhoun helped give the Whigs initial control of Congress and censure Jackson over the deposit removal. Though he left them shortly afterwards some sympathisers remained in the Whig party. One of them John Tyler was the successful Whig candidate for vice president in 1840 ( a decision made very casually). Then President Harrison died and Tyler ended up using the veto to frustrate the large majority of the Whig economic platform-and then by annexing Texas beginning the Territorial expansion that the Whigs were to make a major cause of opposing. This life is full of ironies and the Tyler presidency is a useful reminder of this fact. Jackson created a coalition of opponents whose own divisions were huge and explosive.

This picture shows Jackson as the Whigs saw him as wittingly or unwittingly a King threatening tyranny to the United States.

March 08, 2009

What's in a name -the American Democrats of the mid 19th century

One factor that readers of the previous two posts may wonder is why did these parties have these names in early 19Th century America? Why was the party of Elites, racially inclusive ,evangelical pro government intervention in the economy called the Whigs and the party of popular8st , "whites only" , non evangelical front, sceptical of government funding for development called the "democrats"-these are odd names to our ears.

In particular the early to mid 19th Century Democratic Party is oddly named particularly in line to it's general hostility to black suffrage. Indeed it was also probably more hostile than the Whigs to women's suffrage though that was not really a serious policy idea in the period). It should be pointed out the Democrats were more supportive of White suffrage than the Whigs (particularly when they got more ideologically coherent in the 1840'. Nonetheless the explanation is to be found in the different meaning of the terms- and the historical associations they had to the politic ans and voters of the 1830's and 1840's . This can be seen by looking at the Democratic party.

Indeed if one was flippant one could say the Democratic party was not called that-the near universal colloquial title for them was the Democracy (the Democrats were the members of that party).

It is no coincidence was a common name for "Mr Jefferson's Party" that is the Jeffersonian Republicans/Democracy that had won the presidency and congress in 1800 and held both till 1824 when the party split with the most electoral college voters going to Andrew Jackson-the founder of the "new" Democratic party. In their decision to use this name when they stopped simply being "Jackson" men-the Democrats were making a clear-and shrewd decision to claim to be the continuation of that party.Indeed many of the Democratic party's formal party dinners both nationally and state are "Jefferson-Jackson" to this day.

This claim has been enough to confuse historians who often saw the Democrats as being the party founded by Jefferson. They saw Jefferson's supposedly reactionary "federalist" opponents as being continued by the Whigs. This was a major line of Democratic propaganda. That does not make it true. What is true is that in New England from the late 1830's the strongholds of the Whig's tended to be those in which the federalists had been relatively strong.But the Whig Patty's National Republican predecessor had won landslide victories in New England-including in the Old Jeffersonian stronghold. And the Whig Party was competitive in the South-where the federalists had been dead since the 1800's. The foremost leader of the Whig party Henry Clay was a veteran Jeffersonian.AT the same time there were only two federalists who after the death of that party became president. The first John Quincy Adams had left them despite his father having been a federalist president to become an enthusiastic Jeffersonian and was a National Republican/Whig. The second Buchanan was a Democrat- and indeed one of Jackson's first supporters!

Secondly the name Democratic had a meaning in the politics of the time. It was this meaning which filled European elites with such horror at the term. It's the sense De Tocqueville generally uses it- a society in which all men are equal in that distinctions in the eyes of the government between them on the basis of status have been abolished.In other words it's the opposite of aristocracy- it did mean giving all men the vote on the same terms-but also opposition to other forms of distinction between men.

Thus it provided an attractive title for the Democratic party platform- eliminating government intervention to promote the economy or "purify" society. Whether it was government activity in banking or education taxes- a distinction was being made and it was that which in principle the Democrats opposed. Partly because of the relative radicalism of this view of equality Democrats tended to make tight distinction between white men who were entitled to it and Blacks (and women to some degree) who were not.The Whigs could fudge these issues more easily partly because of their less egalitarian worldview.

On the other hand only the most extreme fringes of the Democratic party extended this hostility to legal distinctions as far as private property- indeed because they opposed distinctions between people they could oppose redistribution of property (in the form of school or roads taxes say) on the same "Democratic" ground.

It is in this ideological sense opposed to their very dubious institutional argument that their best claim to being the true heirs to Jefferson.Though Jefferson did not like Jackson calling him a "dangerous man" their ideologues had a very large number of similarities.

Thus the term "Democratic" made perfect sense for the party it described but not really for reasons we'd identify with. It included it's main claims to be the true heir to Jefferson, to be the true party of the people and to oppose a new "aristocracy" of Whig government intervention and elitism. In the context of the time it was almost an obvious label.

The Cartoon is of President Andrew Jackson-the true founder of the Democratic Party and probably the most successful American politician of the age. It shows him defeating the Bank of the United States the quasi central bank of the era-for many Democrats his greatest legacy. In the words of one of his supporters. "Only General Jackson would have dared veto the bank of the United States. And only General Jackson could have triumphed o'er that most vile and perfidious American aristocracy."

Whigs and Democrats Development and Salvation-their coalitions of support

In this previous post I talked about the Whigs and Democrats policy stances in the early 19th century. I showed that these two parties differed on a wide range of issues. Now I hope to describe their coalitions of support and show how they were linked to the policy views. In other words who supported which party in the all male and overwhelmingly white electorate of the day?

The Whigs were the party that supported government subsidy for economic development- the agricultural industrial revolutions if you will. Thus those who benefited most from them were much more likely to support Whigs. Those who were wary and even hostile to them supported Democrats. What this translated to on the ground was that areas and people dependent on commercial agriculture (i.e. farming done to sell on the market) supported the Whigs. . Similarly urban areas based on commerce tended to be strongly Whig. Subsistence farmers by contrast voted much more Democratic. Moreover there is a lot of evidence these divisions were created by the clashes on economic policy. The Jacksonian and anti-Jacksonian predecessors to the two parties had had much less of such economic based divisions. As economic policy divisions became clearer and clearer in the late 1830’s so did the divisions in the electorate.

This may help explain incidentally the difficulty historians have had in understanding these divisions. The superficial similarity of the party system (one of these parties still exists after all) has confused them. For after all rural backwaters are fairly politically marginal today! But in the rural society of the 1840’s they provided the basis for a winning electoral coalition.

There was also a class division again based on attitudes to economic development. Within cities the better off were much more Whig. In the cities more marginal workers for whom the industrial revolution was less of an unadulterated blessing were less likely to vote Whig..For most of this period for example in urban Boston the Whigs won ever ward- but they did worst in the poorest ward and best in the richest. The Closer and keener you were on development the more likely you were to be a Whig-so the urban were more Whig than the rural.

One should not consider the electorate of the era idiots for adopting these attitudes. The direct beneficiaries of national banking legislation were bankers and those who borrowed of them. For Subsistence farmers’ credit was a potential trap as in the third world today. Similarly when it came to economic development roads and railways were overwhelmingly used by those seeking to take goods to market. Tariffs benefited overwhelmingly urban based constituencies- while raising the prices of the few goods subsistence farmers bought. Above all in the early republic there was a pervasive wariness of the government making distinctions (“aristocracy” it was often called) between different people- as is implied in the government backing loans, building roads in one place but not anther and to some degree even in setting tariffs. Those who saw themselves as beneficiaries of such measures could swallow such scepticism and even see them as an “American System” tying them together. Those who did not would not and rose in opposition to such measures.

One can prefer on principled grounds the Whig or Democratic programmes of the day or elements of both. But the voting behaviour of the electorate was perfectly rational-they were not fools.

At the same time ethnic factors mattered a great deal in the North. African Americans for reasons already given voted Whigs- but so did most people of English descent. The big differences were generally ethnic and religious. Native Americans (that is people born in the United States it had a very different implication from the modern!) tined to be more Whig immigrants were consistently more Democratic. Indeed greater support among immigrants is one of the consistencies in the Democratic Party’s complex history. . People of English descent were more likely to be Whigs –other ethnic groups including Ulster Protestants were more Democratic.

However one of the biggest differences of all was religious. Several of the largest denomination was part of what was widely seen as a “benevolent” empire what historians often call the “united evangelical front”. This was true most of all of the Congregationalists but also of at least large parts of every large Protestant denomination. There were for example pan Evangelical rallies, revival meetings, bible societies and the like. Though there might be minor denominational differences the greater concerns were a sense of Christian salvation through grace and religious revivals and working to transform the world in the light of their sense of Christian conscience. The members of these groups were more Whig- and were probably close to half the US population.

On the other there were large groups that stood outside this front. The fastest growing (swelled by immigration) were Catholics. Certain Protestant groups though such as “Old line” (strict) Presbyterians or “high confessional” Lutherans also placed a much greater emphasis on the particular teachings of their denomination. Similarly free thinkers had problems with evangelical teaching for more obvious reasons. All these groups were much more Democratic.

Again this flowed out of the State differences described previously. Issues such as restricting alcohol, increasing educational levels, expanding knowledge of the (Protestant King James) bible according to a necessarily broadly Protestant rather than “sectarian”, fighting slavery aroused the enthusiasm of the members of the united evangelical front. It aroused either indifference. Even the Whigs economic programme could be seen as an attempt to renew American society and arouse the Front’s enthusiasm and its opponent’s hostility.

The degree to which this was policy rather than theology is well shown by the few exceptions to this rule of the prestigious and the orthodox voting Whig. . African Americans unsurprinsgly voted for the Whigs- the exception that proved the rule in a sense since part of moralise was their protection and opposition to slavery. However there were also certain groups which bought into all or most of the Front’s cultural and behavioural ideas whilst virulently rejecting Trinitarian Christianity-most notably Unitarians and Reform Jews. These two groups also tended to the Whigs. In Louisiana and Maryland where Catholics were the more established and "respectable" group and where many of the social issues initially mattered less at the state level they tended to be Whigs.

The Whigs were very vulnerable to “social” issues (one reason why they often tried to downplay them in favour of economics with mixed electoral success). On the one hand every new wave of immigrants shrank their share of the Vote. On the other their party contained an explosive mixture of urban elites and religious crusaders, slave owners and anti slavery zealots. These problems were to bring the Whigs down.

However ever even the Whig Democratic Party divisions are enough to confuse the contemporary reader on the one side stood the party of active government, Protestantism, “Law and Order” and “black rights”. On the other the party of limited government, religious pluralism, violent protest and “white rights”. One party stood for the urban, the evangelical the rich, the Anglo Saxon and the Black. Another for the rural, the Catholic, the secular, the poor the Irish and the White. The divisions were very real-and made as I hope I have shown coherent sense. But they were very different from our own.

This picture is of the 1852 election-the last election the Whigs were one of the two largest parties. The Whig cndidate was Winifield Scott america's greatest living war hero, the Democratic candidate the New Hampshire Political boss and former Senator Franklin Pierece. The Whigs manged to get 44% or so of vote but were crushed by new immigrants voting in the North and the fear they were insufficiently pro slavery in the South.

Whigs and Democrats Partisanship and Policy

America has had the same two parties overwhelmingly dominate all but one election since the 1860’s –a record unmatched by any other Democracy. The Democratic Party dates back in fairly clear institutional continuity (broken slightly in 1860 ) to at least the late 1830’s or even befor. This author would date it to the 1820’s at the absolute earliest though other’s would date it to Jefferson’s party confusingly called the Republicans- to the bafflement of generations of students).

The Republican Party on the other hand is a much younger party dating back to at the earliest the early 1850’s. They first won a Presidential Election in 1860 and first came second in 1856. However in 1852 there were two parties that got an overwhelmingly majority of the vote over 90% of the vote. As the above implies one of these parties was the Democrats the other was the Whigs.

The Whigs unquestionably were a united National Party by 1840-at least outside the South they built very heavily on the National Republican Party that had dominated New England in the 1820’s Even in the South they built on the “White “Presidential Movement that had been strong in the South in 1836 and the roots of which can be seen beforehand.

So what separated the two parties? The clearest distinctions in this period were in national economic policy-where the lines were as clear as those which separate Democrats and Republicans today. Andrew Jackson the Democratic party's first president had been a huge opponent of the bank of the United States ( a private-public partnership which had essentially performed the functions of a weak central bank) and his party followed him. Indeed in the Presidency of Martin Van Buren they went so far as to seek to place government deposits in secure safes rather than banks! .The Whigs were much more sympathetic to a government bank (though were often not outright supporters-almost certainly the product of fear) and to private and public partnerships. Similarly the Whigs were much more supportive of government expenditure on roads and other internal improvement than the Democrats (who often supported them anyway). Democrats often argued that “internal improvements” were unconstitutional due to lack of a specific part of the constitution saying the federal government could fund such.. Finally the Whigs were in favour of higher tariffs partly to pay for these improvements and partly to "protect" business

The parties also varied on slavery though less so. The Key difference on the issue was not on party lines but between those states where slavery was legal (the “south”) and those where it was banned (the North”) and even between smaller sub regions New England for example was notorious for its anti-slavery zeal widely allocated at the time to religious fanaticism. But it would be fair to say the Whigs were the more hostile to slavery. In the North those who believed the federal government should seek to ban slavery on “federal territory” (that is territory owned by no state) were mostly Whigs. Those who believed it should be decided by white men locally who could do what they wanted were Democrats. In the South those who were most fervent in defending “southern” and slave owner’s rights were mostly Democrats.

These concerns were reflected at the state level though the debate often varied from state to state. It’s important to remember that in America in this period most functions of government were performed at the state level. Indeed there is a strong case that for most regulatory functions the United States government was less relevant to the American of this period than the EU is for the average Brit today.

Again divisions were sharper on economics. Whigs supported higher spending on economic development particularly on transportation whether Railways (the early 19th century equivalent of the internet) or Canals. They also sought to promote banking including government banks that operated as a form of weak central bank. Democrats varied in their attitude to banking. In some states they were for free" (ie more or less unegulated) banking in other states they placed enormous restrictions on it and even on the use of bills of exchange. But their hostility to government involvement in banking was fairy consistent. In most states government involvement in the economy dived the parties clearly

There were differences though on other issues-though not necessarily so clearly. In society and welfare as with the economy the Whigs were the party of more active government- and they were also the party of uplift and piety. They tended to be more fervently in favour of regulations to control social behaviour- whether restrictions on alcohol, sexual behaviour, on the rights of immigrants. They were more likely to support schools to improve the labour force (and to promote Protestantism and other values they saw as Americans). They were more hostile to any hint of violence or revlution-they tended to be for penal reform -and were also much hostile to the "Dorr" rebellion to attaain universal white manhood suffrage in Rhode Island (leading northern Democrats like Martin Van Buren by contrast were fairly sympathetic.)

The Whigs were more sympathetic to recognising African Americans claims (whichwas often not much). In the South Whigs were more likely to support regulations that restricted the “freedom” of slave owners (to separate married slave couples for example). In the North Whigs were much more likely to support the vote and other rights for African Americans- it helped that African Americans cast their very few votes overwhelmingly in favour of the Whigs in what became a self sustaining cycle.

The picture by the way is of the 1844 election- the election the two parties were most closely balanced- the greatest leader of the Whigs Henry Clay was beaten by James K Polk.

I hope to explore the philosophy and coaltions of the two parties-and some of the great historical literature . For now I hope i have given some insight into both how different the issues were of the era- and how much they mattered. Indeed registered voters were actaully more likely to turn out than they are in the modern US.

Sulla returns

Dear all I'm back minding the blog for a few days. I'll do my inadequate best to be some kind of substitute for Gracchi.