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  • Richard P. McCormick and The Second American Party System
  • Lex Renda (bio)

In his American history survey lectures at Rutgers University, Richard P. McCormick often placed politicians at the center of history while irreverently poking fun at their inability to control long-term events. On the one hand, he argued that partisanship in the Jacksonian era originated in the contest for the presidency and politicians’ manipulation of the electoral system, not in doctrinal disputes or social cleavages. On the other hand, politicians were at the mercy of fate. Neither the Whigs’ issueless, hoopla-dominated campaigns, replete with military hero candidates and absent of party platforms, nor the Democrats’ “Jacksonian Strategy” of laissez-faire government could withstand the sectional tensions that eventually sundered the parties as well as American society as a whole. The incredulity of Whigs toward one delegate at their 1840 national convention who daringly proposed a platform, the explosion on the U.S.S. Princeton, which took the life of John Tyler’s secretary of state and permitted his replacement, John C. Calhoun, to breach the hitherto stifled Texas annexation issue, the insulting rant of Michigan’s Charles Stuart at the 1860 Democratic convention, which precipitated the bolt of southern delegates and the subsequent break-up of the Democratic party — all figured prominently in McCormick’s humorous anecdotes about antebellum politics. Leaders created events, yet when structural changes and transcendent sectional animosities are factored in, their influence appears enigmatic, akin to that of the broker in a stock market that ultimately crashes. This role is most visible in McCormick’s The Second American Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era (1966), 1 a book which remains equally enigmatic in its seminal importance and ambiguous legacy.

McCormick received his graduate training at the University of Pennsylvania under the tutelage of Roy F. Nichols, the preeminent “politician’s political historian” of his day. Nichols’s account of the disruption of the Democratic party in the late 1850s provided an organizational interpretation of political history that challenged the “irrepressible conflict” school of Civil [End Page 378] War causation. 2 Although McCormick would implicitly reject Civil War revisionism, Nichols’s assumptions about the impact of politicians, especially their ability to exploit voter impulses, would permeate The Second American Party System. Nichols fostered in McCormick an enduring appreciation of the autonomous nature of political parties and the propensity of politicians to act with personal goals in mind.

The genesis of McCormick’s interest in the development of the second party system lay in his own earlier study of voting patterns in New Jersey, as well as in his reading of Maurice Duverger’s comparative analysis of the world’s party systems. 3 Duverger concluded that the American political system deviated markedly from every model. American political parties were, in essence, electoral machines — institutions more adept at electing candidates than in articulating convictions, educating voters, or fulfilling policy goals. For McCormick, the proximate cause of American exceptionalism in this regard was structural. The decentralized system of government and the various constitutional provisions which by design frustrated majority rule ensured the creation of parties more capable of winning elections than of governing. Americans’ persistent ambivalence toward both, power and the legitimacy of political parties, undergirded these structural impediments. Of all the party systems in American history, the second was most clearly an electoral machine system, McCormick implied, for not only did its component parties abdicate their responsibility to govern, but they had to exist in defiance of the most divisive issue in American history: black slavery. 4

The complexity of the federal system of politics led McCormick to write The Second Party System in an unconventional manner. His account of political development was based on neither national nor local events exclusively. Instead, he traced party development in every state which entered the Union prior to 1824, excluding only South Carolina, where no state-wide elections were held before the Civil War. This comparative approach allowed McCormick to ask the same analytic questions and to deduce with reasonable accuracy the timing of party formation everywhere. 5 Indeed, the timing of party development was McCormick’s principal concern, and that too distinguished his book from others...

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pp. 378-389
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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