Political History, Ideals, and Rhetoric

Agrarians & Aristocrats: Party Political Ideology in the United States, 1837-1846 John Ashworth, 1983

Lately, I've been reviewing quite a bit of history that's strictly outside my main field (and this site), because I'm preparing to finally write my dissertation. Although I'm thinking of my project as an Environmental History of the single-commodity-study variety, I want to make some points about rural 19th-century politics and economics. So I've read a bunch of that sort of material, and I've found some ideas I think are relevant for EnvHist.

I'd never be a good Political Historian. Too much of a cynic. I'm really disinclined to believe that party politics springs directly from philosophy like Athena from the head of Zeus. I have no patience for political histories
that never follow the money. I'm always on the lookout for interests that inform ideologies, and for alignments of political theory and practical benefit. In the back of my mind, I'm always thinking, yeah, that's the party platform. But is it a philosophy waiting to be put into action or just rhetorical cover for the same old same old?

But I do recognize that in politics, people tend to identify with broad, epic ideas. So it interests me when John Ashworth says “Essentially Democratic leveling theory implied an agrarian, pre-capitalist society. The meritocratic outlook of the Whigs, on the other hand, implied a welcoming response to the quickening pace of commercial change...” (1). Whether Democrats actually practiced leveling, it says something that it resonated with some of their supporters. And that those same (presumably northern, rural) Democrats perceived the Whigs as not sharing that vision.

Ashworth says about the Bank of the United States controversy that the Jacksonians “charged that the bank represented privilege: it took from the poor in order to give to the rich” (3). The basis of this idea in anything but scapegoating is hard to see. I've never understood why Jackson and his people believed that eliminating the central bank would resolve this? And cynic that I am, I always suspect, when an argument doesn't add up, that there might be something more behind it. Often I'm wrong, and arguments just don't make sense. But sometimes...

Ashworth traces this “cherishment of the people” to Jefferson, which is okay, as far as it goes. But what about the top-down, elite leadership model of Jeffersonian democracy? It’s very similar to Whiggism, and only looks left because the Federalists were so far right (10). Ashworth does note a political change, “where previous republican theory had sought to facilitate the emergence, and guarantee the retention, of a superior governing elite, many Democrats now wished to place in office men whose chief personal characteristic was their similarity to the people whom they represented....John P. Tarbell of Massachusetts...believed that ‘plain farmers are as capable of judging as lawyers’ ” (14). Does this suggest a recognition by Jacksonian politicians and their constituents that the law was becoming less “common” and more of a friend of the rich? (cf.
Horwitz) Why not? This would be a generation that grew up remembering Daniel Shays, the Whiskey Rebellion, and the Alien and Sedition Acts.

“Martin Van Buren publicly complained that ‘all communities are apt to look to government for too much’ ” (19). But what is the basis of this? WHO is looking to government at this point? Is this like Reaganite conservatives attacking welfare mothers?


“The Democratic view of politics thus emphasized self-interest as the basis of liberty and democracy” (20). This division of elements between the parties -- how did this happen? How could self-interest actually be a trait of the members of one party and not the other? And if it's just a rhetorical device, we're already halfway to my cynical suspicion that rhetoric simply serves agendas. According to Silas Wright, “a well-educated, industrious and independent yeomanry are the safest repository of freedom and free institutions” (22). The Democrats’ approach to Adam Smith was that “provided that government did not intervene, the natural laws of supply and demand would direct mens’ labour into productive and rewarding activities and ‘would tend to equalize the distribution of wealth’ ” (quoting The Democratic Review, Sept 1839, 29). This is awfully hard to distinguish from the Whig position. So once again it seems as if the real job of a political historian like Ashworth ought to be to examine actual events and see how people lined up.

In the states, the argument against internal improvements, according to Ashworth, was that “The minority who secured the unfair advantage of a canal dug or a railroad built,” benefited at the expense of those farther away (43). This sentiment probably stems from the frantic maneuvering that went on in communities to get railroads and stations built through particular land to specific spots, to benefit the landowners. But generalizing this corrupt elbowing for position into a political ideology seems a bit ridiculous. It never occurred to anyone to discuss mitigating the costs, or spreading the benefits? They REALLY believed that building a railroad or canal was a zero sum enterprise? Isn’t it more likely the conflict was over the specific results on the ground of these internal improvements and not the overall theoretical legitimacy of internal improvement?

“At the core of Whig ideology lay a belief...in individuality," says Ashworth. "The Whigs stressed the dissimilarities among men. They perceived in Democratic egalitarianism a fatal desire to...deny the diversity which unavoidably existed” (52). Yeah. When it suited them. When the proposed internal improvements, they argued that society as a whole would benefit. Or in other words, they stressed the similarities among people and their shared interests. Similarly, the Democratic complaint in the last paragraph, that a minority secured unfair advantage, indicates a recognition of the "dissimilarities among men." So again, it may really be about marshalling appropriate sounding rhetoric for the occasion, and the continuity of Democratic or Whig tropes may just be coincidence.

Horace “Greeley believed that the...fundamental difference between the parties lay in their conceptions of the role of government. The Whigs held that ‘government need not and should not be an institution of purely negative, repressive usefulness and value, but that it should exert a beneficent, paternal, fostering usefulness upon the Industry and Prosperity of the People’ ” (quoting
Hints Towards Reforms, 1850, 54). So it's a bit ironic that the Whigs become Republicans, whose entire platform revolves around a very necessary and important, but basically "negative, repressive" function of government, eliminating slavery.

One of my buddies at UMass is working on a Political History dissertation on the period between the end of the Civil War and 1912. Talking with him, I've been struck by the way the whole bundle of Democratic beliefs was brought into complete disrepute for a generation by the Democrats being the Party of Slavery. To whatever extent any element of the constellation of beliefs that became identified with Democrats was valid, it was because some of those ideas about small central government or states' rights had resonated with people who weren't Southern slaveholders and weren't mouthing the words just because they provided cover for their real agenda. But we're not going to be able to tease out those threads of real ideological commitment that might be of genuine interest until we disqualify all the insincere propaganda in the way.