Early Elections and the Development of Political Parties

After the recent primary craziness, I’ve seen a lot of comments pertaining to choosing between the lesser of evils among candidates and whether or not third party nominees are worth your vote. I think it’s time to take a look at the history of our voting system and how we got to this point of choosing between Republicans and Democrats.

Some may not realize that our method of electing Presidents has changed a bit over time. I remember the Electoral College being a major topic around the Bush/Gore election and the debate always seemed to be “this is how it’s always been” versus “we need a fairer system.” Not knowing any better, it was easy for me to assume that because we have had the Electoral College from the beginning that we have also had this party system from the beginning. That’s the first thing I want to make clear here, that the electoral college versus popular vote debate is a separate issue from how and why we have two parties dominating our political system.

The Original Constitution

At the founding of this country we did not operate with a party system as we recognize it today. There were political parties (like the Federalists) but that didn’t determine who ran. Being a part of a political party didn’t necessarily mean anything more than just having a label to quickly and easily summarize your beliefs. There were no running mates – the candidate with the most votes became President, the candidate with the second most became Vice President. Each elector had two votes so they could essentially place a vote for both positions. In the event of a tie, the House would choose. If even the House’s vote resulted in a tie, then the Senate became tie breaker. (See Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution to read more.)

In our first Presidential election in 1789, George Washington and John Adams both ran and are considered widely as representing the Federalist party. Washington got the most votes and so was elected President, though you’ll be hard pressed to find anything saying Washington considered himself part of the Federalist party. Adams got the second most and so became Vice President.[1] In the third election, when Washington declined to serve a third term, we saw more variation in the candidates, the main ones being John Adams (Federalist), Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican), Thomas Pinckney (Federalist), and Aaron Burr (Democratic-Republican). It’s not to say these groups didn’t have in mind a specific one of their own for President and another for Vice President, but it was set up in such a way that securing one position didn’t mean that party secured the other. It also means that if they had many candidates from their party running the votes could be split resulting in someone else completely winning. So we see that the parties weren’t really relevant when it came to who could be a candidate and there wasn’t truly a party system as we know it today.

In his Farewell Address, Washington specifically addressed the party system and cautioned against it (emphasis mine):

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”

The Twelfth Amendment

As time passed, the political climate of our young country drove more and more of our leaders, even founders themselves, to stick to their parties. Trying to get their candidates in office with the original voting procedure proved problematic and so it seemed imperative to change things.

The Twelfth Amendment held slight changes for the electoral process and was passed by Congress on December 9th, 1803 and then ratified June 15th, 1804. This came primarily as a solution to issues surrounding the 1796 election where Jefferson was able to secure Vice President because the Federalists weren’t united in their voting for Vice and then again in the 1800 election with the Jefferson/Burr tie. It required that one vote be given for the President and one vote be given for Vice President. It also changed how many candidates the House and Senate could choose between when serving as tie breakers. Although it’s been a near thing, the House of Representatives hasn’t actually decided the outcome of an election since 1824. However, it’s important to note that if there was ever enough of a tie that would mean that the lowest population states would have equal power as the highest population states in the election outcome.

Back on topic, the Twelfth Amendment created the party ticket we have come to expect with one person put forth as President and another put forth as Vice President. This is partly because there were concerns that a President from one party and a Vice President from another (as happened with President John Adams and Vice Thomas Jefferson) would result in difficulties working together… though some might contend that is a good thing and in truth the Vice President has limited powers anyway unless the Vice has to take over the role of Presidency for some reason. Perhaps that was the real rub, the idea that their candidate could win President but then by some fluke of poor health, assassination or whatever else the position could end up in the hands of their opponents. It also prevented that pesky problem of votes getting split among a party to their own detriment.

By this time, so soon (relatively) since the warnings of Washington, elections had taken a partisan turn making them eerily similar to what we see today.

One Fish, Two Fish…

Certainly in recent memory the two main parties have been Democrat versus Republican and many seem to feel that it’s inevitable that one of those two are the only possible winners. I wonder if people realize that it has not always been these two or if they think that Democrat versus Republican is just a renaming of the two original groups that seemed to emerge. In fact, we have had Federalist presidents, Anti-Federalist, Democratic-Republican, Democratic, National Republican, Whig, and Republican. While these names sound familiar to each other, the platforms of parties have varied and developed substantially over the years. There have also been other parties that, while not winning a Presidential election, did win electoral votes in many states – parties you’ve probably never heard of like Constitutional Union, People’s/Populist Party, Progressive, States Rights Democratic (“Dixiecrats”), and American Independent.

In truth, we as a people could choose any party we wished and it doesn’t have to be one of the main two. The real upper hand that they have, beyond just the power in general of being incumbents, is the fact that Republicans and Democrats get federal funding for every Presidential election and have since 1976. This involves millions of dollars to each which go to contribution matching and funding of their national conventions, conventions that are run by whatever rules those parties decide on. Though minor party candidates have qualified for this funding before, it’s more difficult for them and some have challenged whether the setup of this funding and the party requirements is even Constitutional.

Have we somehow forgotten, though, that we live in the age of the internet? We are not confined to ignorance and now more than ever any party should have an equal shot if the people have the backbone to vote their conscience rather than continuing to subscribe to “lesser of two evils” and “third parties are wasted votes” mentalities.

Geographical and Cultural Differences

One of the excellent observations made by Washington in his Farewell Address was that:

“In contemplating the causes wch may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern, that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by Geographical discriminations–Northern and Southern–Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavour to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views.

One of the expedients of Party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions & aims of other Districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies & heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render Alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal Affection.”

Isn’t that what we have seen repeatedly in our past? Yet, as Washington adds, “[w]ith slight shades of difference, you have the same Religeon, Manners, Habits & political Principles. You have in a common cause fought & triumphed together–The independence & liberty you possess are the work of joint councils, and joint efforts–of common dangers, sufferings and successes.” Remember this is the same man who welcomed Muslims and who exact beliefs on Christianity remain mysterious. This was not an insistence that we are solely a Christian nation or that we must all agree on controversial topics, but a reminder that our disagreements only divide us so much as we let them. If we managed to learn how to mind our own business and not attempt to control others we might even run out of things to argue about. At least, argue as much about.

[1] http://www.270towin.com/1789_Election/