Republicanism: From Jefferson to Van Buren

Out of the American Revolution emerged a unique political ideology or system of belief – republicanism.

Whether Anti-Federalist 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 the root of what we as a people believe. Political debate then, as now, centers upon who has remained most true to this vision.

Republicanism 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 Madison 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.

John 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.”

Randolph broke 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.

John 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 country.

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:

Born the 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 to 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 drive, begun in his second term, toward war with England.

Nonetheless, 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.”

[Robert] 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 House.

Rothbard goes on to observe:

Some recent 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, Silbey, and Formisano), 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.

More importantly, 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 of Indian 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.

Indian 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, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Seminoles. 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.

Martin Van 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.)

Jackson’s opponents 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 re-election, Jackson famously vetoed the congressional renewal of the Bank’s charter, pointing the nation in a new direction.

Rothbard continues 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 finished the 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.

The 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.

The republican vision of a decentralized federal republic of sovereign independent states would meet its final demise at Appomattox Court House during Abraham Lincoln’s coercive War for National Unification.

But freedom 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.