Jacksonian Politics and Community Conflict: The Emergence of the Second American Party System in Cumberland County North Carolina. By Harry L. Watson. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. Pp. xii, 354.
Harry Watson, a professor of Jacksonian politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, traces the birth of America’s first mass political parties in the South in Jacksonian Politics and Community Conflict. To identify and analyze the origins of the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs, which replaced America’s first political system of Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, Watson studies the development of this second party system in the South during its transformation from an early republic into the 1850s through the analysis of Cumberland County, North Carolina. This county, a center of economic and ethnic diversity in the antebellum South, witnessed the emergence of America’s second party system as (Jacksonian) Democrats and Whig politicians both established a strong presence in its rural and urban areas. Through his intense analysis of the voting behaviors and social climate of Cumberland County, Watson provides thoughtful insight into the two political organizations.
Watson follows the development of the two parties in Cumberland County through three stages. He begins in the 1820s, when America’s Era of Good Feelings faded and as Andrew Jackson emerged onto the political scene. The Whig party countered Jackson and his policies. Most of the American public reacted strongly, either for or against him. The citizens of Cumberland County reacted no differently. While Jackson commonly attracted rural Cumberland citizens, he often repelled the merchants and bankers of Fayetteville, the county’s largest town. Many problems existed in the county, which needed internal improvements like canals and better roads to connect its western lands to eastern markets. While many merchants supported such improvements, local farmers remained skeptical of linking their rural production with world markets. Debates also sprung over whether the government should fund such improvements. The formation of Cumberland County’s Democratic and Whig political parties embodied these and other struggles already present within the population. During this period, many had access to the ballot, and participation in voting rose sharply during the Jacksonian period. The 1824 presidential campaign spread political rhetoric around the nation, and two partisan newspapers in Cumberland County, the North Carolina Journal, a Democratic paper, and the Carolina Observer, a Whig-run enterprise, captured much of it. North Carolina voted for Jackson in 1824 and 1828. By the late 1820s, party formation in the county began to divide voters upon socio-economic cleavages.
Watson’s second stage of Democratic and Whig partisan development runs from 1829 to 1836. In this period, political organizers built the two parties’ platforms by linking local issues of states rights, internal improvements, and the use of credit to the national politics of the bank war and nullification. North Carolina Congressman Lauchlin Bethune, like many other Democrats, supported Jackson’s fight against the federal bank and his aversion to government aid for internal improvements. Jackson’s supporters tended to have less money and became active in politics at a younger age than Whigs. Whig leaders and many businessmen of Fayetteville and other urban areas of North Carolina, like Edward J. Hale, favored a strong bank and government spending for such improvements. By the summer of 1834, two distinguishable voting blocs had emerged in Cumberland County.
In the final stage of party organization, beginning with the state and national elections of 1836, Cumberland County voters accepted the Democrat and Whig parties’ platforms, thanks in large part to the intense labor of local party officials. This new political system dominated American politics until the Civil War. The Panic of 1837 and presidential election of 1840 cemented the differences between the Whigs and Democrats, who attacked each other for the falling cotton prices and subsequent economic downturn. By 1850, Democrats controlled North Carolina’s politics. When these two parties, which people created to express the competing ways of life in America, failed to resolve the sectional tensions over slavery, the country fell into a civil war. Cumberland County’s secession, along with much of the South in 1861, effectively ended the two party system in the South for decades to come.
Through his case study of Cumberland County, Watson explores the process of party development and composition in the antebellum South. Statistical tests also allow for in-depth study of Cumberland County voting behaviors. In addition to voting records, he discovered a rich collection of social and political data, such as North Carolina tax lists, memoirs, and partisan newspapers, to piece together the lives of Cumberland County residents. Although one county cannot fully represent the antebellum South, Watson’s evidence strongly suggests that Cumberland County contained many of the same social and political elements as the rest of the South. While he characterizes the two political parties as ideologically heterogeneous, readers will still find his succinct argument insightful and useful in determining who and why different Southerners chose to side with the two emerging political parties during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.
Heather L. Yeargan
Texas Christian University