United States History: Elections

American elections
Figure 1.--Elections were an important part of American life from the early English colonial period. The franchise was at first very limited, but during the Jacksonian Era had been expanded to all adult white males. George Caleb Bingham celebrated this achievement in a series of paintings depicting elections in his native Missouri. This 1854-55 painting is "The verdict of the people". Elections at the time were an even more important event than is the case today. Politics was not only a critical part of governing, but also a major element of public entertainment. It is today popular to point out that American democracy at the time was flawed because blacks and women could still not vote. This is true and important to note. Less commonly pointed out, however, is that America was virtually the only place on earth that popular elections were held. Even in Britain, there was nothing comparable to American elections at the time. In fact, meaningful elections did not become common in other countries (even in Europe) for more than a century, after World War II. And that was largely because of the American role in defeating the Axis and containing Soviet totalitariahism.k

The American Constitution contained no mention of political parties. They played no role in the first election of 1789. President Washington did not approve of them. They began to form during the consideration of the Federal Cobstitution (1797-89) and gradually coalesed during his first term of office. They played a minor role in the 1792 election, but by 1796 were well estanloshed and played a major role. Except for the Era of Good Feelings during President Monroe's presideny (1816-20), political parties have played a major role. In fact part politics returned with a vengence in the next election beyween John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Matin Van Buren to advance Jackson's candicacy engineeered the first mass political party--the Democratic Party which both elected Jackson and greatly expanded the white male sufferage. The new Republican Party a generation later would expand the sufferage to all males regardless of race, although it would take another 100 years to fully realize that ideal. Women would be granted the vote in the aftermath of World War I. Normally elections have been contests between two major parties, but third parties have played important roles in several important elections. The most important elections have been the presidential elections held every 4 years. Congressional elections are held every 2 years. Some of these mid-term elections have had major impacts on American history. Interestingly American political pundits complain constantly complain that American politics are dirtier and mote partisan than ever before. In recent years pundits have complained that preparations for elections are beginning earlier and earlier. None of these observations seem accurate when viewing the long history of American elections.

The 18th Century

There were only three presidential elections held in the 18th century. The first presidential poll in 1789 was the first national American election. As such it was the first of several semenal elections. Earlier elections had all been state elections, but the new Federal Constitution called for the election of national executive officers, the President and Vice-President. Very few people actually voted because of the choice of electors in state legislatures and the restrictive sufferage. The choice of General Washington as the first president was a virtua cornonation and there was also wide spread support for John Adams as vice presidemt. Political parties began to form with the debate over the Constitution. While dicouraged by Washington, they ha by the 1796 election became a substantial feature of American political life. The fact that they were not considered in the Constitution caused some complications in the 1796 and 1800 elections until corrected by the 12th Amendment (1804).

The 19th Century

The first election of the 19th century was ashow-down between the Federalist and Republican Parties. After their defeat in 1800 the Federalist declined as a national pary. This was followed by a period in which the Republicans were the only national political party. The first war of the 19th century was the war of 1812. It and the other wars fought in the 19th century proved politically cotentious. Madison and Monroe had no real political opposition. The Era of Good Feeling was followed by one of the most contentious periods of American politics--the Jacksonian Era. The modern Democratic Party rose out of the Republicans. The mid-19th century was characterized by electoral struggles between Jacksonian Democrats seeking to expand democracy and committed to states rights and the new Whig Party advocating a national program of internal improvements and fiscal reforms. This party system was undone by the escalating issue of slavery. The Republican Prty emerged out of the wreckage of the Whig Party in the north and the Free Soil Democrats. Slavery also split the Democrats, making possible the elecgtion of the Republican Abraham Lincoln. The Northern victory in the Civil War (1861-65) left the Republicans the dominant party in the rest of the 19th century. The Republicans pictured the Democrats as the Party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion". The Republicans promoted important programs like the Homestead Act. After the Civil War they increasingly supported pro-business policies like subsidies and high tariffs that promoted the rapid industrialization of the United States. While the Republicans were willing to intervene in the economy to support business, they were against any intervention to ameliorate working conditions and the consequences of economic downturns. Democrats like Cleveland shared this general attitude. The Progressive movement in the lte 19th century began to address the need for government to address social issues.

The 20th Century

The Republicans began the 20th century as the dominnt politicl party in the United States. Conservarives dominanted the Party, but the assasination of President McKinnley brought Vice President Roosevelt to the presidency (1900). He sponsored a series of progressive reforms and a more forceful role for the United States in world affairs. A split in the Republicn Party resulted in the electin of Democraric New Jersey Govenor Woodrow Wilson (1912). Wilson sponsored more progressive reforms called the New Freedoms. He also after reelection reluctantly led America into World War I (1917). fter the War he hoped to prevent future wars through a system of collective security overseen by the new League of Nations. The Republican dominated Senate rejected the League. Senator Warren Harding persued what he called areturn to normalcy (1920). American returned to a Republican dominated government. The economic boom of the 1920 made the three Republicans presidents ellected in the 1920s extreemely popular. The Republicans with their philosophy of laizze faire , however, failed to address majoe inequities in American society or to adequately regulate business. The result was the Great Depression which was made worse by flawed monetary policies. The result was a major realignment in American politics. With Franklin Roosevelt's election (1932), the Democrats became the dominant political party. President Roosevelt led the United States through theGreat Depression of World War II. To eveeryone'suprise, President Truman was also able to defeat th cRepublicans (1948). Truman estanlished the basic policies persued by aseries of Democratic and Republican presidents to fight the Cold War. The Republicans nominating war hero General Dwight Eisenhower finally regained the White House (1952). Eisenhower did not as some Republicans wanted, reverse the New Deal. The assasination of President Kennedy (1963) brought Vice President Lyndon Johnson to the presidency. Major liberal reforms were encted by Lyndon Johnson, but his standing was runed by the War in Vietnam. Former Bice President Richard Nixon won two elections, but his image and that of the Reoublican Party was trnished by Watergate. He bbecame the first president forced to resign his office (1973). The presidency swung back and forth between the two parties in the late 20th century, although the Democrats maintained control of Congress. Govenor Ronald Reagan was elected (1980). beginning a notable Republican resurgency leaving the Republicans the majority party and in control of Congress by the end of the century.

The 21st Century

The United States began the 21st century with a deeply divided electorate, between conservatives and liberals. As usual the elections were decided by the independent voters, but they were roughly equally divided between the two parties. The 2000 and 2004 elections won by President Bush were probably decided more on personality and character issues than ideology. The 2008 election began as a referendum on the Iraq War, but was finally decided by the downward spiral in the American economy in September. Many commentators speculate that the 2008 election was one of the watershed elections that set the politics of a generation. This could be true, but will largely be determined by President Obama's performance in office.








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Created: 5:24 AM 2/14/2007
Last updated: 2:07 AM 6/3/2007