The Politics of Long Division: The Birth of the Second Party System in Ohio, 1818–1828

Richard Nixon once said that all presidential elections come down to Ohio. Projecting that insight back two centuries, Donald J. Ratcliffe’s rich two-volume narrative uses Ohio to test some long-contested propositions concerning the rise and fall of party systems, the relationship of Federalists and Jeffersonians to each other and to their Whig and Jacksonian successors, the timing of electoral democracy’s enthronement in principle and practice, and the connection between voters and politicians at local, state, and federal levels. Nearly 600 pages of text on early Ohio politics may seem a bit much, yet Ratcliffe argues fairly that Ohio’s rapid maturation from frontier conditions, its cultural mix of Yankees, upland southerners, Quakers, Germans, and Scots-Irish, its mixed economy, and its very size (fourth in electoral votes by 1820, ahead of Massachusetts and North Carolina) make it a better exemplar of the nation than some other more intensively studied states.

The title of Ratcliffe’s first volume tips off its major theme: majoritarian democracy and grassroots party politics came early to Ohio. Schooled in Revolutionary principle, Ohioans were ideologically primed for popular democracy even before statehood. The state constitution of 1802 gave nearly all adult white males the vote, and passionate party loyalties, imported from the east and credibly linked to in-state controversies, gave them reason to use it. While he attends to both ethnocultural and socioeconomic dimensions of partisanship, Ratcliffe portrays party identity, both in its Jeffersonian and later Jacksonian incarnations, as ultimately an independent variable, not reducible to condition or culture and capable, once formed, of generating its own consequences. The ideological cleavages of the 1790s and the policy divisions of the 1820s—the formative decades of the two party systems—ran deep, and Ohioans, like other Americans, felt compelled to choose sides.

Challenging a conventional view of Federalists and Jeffersonians as imperfectly organized and hamstrung by deferential attitudes and antiparty convictions, Ratcliffe sees them competing vigorously and unabashedly for popular favor from the very moment of statehood. Rallying devices such as nominating conventions, usually considered by historians as Jacksonian innovations, were in use as early as 1805. Ohio’s politics were egalitarian in spirit as well as form, giving the bulk of power over to ordinary voters and the ambitious men who organized them rather than to a coterie of gentry. Despite Ohio’s late entry onto the national scene, the so-called First Party System sank deep roots there.

Still, though the roots were deep, the plant was stunted. While local politics in areas of Federalist strength could be rigorously partisan, Republican dominance in Ohio as a whole bred intraparty factionalism rather than cross-party competition at the state level. Under these circumstances the necessity of internal discipline became itself a divisive issue among Republicans, culminating in a backlash against the attempt by radicals to purge the state judiciary in 1809–1810. This revolt against party dictation again demonstrated the responsiveness of Ohio’s politics, for both party and antiparty were now genuine popular impulses.

The judiciary battle and the War of 1812, in which nearly all Ohioans joined ranks to defend the state against British invasion, led many citizens to repudiate the need for party. The exceptions were in Federalist strongholds where Yankee and Quaker opposition to the war kept alive an intense partisan rivalry, itself often guised in anti-party rhetoric. Even there, the end of the war and the passing of the prolonged international crisis that had provoked the division of parties in the first place put a quietus to partisan rancor. As national politics reformed along sectional lines in the wake of the Panic of 1819 and the Missouri crisis, Ohioans united to resist Eastern banking oppression, to further the state’s developmental interests, and to oppose the spread of slavery. By 1821, when Ratcliffe’s first volume ends, partisanship had seemingly vanished from the scene.

Like its Jeffersonian forebear, the Jacksonian party system, the subject of Ratcliffe’s second volume, had its origins in national events. The 1820s, a decade neglected by most political historians, witnessed “the most cataclysmic, most complete partisan realignment in American history” (p. xii). The process of “long division” that produced the Whigs and Democrats began with the revived contest for the presidency in 1824. In the financial and sectional crises of 1818–1822, Ohioans had defined their interests as both western and northern. In 1824 they accordingly divided their votes between the northern but eastern John Quincy Adams and the western but southern Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. The postelection coalition of Adams and Clay cemented a political alliance that united major constituencies and crossed old party lines yet also offered easy grounds for attack as a surrender of sectional interests, a thwarting of popular will, and a Republican sellout to resurgent Federalism. Around these charges the Jacksonian opposition rallied. By 1828, when Jackson narrowly won the state’s presidential contest, the party loyalties that would hold in Ohio through much of the century were nearly fully formed.

Just as Ratcliffe’s first volume stresses the modernity of the First Party System, so his second questions the innovativeness of the Second. In Ohio, Jacksonians were not the first to spout egalitarian rhetoric and mount popular campaigns, nor did they do so more effectively than their Clay-Adams opponents. What then explains Jackson’s success in 1828: the exertions of his partisans, the rallying of economic underlings and cultural outsiders, or the persistence of old party ties and the casting of the Adams-Clay men as neo-Federalists? Ratcliffe’s answer: all of the above, with different causes operating in different circumstances among different constituencies.

This summary hardly does justice to the richness of Ratcliffe’s narrative. As one of the few scholars equally at home in Jeffersonian and Jacksonian worlds, he is able to bridge the two and thus to correct those who see pre-Jacksonian political practices as frozen in tradition rather than products of recent circumstance. Ratcliffe’s long-range view enables him fully to historicize party development, to see party constituencies as formed through layered accretions of experience rather than as reflections of a society caught in frozen profile. His explanation of Jacksonian party division in Cincinnati, for instance, seamlessly marries national issues and distinctive local tradition with personality and ideology. He has some sharp words for party-system theorists whose analyses of Jacksonian politics begin abruptly in the mid-1830s. His own tone throughout is fluent and persuasive. Often conveying his points with biographical sketches and telling anecdotes, he opts always for complexity over simplicity and for subtlety over boldness, aiming more to correct the record than to stake out new interpretive ground. Ultimately Ratcliffe accepts the shift from deferential to democratic politics as a central theme. But he sees the transition as occurring much earlier than in the Massachusetts of Ronald P. Formisano’s The Transformation of Political Culture (New York, 1983) or the Ohio of Andrew R. L. Cayton’s The Frontier Republic (Kent, 1986).

Given Ratcliffe’s reasonableness and his unrivaled mastery of the sources, few scholars will dare to dispute his conclusions about Ohio, though some may still question its representativeness. How many will care is another question. For Ratcliffe is unapologetically old-fashioned in his definition of politics and his assertion of their importance. His story attends to elections, issues, campaigns, and policies, not as gendered cultural performances but as substantive events that matter. Ratcliffe aims to explain what went on in the electoral universe, not to problematize its foundations. Fittingly, he spurns the linguistic turn. Ratcliffe’s actors say and do; they do not encode or inscribe. They contest elections, not identities, and they do it in places, not sites or spheres. Ratcliffe’s use of quantitative techniques and his conception of politics in terms of parties and electorates reflect a grounding in the methods and concerns of the last generation’s “new political history.” His historiographic referents are the party-system historians of the 1960s and 1970s and the “republicanism” school of the 1980s, rather than Michel Foucault or Jürgen Habermas.

To some readers, these books may seem a coda to a superseded debate, errata sheets for a volume long written. As Ratcliffe ruefully acknowledges, his brand of straight political history is hardly au courant. Still, those who study American politics will turn for many years to Donald Ratcliffe’s saga as a definitive treatment of Ohio and a contribution to answering some unresolved and still worthwhile questions about the emergence of democratic electoral practices in the early republic.

University of New Mexico DANIEL FELLER