Party Spirit in a Frontier Republic

Democratic Politics In Ohio, 1793–1821

Donald J. Ratcliffe

The formative years of the early republic are commonly seen as a period of general aversion to organized political parties, especially in frontier areas, where politics were dominated by an elite of land speculators, merchants, and office holders. In this close study of Ohio’s experience at the state and local levels, Donald J. Ratcliffe presents an alternative view. Ratcliffe argues that although the traditional picture accurately represents politics under the territorial regime, the statehood movement roused popular participation on an unprecedented scale and brought about a democratic revolution in Ohio in 1802. Thereafter men of means still dominated public office, but only if they could prove to their constituents that popular concerns were being adequately met.

The Republican Party dominated Ohio after 1803, although it quickly fell to internal squabbling. But even though party unity declined at the state level, party mechanisms continued to dictate elections in many counties, where popular conventions rather than party caucuses named the candidates. Moreover, in national elections the electorate constantly reasserted its preference for the Republican Party, especially when Federalist fortunes revived in the difficult years after 1807.

The War of 1812 had a profound impact on the structure of party loyalty and behavior. In much of the state, exposed to invasion by British troops and native warriors, party and factional divisions diminished and prepared the way for the postwar Era of Good Feelings. In southeastern Ohio, however, the Federalists opposed the war, roused much support, and transformed themselves into a populist political force. In so doing, they furthered the establishment of a two-party system.

The frontier republic had not only provided an experience of democratic politics but also created lasting partisan loyalties among the electorate and laid down lines of partisan cleavages that would never quite disappear.

Donald J. Ratcliffe teaches American history at the University of Durham. He has published over twenty articles on different aspects of American history in the early nineteenth century, notably in the Journal of American History and the Journal of the Early Republic.

Aug 1998
Political Science/History
336 pp. 6 x 9 maps

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