Share This Article

Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John Ferling

The founding fathers believed that political parties would bring instability to the republic. Yet by the time George Washington left the presidency, petty bickering had already erupted between the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams and the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In 1798 the rancor became so intense that Connecticut Federalist Roger Griswold took a cane to Vermont Republican Matthew Lyon after an exchange of insults. Vitriol also fueled the race when Jefferson unseated Adams as president in 1800. Federalist opposition to the War of 1812 brought the demise of their party, but not partisan politics.

The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons

The Battle between genteel John Quincy Adams and frontier Southern planter Andrew Jackson for the presidency was among the most vicious in American history. One newsman charged, “General Jackson’s mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE.… She afterwards married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one!!!” Jackson’s supporters countered—and prevailed— after unleashing their own smear tactics, including the suggestion that Adams engaged in premarital sex with his wife.

The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War by Michael F. Holt

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1852, which let new territorial governments decide whether to join the Union as slaveholding or free, played a major role in shaping party politics. Of the 44 Democrats in the antislavery North who voted for the act, only seven won reelection in 1854. Then, in 1856 incumbent Democrat Franklin Pierce suffered the indignity of becoming one of a handful of presidents to lose his party’s nomination for reelection. Yet the Whig Party fared worse. It split over the slave question and was replaced by the antislavery Republican Party.

The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America by Ronald Brownstein

Party polarization is not new. But Brownstein, a Los Angeles Times reporter, contends that the end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a new era of extreme partisanship. Focusing on the chronic legislative paralysis in Washington in recent years, Brownstein takes aim at Republicans and Democrats alike, and suggests that rising above partisan politics calls for more from the White House than a “soaring moral vision.” A modern political consensus, he concludes, will require “boldly demanding sacrifice from all segments of society” on issues such as entitlements, energy policy and taxes.


Originally published in the August 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here