A time when party affiliation didn’t matter

If you look around the database enough, you’ll notice that nobody who ran for, or held, office from 1816 to 1832 has a party affiliation listed. This isn’t an oversight; party affiliation just didn’t matter in the early days of the state. The reason why is largely the story of the rise of the modern parties in American politics.

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Coming out of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, there were no political parties. While Federalists and Anti-Federalists argued for and against ratification, they weren’t organized as parties and the labels really only identified an individual’s stance on that one issue. The first presidential election was essentially only a formality as George Washington was the universal choice, and so there was no real need for parties on that front.

When Washington departed office, he used his Farewell Address to famously warn the country against the dangers of political parties in the future. This wasn’t some prophetic remark: It was reaction to the factionalism that had arisen in his administration. His Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, were often at odds over various issues. Hamilton, with funding from the banks and big businesses he was friendly with in the major cities, founded the first political party as a way of building support for his policies. Though it was called the Federalist Party, it wasn’t an outgrowth from the movement supporting ratification of the Constitution. Patrick Henry, the most famous Anti-Federalist was a member. James Madison, the most famous co-author of the Federalist Papers with Hamilton, sided with Jefferson to found the rival Democratic-Republican Party (popularly known at the time as just the Republican Party) a few years later.

The Federalists and Democratic-Republicans weren’t originally organized for electoral purposes. Rather, they were organized around personalities and ideas, and–with both sides printing their own newspapers around the country–served more as propaganda machines. Washington was sympathetic to the Federalists, and stocked his cabinet full of them. Similarly, the Federalists controlled the House in four of the first six Congresses, and controlled the Senate in all six. The first Supreme Court Justice, John Marshall, was also counted among their ranks. When Washington declined a third term, his vice president, John Adams, ran and won as a Federalist. In short, they dominated the federal government for the first twelve years of our current system.

That all changed in 1800 when Jefferson, with the support of farmers in the south and much of New England, won the presidency, and saw his Republicans claim a nearly 2:1 margin in the House and their first majority in the Senate. It was the first wave election, and they’d never relinquish their control of the White House or either chamber of Congress to the Federalists ever again. Though they threatened to make a political comeback by opposing the War of 1812, a U.S. victory ensured they would forever be obsolete.

So when Indiana became a state in 1816, Jefferson’s party was really the only one that mattered. Especially in a rural state like Indiana, there was no need to identify with a political party because everyone was assumed to be a Democratic-Republican. And that’s why none of the early candidates and office holders aren’t listed with a party in the database.

But even if they wanted to wear a party label, there wasn’t much benefit for Hoosiers under the state’s original electoral process. First, there was no candidate form to file with the local clerk or Secretary of State where you might designate a party, and there was no party primary to run in. In fact, most candidates didn’t even announce their candidacies themselves; it was considered distasteful to actively seek an office and identifying with a party would look too much like seeking an office. Second, the method of voting that was en vogue in other states in 1816 was a voice vote–where the voter would orally tell the poll clerk his choice for each office when called–but Indiana chose to do a written ballot instead. Under Indiana’s written ballot system, voters were handed a blank piece of paper called a “ticket” when arriving at the polls, and then they were free to write whatever names they wanted. Because the ticket was blank, a voter couldn’t scan to find their party’s candidates, thus neutralizing one of the strongest modern incentives for running as a party’s candidate. And again, the early parties were organized around issues, not election activities.

By the early 1820’s the Democratic-Republicans were so ubiquitous that Congress didn’t even bother of hold party caucus meetings anymore. Headed into the 1824 presidential election, though, that would all quickly change. The campaign between Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay–all Democratic-Republicans–was of the most bitter contests in history. Animosity grew when Jackson won the popular vote and electoral college vote, but only a plurality of both. It was sent to the House to decide, where Clay served as Speaker. Clay was so opposed to Jackson that he dropped out and threw his support to Adams; as a powerful House Speaker, he was able to build a coalition big enough to ensure that Adams won.

For the next four years, candidates and office holders were either identified as Adams (or Anti-Jackson) men or Jackson men. But these were unofficial factional labels only, as everyone still considered themselves Democratic-Republicans. In the run up to the 1828 rematch, Jackson supporters vowed there would be no repeat of 1824. They began to establish local and state chapters of what they called the Jacksonian Party, held state conventions, identified likely Jackson voters they would later turn out to vote, threw rallies, and other election activities modern parties participate in today. For his part, Adams formed what he called the Administration Party, but they didn’t organize nearly to the extent that Jackson’s team did.

Jackson’s easy victory would set a precedent for future elections. Clay and his supporters would spend the next four years organizing his new National Republican Party as a coalition of former Clay and Adams supporters, and disaffected Jacksonians. They mimicked the efforts that had made Jackson so successful in 1828, but they couldn’t catch up to the four-year head start of Jackson’s party–which was now called the Democratic Party. Clay fell well short of victory, and his party quickly disbanded. Nonetheless, an important evolutionary step had been taken: Where early parties had been organized around issues, parties were now organizing around presidential candidates (which led to the odd consequence of Indiana moving the date of Congressional elections to five months after the start of Congressional terms, so that they wouldn’t take attention or resources away from presidential elections).

In the wake of another easy presidential victory, the Democrats began expanding their vision and nominating candidates for down-ballot races. At a state convention in 1834, Indiana Democrats nominated James G. Reed as their candidate for governor–the first time in state history a state-level candidate had been nominated to run under a party banner. In the meantime, former Adams and Clay supporters founded a new political party, the Whig Party, to compete against the Democrats up and down the ballot. Though there was no formal nominating procedure in place, they slated Noah Noble to run against Reed, and ultimately won.

Where they hadn’t been much incentive to run under a party label when the state was founded, eighteen years later the incentives existed in spades. For starters, the ability of political parties to organize and turn out like-minded voters made it nearly impossible to win without party support. And after Governor James B. Ray announced his intention to run for election to the post in 1828–and won–it was no longer seen as distasteful to declare candidacy; declaring party affiliation was a relatively small step in comparison.

But perhaps one of the biggest incentives had to do with the written ballot system Indiana had adopted: Because voters were given a blank ticket to write their choices on, there was nothing wrong with parties pre-printing the names of their candidates onto slips of paper. When voters sympathetic to the Democratic Party arrived at the polls, for instance, they could find the party official present and get pre-printed Democratic tickets to turn in when the poll clerk called their name (hence the phrase “party ticket”). Given this, it shouldn’t be surprising how quickly political parties caught on, nor how quickly they became vital to winning elections.

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I could label everyone in the database prior to 1824 as Democratic-Republicans.  I could label everyone between 1824 and 1828 as a member of the Adams or Jackson factions (with the notable exception of Ray, who not only was the first to declare candidacy, but who also refused to align with either side; as a result, he’s considered by some historians to be the only Independent to serve as Governor). But because there weren’t political parties as we understand them today prior to the 1834 election cycle, those labels are unofficial and can get pretty messy (Jonathan Jennings, for example, originally supported Jackson, but later opposed him).  More importantly, such labels detract from the actual history of the rise of the modern political party structure in Indiana. In the end, it’s my hope that this database doesn’t just provide statistics, but also helps shed some light on the history of the state, that led to the decision to eschew the labels.

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