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Historians and the Strange, Fluid World of Nineteenth-Century Politics

In the December 2023 issue of the Journal of American History, Rachel A. Shelden and Erik B. Alexander argue that our understanding of nineteenth-century politics has been hindered by a framework known as the party system model, which offers a view of parties as top-down institutions focused on capturing the national government. Reliance on this framework has resulted in a fragmented understanding of the century’s politics. Shelden and Alexander propose a new understanding of nineteenth-century politics based on party fluidity. Nineteenth-century parties were fundamentally unstable organizations, operating within a constantly shifting partisan landscape that was federal rather than national. Americans used this fluid partisan atmosphere to battle over questions about who could govern and how, and who was a legitimate member of the body politic. You can find their full article here


“Dismantling the Party System” was an article long in the making, but the event that compelled us to sit down and write it was Donald Trump’s second impeachment in January 2021. A common refrain among politicians and media outlets in the wake of Trump’s trial was that his impeachment was the “most bipartisan in history.”[1] This statement is awkward in many ways—after all, this is a history that includes only three other presidential indictments, one of which was the first Trump impeachment in 2019. But we found comparisons with Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment particularly frustrating.

There was nothing simple about the partisan politics of that 1868 impeachment. Andrew Johnson was elected vice president on the Union Party ticket in 1864. Abraham Lincoln had formed the Union Party during the Civil War in an effort to expand the base of the Republican Party—importantly, the two labels were not interchangeable.[2] By 1868, the Union Party had mostly dissolved on the national level while maintaining some salience in state and local contests. Many, though not all, of the congressmen who ran as Union Party men during the Civil War ran as Republicans in 1867. As a result, Johnson was impeached by a House controlled by the majority Republican Party, with all Democrats in opposition or not voting.[3]

How, then, are we to understand the partisan breakdown of the 1868 vote to impeach? If we conflate the Union Party with the Republican Party, was Johnson a Republican? He may have flirted with the Democrats in pursuing a revived Union Party, but he was not a Democrat. And while Democrats certainly supported Johnson’s vision for Reconstruction over that of the Republicans, they did not view him as a member of their party either. In other words, including Johnson in any kind of accounting of the partisan politics of impeachments is confusing at best.

A black and white political cartoon. On the left, a sketched caricature of Andrew Johnson. On the right, the figure of a woman labeled "Old Democratic Party" comes out smoke emerging from a cartoon bomb labeled "Impachment" [sic]. The caption reads "The Most Unkindest Cut of All." Rejected Suitor (deserted in his hour of need)--"Oh! Mistery! Must I lose thee too?"

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 21, 1868, vol. 26, issue 651, p. 16.

The problem with this story—and the story of so many other political battles in the nineteenth century—is that our twenty-first-century politics do not map neatly onto that era. At the same time, even our scholarly tools could not offer a clear way to explain the partisan context for Johnson’s impeachment. For more than half a century, historians have relied (often implicitly) on a model of organizing U.S. political history around distinct and separate “party systems,” pitting two competitive, stable, national parties against one another for long stretches of time between short bursts of realignment. In the context of the shifting political landscape of 1868, however, explaining the partisan politics of the Johnson impeachment through the party system model is the equivalent of forcing a square peg into a round hole.

The Johnson story is hardly unique. Over the past decade, as each of us has worked on different projects on nineteenth-century politics, we have been struck by how little the party system model explains about that period—and just how much it obscures. We each came to believe that by imposing such a rigid structure on the past, the model had caused a series of historical and historiographical fractures. Historically, we had both found a seemingly endless number of exceptions to the standard narratives of partisan conflict. These exceptions include men like Johnson and Salmon Chase (whom we begin our JAH article with), who moved more fluidly through the political atmosphere, but are typically dismissed as ambitious, cynical, or simply racist. We started to wonder, if there were more exceptions to the rule than those who fit it, did the rule matter anymore?

Historiographically, the party system model was clearly separating scholarship on voters and political leaders of mainstream parties from other key movements and ideas that were central to understanding the period. In our own work, we saw how this rigid structure was making it difficult for scholars to grapple with the behavior of nineteenth-century political actors, in addition to some of the key political outcomes of the century. For example, Rachel thought the idea of stable party systems was holding back historians from understanding the political world of nineteenth-century Supreme Court justices while Erik had concluded that the party system model limits our understanding of Reconstruction.[4]

As we discussed our separate book projects, we came to realize we were independently arriving at many of the same conclusions—both about the problems with the party system model and the different ways we might understand or describe the period. Those conclusions undoubtedly came, in part, from similar backgrounds in the scholarship of American politics. Although few historians actually study party systems today, we were both well-trained in the literature of the so-called New Political History (NPH) of the 1960s and 1970s. In its time, the NPH was a revolutionary break from earlier narratives that had focused primarily on presidential administrations. Instead, NPH scholars used social science methodology and quantitative techniques to capture the experiences of voters.[5]

By the time we entered graduate school in the early 2000s, however, many scholars had already begun to show the limitations of the NPH, especially its narrow approach that made politics the purview of parties alone. For example, a wealth of scholarship on state building in the nineteenth century emphasized the role of autonomous state and federal agencies in shaping political developments, while important work on political culture dramatically expanded how we define politics in the first place.[6]

Simultaneously, political historians began to push back against the party system model in other ways. Our mentor, Michael F. Holt, a longtime stalwart of the NPH, began questioning some aspects (though not all) of the party system model in several later essays and book chapters, pointing in particular to the plasticity of nineteenth-century parties.[7] Other scholars such as Daniel Peart and Adam Smith, as well as the late Michael Perman, raised similar questions about the nature of parties in specific moments and contexts.[8] All of this work influenced our thinking about the mechanisms of nineteenth-century politics as we became convinced of the inherent instability of parties in that era.

At the same time, we both teach and read broadly in nineteenth-century American history, and we are grateful to have learned much from the rich scholarship on U.S. politics that has exploded over the past twenty-five years. As we grappled with and integrated that scholarship into our own work, we became acutely aware of how much of this newer scholarship creates problems for the assumptions undergirding the party system model. As a result, “Dismantling the Party System” highlights how many new (and some older) conversations in U.S. historiography can help us rethink the peculiar boundaries of nineteenth-century political engagement.

The party system model, for example, privileges states in the east over western states and territories, when, as scholars such as Gregory Ablavsky, Brent Rogers, and Nicolas Barreyre have shown us, western states and territories are central to the story of nineteenth-century political development.[9] Constitutional politics also remain ancillary in the party system model (a point that Alison LaCroix and Gerald Leonard have made), reinforcing the (faulty) notion that constitutional conflict was the purview of the courts.[10] Similarly, work on political networks from Mandy Cooper, Johann Neem, Frank Towers, and many others shows how networks and voluntary associations were the backbone of political organizing, contributing to the fluidity of partisan organizations at the local level.[11] Meanwhile, exciting new histories of federalism and police powers from scholars like Kate Masur, Hidetaka Hirota, and William Novak reinforced our understanding of the importance of state and local governments to nineteenth-century Americans, undermining party system scholarship that emphasized a top-down approach centered on capturing the national government.[12]

Along these lines, important work from Martha Jones, Laura Edwards, and several others on both citizenship and the legal culture of the nineteenth century demonstrated to us just how fluid the formal and informal politics of the era were, and especially how marginalized groups worked within formal political institutions to actively claim their rights.[13] Brilliant new scholarship by Manisha Sinha, Corey Brooks, and Van Gosse on antislavery politics and Dan Carpenter and Maggie Blackhawk on the history of political activism through petitioning helped illustrate how robust the connections between voters and nonvoters were in the nineteenth century.[14] Our JAH article argues that the rigidity of the party system model created very narrow definitions of formal politics, while all of this work—and much more—underscores that those narrow definitions exclude crucial stories of early American political life.

After several decades of such vibrant literature on nineteenth-century politics, it is almost hard to believe that the party system model has survived. Yet, what has united criticisms of that model has been a willingness to accept its very existence (even implicitly). Scholars do not question that it existed; instead, they focus on its shape or relative importance. We argue that it is high time to shed the confines of that model. Nineteenth-century politics are better described as fluid, unstable, and federal, operating through a series of mechanisms—networks, newspapers, customs, and laws—unique to that era. Political actors used these mechanisms to address the most pressing ideological and constitutional conflicts of their era, often in concert with broader political activism. They could quickly organize new parties to address problems as they arose, and just as quickly discard parties when the issues were resolved (or when absorbed by another party). In this way, parties were deeply integrated into the broader fabric of American political life, rather than serving as its organizing structures.

Conspectus of American Politics, 1880. Ralph E. Becker Collection of Political Americana, PL.227739.1880.D05. Courtesy National Museum of American History, Washington D.C.

We know that dismantling the party system might make teaching the U.S. history survey a little (or maybe even a lot) trickier—it has certainly made us rethink our own teaching! But with the party system behind us, we hope a better understanding of that era’s politics will be worth the effort, opening up new opportunities to rethink old questions and ask new ones about a century so different from our own. In this current moment of political upheaval when historians find our own expertise in greater demand to explain the present—whether the meaning of Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment, the history of presidential conventions, or the partisan politics of presidential candidates and the history of impeachments—we have a chance to show just how foreign the past was and how different the future might be.

Erik B. Alexander is associate professor in the Department of History at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.  He is currently finishing a book on Northern Democrats and the politics of Reconstruction.

Rachel A. Shelden is an associate professor of history and the director of the Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University. She’s the author of Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[1] See for example, “7 Senate Republicans Vote to Convict Trump—the Most Bipartisan Impeachment Trial Verdict Ever,” Vox, Feb. 13, 2021, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2021/2/13/22279879/7-senate-republicans-convict-trump-romney-collins-murkowski-sasse-cassidy-burr-toomey; “Trump’s 2nd Impeachment is the Most Bipartisan in History,” Business Insider, Jan. 13, 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-second-impeachment-most-bipartisan-in-us-history-2021-1; and “President Trump Receives Most Bipartisan Impeachment in U.S. History,” Jan. 13, 2021,” Fortune, https://fortune.com/2021/01/13/trump-impeachment-bipartisan-republican-votes/, among many other examples of headlines, in addition to countless articles, journalists, and other pundits who made this claim in the days and weeks following the vote.

[2] Jack Furniss, Between Extremes: Seeking the Political Center in the Civil War North (2024).

[3] Congressional Globe, 40 Cong., 2 sess., 1968, p. 1400.

[4] Rachel’s book on the political world of nineteenth-century Supreme Court justices, The Political Supreme Court, is forthcoming with the University of North Carolina Press. She offers one example of how justices participated in the fluid partisan political world in “Anatomy of a Presidential Campaign from the Supreme Court Bench: John McLean, Levi Woodbury, and the Election of 1848,” Journal of Supreme Court History, 47 (Dec. 2022), 241–64. Erik’s forthcoming book on Reconstruction is entitled Revolution Forestalled: Northern Democrats and the Politics of Reconstruction, 1865–1877. He also explores the role of party fluidity and the politics of conservatism during Reconstruction in “‘The Wisest Counsel of Conservatism’: Northern Democrats and the Politics of the Center, 1865–1868,” Civil War History, 66 (Sept. 2020), 295–315.

[5] Our article provides an in-depth overview of the origins, evolution, and historiographical impact of the New Political History. Its beginning is typically credited to Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case (1961).

[6] We cite a vast amount of literature in our piece on this point, but for an example of each kind of literature see Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (1995) and Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2001).

[7] See for example, Michael F. Holt, “Change and Continuity in the Party Period: The Substance and Structure of American Politics, 1835–1885,” in Contesting Democracy: Substance and Structure in American Political History, 1775–2000, eds. Byron E. Shafer and Anthony J. Badger (2001), 93–115.

[8] Daniel Peart, Lobbyists and the Making of US Tariff Policy, 1816–1861 (2018); Adam I. P. Smith, No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North (2006); Michael Perman, The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869–1879 (1984).

[9] Gregory Ablavsky, Federal Ground: Governing Property and Violence in the First U.S. Territories (2021); Brent M. Rogers, Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory (2017); Nicolas Barreyre, Gold and Freedom: The Political Economy of Reconstruction (2015).

[10] Alison L. LaCroix, “The Interbellum Constitution: Federalism and the Long Founding Moment,” Stanford Law Review, 67 (Feb. 2015), 399–400; Gerald Leonard, The Invention of Party Politics: Federalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Development in Jacksonian Illinois (2002), 2–8.

[11] Mandy L. Cooper, “Too Big to Fail? Families, Internal Improvement, and State Government in Antebellum North Carolina,” Journal of the Early Republic, 41 (Fall 2021), 349–72; Johann Neem, Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (2008); Frank Towers, The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War (2004).

[12] Kate Masur, Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction (2021); Hidetaka Hirota, “The Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government, and the Formation of American Immigration Policy,” Journal of American History, 99 (March 2013), 1092–108; William J. Novak, The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (1996).

[13] Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (2018); Laura F. Edwards, “Sarah Allingham’s Sheet and Other Lessons from Legal History,” Journal of the Early Republic, 38 (Spring 2018), 121–47; Laura F. Edwards, The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (2009).

[14] Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (2016); Corey M. Brooks, Liberty Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics (2016); Van Gosse, The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (2021); Daniel Carpenter, Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1780–1870 (2021); Maggie Blackhawk, et al., “Congressional Representation by Petition: Assessing the Voices of the Voteless in a Comprehensive New Database,” 1789–1949,” Legislative Studies Quarterly, 46 (Aug. 2021), 817–49.

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