- Practicing Democracy: Popular Politics in the United States from the Constitution to the Civil War ed. by Daniel Peart and Adam I. P. Smith
In Practicing Democracy, editors Daniel Peart and Adam I. P. Smith have collected a series of thoughtful essays that challenge the role of political parties in the early republic. In keeping with the “new new political history” as well as the movement to study politics beyond traditional institutional forms, the contributors question Walter Dean Burnham’s tidy “party systems” schema in favor of a messier vision of political development that emphasizes local politics and the realm of political action beyond the two-party system. They also challenge our understanding of the meaning of political parties themselves. For the most part, the contributors have advanced a well-reasoned case for reassessing the role of popular politics in early American political history.
The book follows the approach of recent political histories by challenging the traditional institutional approach and examining ways in which “less tangible elements of politics like culture, class, and ideology” influenced political development (281). As Kenneth Owen argues in his essay on localism, early Americans established their political identity “through extra-governmental institutions that possessed a claim to representative legitimacy and that could serve as an expression of the will of the people” (175). In case studies of Illinois, New York, and Philadelphia, Graham Peck, Tyler Anbinder, and Andrew Heath investigate the line between political parties and the less formalized political action groups that influenced local politics. As Peck argues, politics in Illinois had a dynamism that transcended static party loyalty. Yet as Anbinder proves in his essay on immigrant politics in New York and Heath illustrates in his study of antebellum Philadelphia, party leaders understood the vitality of these outside influences and sought to channel them into party support, with varying levels of success.
Other essays in the collection offer new theoretical frameworks for understanding how political activity transcended traditional party discourse. Douglas Bradburn’s expansive essay on the significance of “path dependence” to American political development and the origins of party politics seeks to explain how parties developed in the United States. The [End Page 437] path dependence theory offers a useful approach to studying how the evolution of parties occurred out of less coherent political antecedents. But Bradburn’s real contribution rests in his incisive analysis of how the Constitution of 1787 actually led to the creation of political parties, in spite of the fact that the founding generation generally disdained party structures. Bradburn’s revisionist history of party development traces its origins to the Court and Country factions in Great Britain and then shows how their differences made the growth of party sentiment within the colonies—and then the United States.
Bradburn’s essay fits nicely with John L. Brooke’s analysis of political culture and party rupture during the 1850s. In a dense but rewarding essay, Brooke seeks to show how political culture influenced the politics of slavery during the 1850s. Like Bradburn, Brooke recognizes that political activity often occurred outside the bounds of formal party structures. The “Appeal of the Independent Democrats,” according to Brooke, made a lasting impact because northerners had already begun shifting toward a new political paradigm that rejected the old compromises on slavery. According to Brooke, “The party managers lost their power to control events” (77). The Compromise of 1850, and especially the Fugitive Slave Act, had ruptured existing political bonds and allowed people and institutions outside of the political parties to shape public opinion.
Reeve Huston’s essay on the origins of partisanship between 1795 and 1840 fills in the chronological gap between Bradburn’s and Brooke’s essays. Huston’s work shows how popular participation in political culture complicates the notion that party politics emerged between 1828 and 1840. Instead, he argues, political development and popular participation predated the Age of Jackson by several decades. Huston’s insights into party development challenge the traditional...