Guest Post: Teaching and the Problem with Parties in the Early Republic

Mark Boonshoft is a PhD candidate at Ohio State University. His work focuses on colleges and academies, especially the networks forged in them, and their role in the formation of revolutionary political culture.

Boonshoft Flow ChartAs an undergraduate, I found the political history of the early republic to be fascinating. As a graduate student, I find teaching the subject to be utterly frustrating. This surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. I was already interested in early American history when I got to college. Most of my students don’t share that proclivity, to say the least.[1] Generally, they assume that the policy debates of the founding era and beyond—especially about banks, internal improvements, and federalism—are downright dry. That said, our students live in an era of rampant partisanship and government paralysis, punctuated by politicians’ ill-conceived attempts to claim the legacy of ‘the founders.’ The emergence of American party politics is pretty relevant to our students’ lives. So with many of us gearing up to get back into the classroom, I thought this would be a good time to start a discussion about teaching the history of early national party formation.

To generalize again, most students take the existence of our contemporary two-party system for granted. They see it as some sort of unchanging, normative political culture. Of course this is hardly the case. Party formation was a complicated and contingent process. During the early national period, partisanship was more fluid than it is now. People demonstrated party affiliation in a wider range of ways and parties possessed less official power. Simply getting students to imagine a different sort of party politics should open up exciting avenues of discussion.[2]

Yet the very root of this pedagogical opportunity is also the biggest obstacle. The entrenchment of modern partisanship can make it difficult for students to talk about early American politics and think past firm partisan divisions. I first confronted this while leading a discussion section as a TA. During class, I drew this flowchart in an effort to illustrate how rapidly parties realigned between the Revolution and the Civil War.[3]

At first, this only confused matters further. And I thought I was making things so easy by leaving out “third parties.” Ultimately, the flowchart has countervailing effects. On the one hand, party/faction names seem to help students make sense of debates about policy and law. The diagram gives students a way to organize information. On the other, its structure encourages students to continue thinking about politics as a clash between well-defined parties. The names themselves can suggest rigid distinctions between groups that were often not actually so clear. This becomes particularly apparent when we get to the 1800s-1820s, and the infighting between “Old Republican” and “National Republican” Jeffersonians. At SHEAR 2013, part of the discussion during a panel on National Republicans focused on this problem.[4] Students also often have trouble grasping the differences between the Federalists in 1787-89 and in the 1790s. A Federalist is a Federalist they think. Why else would the name remain?

Getting students to think through seemingly arcane policy disputes is hard enough. Ask them to comprehend how those technical arguments developed within a context of shifting and unstable political coalitions and it becomes even more confusing. I’m not sure that there is a good alternative. In my experience, teaching the politics of the early republic is difficult to do. I end up either anachronistically oversimplifying party development or just confusing the hell out of everyone. Even still, I stubbornly believe that teaching the nitty-gritty political history is an important part of our job as American history teachers. In our current political climate, it is tantalizing to think about the impact we might make by simply teaching this history well.[5]

So for selfish and intellectual reasons alike, I open this up to the blog’s readers. How do you teach early national politics and party formation, especially in an intro-level course? How do you make this sort of political history engaging and relevant?


[1] Every so often I come across a founders-obsessed, undergraduate history buff. While riding a campus bus, I once struck up a conversation with a student who, when he found I studied early American history, rolled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo of “We the People” on his forearm. Apparently, he also had “don’t tread on me” tattooed somewhere on his body. After immediately thinking of Bart Simpson, I was thankful he didn’t show me.

[2] The new, new political history is helpful for starting these sorts of reflective conversations. I find Jeffrey Pasley’s, “The Cheese and the Words: Popular Political Culture and Participatory Democracy in the Early American Republic,” in Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004): 31-56, to be particularly teachable.

[3] Disclaimer: I absolutely do not endorse the use of this chart for any educational purpose.

[4] The panel was called: “What does National Republicanism Mean in 2013? Nine Lives and Seven Interpretations.”

[5] Though I hardly think this is the only kind of political history that is important.

14 responses

  1. I teach 18c British literature, and when discussing works like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, we always run up against the whig/tory division and what it meant for his career. Students will always begin with their own, unreflective assumptions, but then it’s a matter of showing them how these fall apart in particular instances.

    It helps that Swift himself was a polemicist who often defined his enemies, if not himself, in memorable ways. So it might be more useful to pick polemical sources, which almost always disagree with one another, rather than trying to teach the notion of “fuzzy borders.” There might also be some contemporary analysts trying to puzzle out the meaning of these divisions in some particular case.

    Finally, movements are generally harder for students to understand than individual lives and careers. Do you have representative figures who could function as “ideal types” for the shifting positions in the arguments as they evolve? That might help.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Dave. I think you are right that students have an easier time understanding individual experiences than they do movements. I tend to use a lot of thematic and cultural biographies to ground discussions of the consumer revolution and Enlightenment in 18th C. British North America. There are a few ‘ideal types’ that come to mind, James Madison’s career between 1787 and the end of his presidency, for instance. I’ll have to think more about illustrative individuals.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Mark Boonshoft has a guest blog at The Junto where he discusses the difficulties of explaining the intricacies of political parties during the Early Republic to students. It is difficult for modern student to understand the fluidity of political parties during this period. Like Boonshoft, I have also witnessed the puzzled looks on students’ faces during these discussions.

  3. This might sound old-fashioned, I guess it is, but I have found Richard Hofstadter to be great for discussing the early republic and Lincoln, too, because his historical and political realism both provokes and resonates with a lot of students these days, and his fantastic introduction in APT about the danger of a citizenry that views history from the perspective of a captive audience and not as participants gets classes thinking about why it might matter to be taking the class in the first place.

  4. Great discussion topic. Thanks for sharing, Mark. As far as I’m concerned, “confusing the hell out of everyone” is exactly what we should be doing as history TA’s at our various universities. If undergrads today aren’t getting confused occasionally by complex historical ideas and trends, then we aren’t doing our jobs well enough. The history of partisan politics in the Early Republic still remains utterly relevant today, which (I concur with mattcrow here) Hofstadter understood better than most. Don’t oversimplify. Don’t apologize. The more confusing, the better! (Something tells me you already feel this way, but I just get so excited by party formation, I can’t stop!).

    • Thanks for the positive vibes Robert. I agree, a healthy bit of confusion can get the juices flowing. But I also think students need a bit of resolution, and I like to help them get there, somehow.

  5. Try making it about people building coalitions and creating communities rather than about abstract entities/ideologies called “political parties” (which were of course regarded with suspicion until at least the 1830s). Try using the free, online database, A NEW NATION VOTES at, to provide a sense of how many people were voting for what candidates and how allegiances changed over time. Get them to understand what was at stake. Bring in newspapers which were, as Jeff Pasley and other tell us, the engines of party growth.And remind them that such widespread popular involvement in politics was a legacy of the American Revolution which we need to preserve. I find these elements are more important than party labels.

    • These are all great suggestions. Thanks for responding. I’ve used NNV in my own work, but haven’t used it in my teaching yet. The point about newspapers is well taken. I tend to describe the nature of the political press in the period. But OSU subscribes to the readex database. Might as well let them poke around! Again, thanks for posting.

  6. I am not sure how much this will help teaching students the complexities of early American politics, but it might prove useful to spend some time covering the intellectual framework in which the political debates of the early republic took place. Teaching students the intellectual frame of reference and thought that early American public officials understood may help students understand that the meaning of democracy, commercialism, republicansim, were far different from those of contemporary politics and ideologies. Disassociating contemporary ideologies from those of the early republic may help students remove contemporary politics and better comprehend the magnitude of those early policy debates of internal improvements, banking, international affairs, expansion, and trade. Historian Mike O’Connor, one of the founding members of the Society for US Intellectual Historians, does a wonderful job of this, albeit he focuses almost exclusively on the economic debates between Jefferson and Hamilton (and their followers), in chapter 1 of his new book “A Commercial Republic: America’s Enduring Debate over Democratic Capitalism,” (Larwence: The University Press of Kansas, 2014). It may complex things further or have little influence, but looking at early American political debates from this way greatly aided my understanding of the complexities when I began studying this period.

    p.s. I really enjoy this blog, cheers!

    • Zach, thanks for responding and for your suggestions. I certainly do try to situate the political debates within a broader intellectual framework. I still did John Howe’s article from the late 1960s on republican thought and political violence to be helpful in that regard. And of course there is plenty of new scholarship too. I haven’t read O’connor’s book, but I’ll have to check it out.

    • I’ve found it most useful for thinking about changes in party strength in the 20th C. Looking at it again, it is better on the 19thC than I remembered. I’m not sure how I feel about the section that is just “chaos” though.

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