When demographics killed one political party

Finally, the ads have stopped, the votes have been tallied and later we’re hearing about 2016—already!  But what should be learned from the 2012 election?  Turning to the election of 1800 would be helpful in terms of nationwide politics.

Alexander Hamilton (Wikimedia Commons)

The 1800 election?  Thomas Jefferson won the presidency in the so-called “Jeffersonian Revolution.” But what made that election “revolutionary?”

First, it was the first transfer of power in American politics—in this case, from the Federalists to the Anti-Federalists. Second, it was the first presidential election where political parties played a major role.

Third, it began the country’s move away from Classical Republicanism and toward a true democracy. Before the 1800 election, the elite of the country—the Washingtons, the Hamiltons, the Madisons (for a time), and the Adams’—had run the country.

But something was beginning to happen in the country that the Federalists elite missed and that caused them to lose the presidency and ultimately led to their demise. What was it? Demographics.

Jefferson won the 1800 election, and in the election of 1804, he crushed his opponent, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a fellow Southerner, in the Electoral College by a margin of 162 to 14.  Thereafter, the Federalist Party faded away to the point that in the 1820 election, they didn’t even nominate a candidate.

The Anti-Federalists better understood the impact of parties, and they formed political “tickets” before the Federalists did.

Alexander Hamilton was instrumental in bringing partisan politics to New York City during the lead-up to the 1800 election. But other Federalists held true to the traditional Classic Republicanism, which shunned the idea of even campaigning for office.

What was the Federalists’ reaction to being voted out of national office? They went home and concentrated on local offices—never to be heard from again on the national scene.

What role did demographics play in this result?

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The Federalists failed to appreciate the emergence of “middling men,” which may be thought of in today’s parlance as the “middle class.” As Gordon Wood describes in his book, Empire of Liberty, the country’s population at the end of the 18th century was exploding.

Between 1800 and 1810 the national population increased from 5 million to 7 million. During the same time, the population in Ohio went from 45,000 to 230,000: over a five-fold increase. Additionally, the population was moving westward. Territories were becoming states bringing many new voters into the voting booth.

The people in those areas tended to be much more independent than Easterners; they were less loyal to the traditional leadership (the elite), and they voted for people “like them.”

Two other developments resulted in middling men having increasing political power.

First, property requirements for voting were being reduced and second, more “non-elitist” men were acquiring property.  The combined result was a seismic shift of political power away from the Federalist doctrine and candidates, and toward an American democracy reflecting “the people.”

Fast forward to 2012. If anything is clear from this election, it is the fundamental shift away from the “white male voter” and the emerging—perhaps dominating—power of voter groups—or “factions” as James Madison described in his Federalist No. 10.

After the 1800 election, the Federalists were reduced to local elections and eventually faded away. They ignored changing voter demographics.

If present-day Republicans do the same, history may, indeed, repeat itself. Yes, they may be able to win local, district-wide elections, but state-wide and national contests will be beyond their reach.

Donald Applestein is a retired attorney and an experience guide in the National Constitution Center’s Public Programs Department.

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