Upon Republicanism: From Jefferson to Van Buren
by Charles A. Burris
by Charles A. Burris: Who
Rules America: Power Elite Analysis and American History
Out of the
Revolution emerged a unique political ideology or system of
belief – republicanism.
or Federalist, Democratic-Republican
or Federalist, Democratic-Republican or National-Republican,
Democrat or Whig, this
vision lay at the center of Americans’ beliefs. It remains today
root of what we as a people believe. Political
debate then, as now, centers upon who
has remained most true to this vision.
was a political outlook centering upon the
themes of liberty versus power and civic virtue versus political
corruption. The main lesson of republicanism was that a virtuous
citizenry preserved its freedom by keeping government within strict
constitutional bounds. Corruption and big government went hand in
hand, for only government could rig the market in favor of an artificial
aristocracy. Revolutionary republicanism was nurtured in the
early republic by such Virginians as Thomas Jefferson, James
Madison, John Randolph of Roanoke, and John Taylor of Caroline.
Of the early
republican leaders Jefferson and Madison were the Himalayan peaks
which towered over the rest of their contemporaries. Jefferson
was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, while
is traditionally known as the "father of the United States
Constitution." They were the founders of the
Democratic-Republican Party in opposition to Alexander
Hamilton’s statist program of corporatism
and central banking.
Randolph of Roanoke is unique in American political history.
Only twenty-six when first elected to Congress in 1799, he easily
became its most forceful figure. When Jefferson became president
in 1801, Randolph became majority leader in the House of Representatives.
He was "a merciless castigator of iniquity." Booted and
spurred, he commanded attention as he swaggered about Congress,
whip in hand.
With the exception
of Jefferson’s first term, Randolph’s public career was as a leader
of the opposition – the
Old Republicans or "Tertium
Quids" – to both the Jeffersonians and Federalists. He
was devoted to state’s rights, the agricultural interest, economy
in government, and freedom from foreign entanglements. He fought
the drift to war in 1811, the Second Bank of the United States in
1816, the Missouri Compromise in 1820, internal improvements at
federal expense, increases in the tariffs at all times – and almost
every other principal measure recommended by Thomas Jefferson, James
Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams. Above All things he
cherished personal liberty. "I am an aristocrat," Randolph
declared. "I love liberty, I hate equality."
with the Jeffersonians over the
Yazoo land scandals, and led the Old Republican faction who
felt that Jefferson had betrayed them (and the republican vision)
by adopting Federalist means to achieve compromised Republican ends.
Taylor of Caroline was a model of the virtuous citizen-legislator
modern supporters of term limits aim for – one who soldiers, enforces
the law, writes in its defense and the life it secures, and serves
the government well when called to office – and not as a professional
career politician. Originally an Anti-Federalist, he believed the
Constitution was basically a law to restrict the conduct of legislators
and other government officials – a
law to limit law. But
his republican vision for the infant republic was subverted from
the beginning. Alexander Hamilton’s financial plan for supporting
the new government was the original of all Federalist mischief.
From the moment of their proposal (and especially as senator in
1793 and ’94), Taylor fought the idea of a national bank and the
assumption of state debts by the central government. He
believed such actions created an artificial aristocracy of "paper
and patronage" – consolidation of government, monopoly, special
privilege, and theft by taxation. This kind of government was
not what he had fought for, from the Revolution on.
It was from
this radical republican heritage of men such as Jefferson, Madison,
Randolph, and Taylor that produced one of the most important political
leaders America has ever produced, Martin Van Buren, who succeeded
in the extremely difficult task of creating a new second national
party when the United States had bogged down into a corrupt one-party
Far from being
an "Era of Good Feelings," America under presidents’ Monroe
and Adams was a major period of political corruption. It was during
this time when Van Buren forged the Democratic Party.
As Murray N.
Rothbard perceptively noted in "Principle in politics,"
a critical review of John Niven’s Martin Van Buren: The Romantic
Age of American Politics, published in the September 1983 edition
of Inquiry magazine:
son of a tavern keeper in upstate New York, Martin Van Buren early
displayed the stubborn integrity that would mark his entire career.
For he took the Jeffersonian road in opposition to the Federalist
power structure in his own county, and against the Aaron Burrite
views of his own patrons in the law. Quickly rising as an eloquent
and highly intelligent trial lawyer, he soon manifested the tactical
brilliance that would gain him the name of "the Little Magician."
Ideologically he was always a Jeffersonian, but in those days
his was of an instinctive and inchoate variety, standard for his
time and place. Always he always distrusted inflationary bank
credit, and always leaned toward minimal government, state’s rights,
and laissez faire.
In the spring
of 1824, Van Buren underwent what amounted to a conversion experience,
spending a weekend that would, in the current jargon, change his
life. A leading manager for clearly the most Jeffersonian of the
presidential candidates, William
H. Crawford of Georgia, Van Buren did what he had always wanted
to do: visit his hero, the aging, penniless, but still charismatic
Thomas Jefferson. He made a pilgrimage to Monticello, where he
found the old man brooding over the state of American politics.
Even though Jeffersonianism had won in overthrowing the Federalists
in "the Revolution of 1800," America emerged from the
War of 1812 with the Federalist Party crushed, but Federalist
principles triumphant. America was now a one-party, Democratic-Republican,
country, but Madison and Monroe had adopted Federalist policies:
a central bank, high tariffs, a war machine, and an increasing
centralization of power in Washington. Furthermore, the judiciary,
led by Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall, was beginning to
impose a tyranny of decision-making over the country by a Supreme
Court in office for life and hence unchecked by any democratic
process. With only one political party in existence, there seemed
to be no way to reverse the growing of Federalism in new clothes,
and to recapture what was then commonly called the Spirit of ‘76"
or the "Spirit
of ‘98" (the time of the active threat by the Democratic-Republicans
nullify federal tyranny by state, or popular, refusal to obey
unjust laws. Being all too human, Jefferson did not of course
realize that the triumph of Federalism and the abandonment of
his own cherished principles were largely the fault of his own
in his second term, toward war with England.
Jefferson had put it all together for his young disciple, and
he imbued Van Buren with what would become lifelong opposition
to a central bank, to inflationary banking, to federal power over
the states or the individual, and to loose construction of such
power in the Constitution. Van Buren emerged from the weekend
dazzled; particularly interested in political parties, he asked
the old man, in a follow-up letter, what he thought about the
current trend toward amalgamation of the parties into one. In
the course of a lengthy reply on other matters, Jefferson concluded
with these ringing words: that this was "an amalgamation
of name but not principle. Tories are Tories still, by whatever
name they may be called."
Remini does not exaggerate when he says that these words from
his idol struck Martin Van Buren like a "gift from the gods."
He quickly sent a letter back to Jefferson expressing his confidence
that there remained enough "Old
Republicans" (as the rigorous Jeffersonians were then
called), "so I hope to rescue their country from misrule.
. . "The brilliant political tactician then set out to create
out of the morass of a one-party nation a new party, a party designed
to take back America of the Old Cause, for the Spirit of ’76,
and for the minimal-government libertarianism of the great Jefferson.
For Van Buren, that crusade was made even more necessary by the
triumph in the1824 election of the nationalizing, pro-central
bank, protectionist John Quincy Adams, the epitome of a Federalist
in all but name.
And so Van
Buren began to forge a new party. In control of his own "Albany
Regency" in New York, he quickly established an alliance
with the remnant of Old Republicans in Virginia, led by newspaper
editor Thomas Richie and by the crusty John Randolph of Roanoke.
In the West he found Thomas
Hart ("Old Bullion") Benton of Missouri, who had
had a similar conversion experience at Monticello. But to devise
a new national party, Van Buren had to find a sympathetic, charismatic
presidential candidate; this he discovered in Andrew Jackson,
already embittered at the political establishment and resentful
at being deprived of the presidency in 1824. But Jackson, while
himself a Jeffersonian in the rough and nobody’s fool, was, at
least in his pre-presidential period, more interested in ego gratification
than in ideology. And he had no interest in the details of party
organization. So while Old Hickory remained in Tennessee, Martin
Van Buren, more than anyone else, created a new Democratic Party
fervently dedicated to Jeffersonian principle, a party so successful
that, the first time out, it put Andrew Jackson into the White
on to observe:
historians, while acknowledging the vital role of Martin Van Buren
in establishing a new Democratic Party, have dismissed him as
a kind of fanatic caring about "party loyalty" above
all else. But these writers have not absorbed the important lessons
of the "new
political historians" (men like Kleppner,
who have totally recast our knowledge of the way in which political
parties functioned in the United States throughout the nineteenth
century (or at least after 1830). For those parties were very
different from the mere collection of political hacks, thirsting
only for office, and fuzzing over all ideology, that we are all
too familiar with today. Nineteenth-century parties were fiercely
partisan, devoted not only to gaining office, but to gaining office
in the service of strictly demarcated ideological principles.
Instead of watering down ideology to appeal to a large floating
"independent" electorate, politicians were more
partisan and harder-core during campaigns. For there was then
virtually no independent vote; and the only way to win was to
bring out one’s own committed partisans by being (or at least
claiming to be) even more intensively devoted to party principles.
the political party was the only instrument by which ideology
could transcend and override narrow sectional and occupational
interests. Now that the political parties have virtually no distinctive
ideology, they have become merely floating congeries of special-interest
groups, each determined to mulct the taxpayer for its own benefit.
Van Buren was dedicated to party loyalty because he realized that
only strong political parties could mobilize enough power to make
ideology (in his case that of minimal government) triumph over
special interests. Therefore, since for Van Buren party loyalty
made sense only in service to ideology, he did not hesitate to
split with his beloved Democratic Party – and hence to lose all
credibility in the party – when in 1848 an issue arose that was
to him of the highest moral importance.
In 1828, the
Jacksonians prevailed and came to Washington. On the positive side
of their program were serious efforts at reform intended to eliminate
the bureaucracy while getting government out of the marketplace.
The principle of "rotation in office" did not bring about
a "spoils system" (a textbook cliché if ever there
was one), but was intended to prevent the growth of corrupt and
corrupting consolidation of power in the executive branch. Giving
jobs to the faithful was a side effect, not the point, of the policy.
As a teacher
of Oklahoma History, I would be very remiss in not pointing out
that on the negative side was the genocidal ethnic cleansing policy
Removal. Like slavery, an institution that never much troubled
the Jacksonians, Indian Removal showed that "republicanism"
was to operate only for white males; against all others state intervention
was necessary and proper. This
was the darkest chapter in the Jacksonian saga.
Removal grew out of the white man’s conception of political
sovereignty and his lust – in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi
– for lands belonging to the
Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokees,
According to these states, their jurisdiction extended over all
the inhabitants within their borders, and had they made this claim
stick, they would have gotten the Indians’ lands away from them
earlier. The Indian tribes insisted that they were self-governing
nations. The states called upon the feds to enforce their state
sovereignty for them. The old Indian fighter in the White House
got the Removal Bill through Congress (after meeting resistance
from northeastern states, whose Indians had conveniently and mysteriously
been "disappeared." Thus commenced the heart-rending "Trail
of Tears" with its tens of thousands of deaths and untold
hardship and misery, all because the greedy white man wanted more
land and because he was unable to devise a federal theory that would
have embraced peoples of more than one race.
So the frugal
Democratic administration of Jackson spent $68 million on Indian
Removal. Adding in the few small-scale wars necessary to make the
ruthless, uprooting policy work, such as that against the Seminoles
in Florida swamps led by their great warrior chief, Osceola, the
actual cost is incalculable.
Buren became Jackson’s second vice-president after John
C. Calhoun and the
South Carolina nullification crisis and the
Peggy Eaton affair (the wife of a Jackson cabinet member who
was snubbed by Washington society for allegedly being of low birth
and loose morals, rumors started by Mrs. Calhoun that angered Jackson
fiercely. He saw them as comparable to those vicious slurs previously
directed at his late wife Rachel.)
merged into the
Whig Party, believing that the strong-willed president was becoming
an arrogant "King
Andrew." The Whigs carried over their Hamiltonian belief
in Henry Clay’s American System of a powerful central bank, protective
tariffs, and corporate welfare ("internal improvements"
in transportation infrastructure at federal expense). Clay had championed
these beliefs in combat with Jackson in the election of 1832. The
issue was the Second National Bank (from which Clay received a monetary
retainer – shades of Newt Gingrich and Freddie Mac!). After his
famously vetoed the congressional renewal of the Bank’s charter,
pointing the nation in a new direction.
in his cogent analysis of this period:
By the later
1830s it had become clear that the Democrats were rapidly becoming
the majority party. In his term as president, 1837-1841, Van Buren
great Jacksonian task of separating banking from the state.
Jackson had dissolved the central bank; Van Buren completed the
return of hard money by eliminating the specially privileged "pet"
banks and by creating the
independent treasury system. Moreover, Van Buren, far more
pacific than the bellicose General Jackson, defused several foreign-affairs
hotspots by bringing peace to the Canadian and Maine border, and
by refusing to entertain the explosive Texas plea for admission
to the Union. By adopting a policy of strict neutrality, Van Buren
kept the peace throughout his term in office.
Jacksonians had developed a plan: After eight years of Jackson,
eight years of Van Buren, and eight years of Benton, the government
of the United States would have designedly been reduced to a virtually
powerless shell. 1840 was a setback; the Whigs used modern demagogic
techniques – including buttons, slogans, and songs – to defeat
Van Buren. But it was clear to everyone that 1840 was a fluke,
that the Democrats could easily copy Whig campaign techniques,
and that the Democrats would then resume their victorious march
in 1844. Van Buren was slated to be the candidate that year, but
something happened on the way to the triumph of laissez faire.
The republic of Texas applied for admission to the United States
as a slave state, and the Democrats split wide open. The
slaveholder Jackson threw his weight in favor; but Van Buren,
horrified at any expansion of slavery into the West, was opposed,
and the Democratic Party began its permanent division on the slavery
issue. Van Buren was fully aware that, with slavery on the
agenda, the Democratic Party could no longer be a truly national
party, but he could not countenance the extension of this pernicious
institution. Hence, in 1848, when the Democracy nominated for
president Lewis Cass, an apologist for slave expansion into the
West, Van Buren felt compelled to abandon his cherished party
loyalty and to rend the Democracy by running for president on
the new, Free Soil ticket.
vision of a decentralized federal republic of sovereign independent
states would meet its final demise at Appomattox Court House during
coercive War for National Unification.
remains the genius of American civilization. Other great nations
were born in obeisance to the power of the state. Ours was born
with the Declaration of Independence and the enshrining of the inalienable
natural rights of man. Ron Paul’s powerful Revolution is testimony
to that enduring legacy, demonstrating that freedom does indeed
bring us together. It remains our answer and our hope.
A. Burris [send him mail]
a history instructor in an American high school. Before becoming
an educator he was involved in over thirty electoral and ballot
petition campaigns for third party/independent candidates throughout
the country. He served as national ballot drive coordinator in the
1984 Libertarian Party presidential campaign and as state coordinator
of the New Hampshire Libertarian Party in 1978.
© 2012 Charles A. Burris
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