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  • The Partisan Republic: Democracy, Exclusion, and the Fall of the Founders’ Constitution, 1780s–1830s by Gerald Leonard and Saul Cornell
  • Rosemarie Zagarri (bio)

U.S. Constitution, Political parties, Democracy, Politics

The Partisan Republic: Democracy, Exclusion, and the Fall of the Founders’ Constitution, 1780s–1830s. By Gerald Leonard and Saul Cornell. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. 254. Paper, $28.99.)

One of the most enduring paradoxes of early American politics is how the framers of the U.S. Constitution not only failed to anticipate the development of a two-party political system but actually believed that the country could be governed without political parties. More than a half century ago, in The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1785–1840, Richard Hofstadter laid out the basic intellectual framework that explains how Americans moved from the anti-partyism of the founding era to a widespread acceptance of political parties. By the time of Martin Van Buren in the 1830s, Hoftadter argued, a permanent, two-party political system had come to be seen as an essential feature of American political life, connecting ordinary voters in their local communities with national politics and providing a check on those in office. Instead of being considered seditious and illegitimate, parties came to be seen as the vehicle of the loyal opposition.

Leonard and Cornell’s excellent book builds on Hofstadter’s argument and updates it in light of recent decades of scholarship on women, enslaved people, and Native Americans, not to mention the popular political culture in the early republic. In contrast to Hofstadter’s traditional [End Page 494] top-down approach, they acknowledge the importance of popular opinion and bottom-up political mobilization in shaping the emergence of the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican parties. At the same time, their key intervention is to place the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court at the center of their discussion, exploring the relationship between judicial interpretation, popular constitutionalism, and party politics.

The authors structure their argument around a somewhat artificial, but nonetheless useful, distinction between a “republican” as opposed to a “democratic” vision of the Constitution. As the framers imagined it, elite white men would continue to inhabit the most important positions of power and authority in the new government. With the rapid rise of popular political parties in the 1790s, however, this vision of governance quickly came to be challenged. Even as Federalists continued to embrace the framers’ republican model, Jeffersonian Republicans pursued a more democratic vision, pressing states to expand voting rights and broaden officeholding to larger proportions of the population.

Yet as Cornell and Leonard acknowledge, the Jeffersonians’ support for universal rights was more constricted than it might at first appear. Although striving to make all men equal before the law, Republicans did not include women and Black people (especially slaves) within the compass of their egalitarian vision. Democracy, on these terms, extended only as far as the adult white males whose support could get Republican politicians elected. Republicans also had a particular vision of the role of the courts. According to Cornell and Leonard, Republicans increasingly demanded that “the people”—either through their state legislatures or through their political parties—be allowed to determine the constitutionality of federal laws and policies, through a process that the authors call “popular constitutionalism” (60).

Although Republicans achieved greater and greater success at the polls during the first decades of the nineteenth century, they also met fierce resistance—not only from the opposing political party but also from the Supreme Court. Despite the decline of Federalist political influence at the national level, the federal court system was brimming with Federalist judges whose “legalist” (5) judicial philosophy reinforced support for key Federalist positions. In a series of important decisions from 1800 to 1832, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, repeatedly ruled in favor of strengthening national power at the expense of the states, embracing common-law principles concerning contracts and property rights, and most especially, promoting the notion of judicial supremacy. Although [End Page 495] the Supreme Court’s position tended to disadvantage the dispossessed, there was one set of issues in which Marshall...


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