Monday, November 5, 2018
November 5, 2018: Major Midterms: 1826
[To say that this year’s midterm elections are significant is, I believe, to significantly understate the case. But crucial as they are, they won’t be the first such significant midterms, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy five other major midterms, leading up to a special weekend post on this year’s results. And oh yeah: vote!]
On the single-party midterms that presaged an era of increasing partisanship and conflict.
I’ve written before about the incredibly divisive presidential election of 1800, which, along with other foundational histories such as the overtly political origins of the Supreme Court or the battle over the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, should lay to rest any arguments that American government or society has ever been free of political parties or partisan conflicts. But despite those originating political realities, there was one decade or so when the U.S. operated as a largely one-party system: the period between about 1815 and 1825, a decade known as the Era of Good Feelings. The Federalist Party had mostly collapsed on the national level, and virtually all of Congress as well as the Presidency were controlled by the Democratic-Republican Party throughout the period. Although of course there were divisions and battles within the Democratic-Republican Party, this was still an era of apparent political solidarity, a time during which Secretary of State and future President John Quincy Adams could say, in an October 1817 letter to his nephew John Adams Smith, that, “Party spirit has indeed subsided through the Union to a degree that I should have thought scarcely possible.”
Adams was elected president in 1824, but during his first and only term he and the rest of the nation would learn that perhaps the seeming absence of party spirit was indeed not possible. The 1824 election alone highlighted tensions within the Democratic-Republic Party, as Adams was running against three other Democratic-Republican candidates and one of them, Andrew Jackson, received more popular and electoral votes; since he did not receive a majority, however, the election went to the House of Representatives which controversially chose Adams instead. Jackson supporters spent the next couple of years angrily working toward the 1826 midterm election, which as a result became perhaps the first truly divisive such midterm—Jacksonians picked up sufficient seats in the House of Representatives to claim the majority, with Jackson’s friend and ally Andrew Stevenson becoming the new Speaker of the House; and they added seats to an existing Senate majority, giving Jacksonians control over both Houses of Congress and the ability to directly oppose Adams’ administration. The Good Feelings were no more.
The ramifications of the 1826 midterms went far beyond just those next couple years of divided government, or even Jackson’s subsequent and highly significant (as well as hugely destructive) 1828 election to the presidency. The 1826 election also marked the final endpoint for the nation’s original political parties, as Jackson had separated from the Democratic-Republicans and run in 1828 under the banner of a new Democratic Party; his opposition would subsequently reorganize under another new title, that of the Whig Party. While again there had been plenty of conflict between the founding era’s original political parties, this second two-party system would reach new levels of partisanship and vitriol, helping usher in a new era in national politics (one not at all unrelated to the Democratic Party’s gradual but clear connection throughout this era to the interests of the system of slavery). All illustrations of just how important and influential a midterm election can be.
Next midterm tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other elections or contexts you’d highlight?