The Enduring Two Party System

This is part 1 of 2 posts about third parties in American politics.  This part concerns the history of the two party system as it usually functions.  The next article will address attention to our current dismal prospects.

My high school government teacher, Gerald Pinkham,  once told us to find the section of the Constitution that deals with political parties. We went scrambling through the document while he watched from his professorial perch in the front of the room. Being a diligent student of government, I wanted to claim the honor, but like all the other students, I failed.

The Constitution, I learned and never forgot that day, says nothing about political parties. George Washington warned against political parties and factions in his Farewell Address, but he, himself, had sided with Alexander Hamilton and against Thomas Jefferson numerous times in a series of recurring political divides.  That was the background to the first two political parties, which were the Federalists, who claimed Washington and elected John Adams, and the Republicans, the party of Jefferson and James Madison.  The political tensions between Washington and Jefferson are the subject matter of Thomas Fleming’s excellent book The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined a Nation.

James Madison was closer to the realities of political life when he discussed the inevitability of avoiding political factions in Federalist #10. Madison says that “faction is a part of human nature.”  While factions create strife in the body politic, the suppression of factions or differences is far worse.  If a student were to read and study only 1 of the 85 essays in The Federalist, number 10 would be the best choice.

Madison’s successor as President, James Monroe, enjoyed a brief political respite known as “The Era of Good Feelings” in 1820 when there was no opposition to his re-election.  One lone elector did refuse to cast his vote for Monroe on the grounds that he believed only President Washington was deserving of a unanimous electoral vote.  The unity and political harmony of this time was not to last.  It was, as the saying goes, the calm before the storm.

Four years later (1824), four men contended for the Presidency in one of the most bitter elections ever.   The candidates represented different sections of the country.  John Quincy Adams was from New England.  William H. Crawford was from Georgia, while Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson both represented the growing political power of the west.

Jackson, who could just as easily face a man in a duel as in a political race, won a plurality of popular and electoral votes.  Adams came in second, while Crawford was in third place.  Henry Clay was fourth, but he managed to play a key role in the post-election day events.  No candidate had won a majority in the electoral college, and the matter was then sent to the House of Representatives.  According to the Constitution, the House would chose from the top three candidates.  Crawford was basically ruled out due to being in third place and due to a stroke he had suffered.  Jackson felt confident that he was the true winner, but after the matter went to the House, Adams emerged as the winner.

In what was referred to as “the corrupt bargain,” Jackson accused Adams and Henry Clay of conspiring against him.  Clay held the powerful position of Speaker of the House, and then was picked by Adams to be the Secretary of State.  At that point in time, J. Q. Adams was the fourth President who had been Secretary of State. John Quincy Adams’ victory, with an assist from Henry Clay, gave him four unhappy years in the White House.

The 1824 loser, Andrew Jackson, basically restructured the party of Jefferson which morphed from being the Republican Party (not to be confused with the later party of the same name) to the Democratic Party.  The power base of the party shifted from the east coast to the west.  The farmers and workers of the country found a voice in the Indian fighter and the winner of the Battle of New Orleans.  Jackson’s populism won the hearts of much of the laboring and farming folk.

Jackson had the pleasure of crushing both Adams in 1828 and Clay in 1832 in further elections. At that point, the opponents of Jackson called themselves Whigs, which came from the British political party that stood in loyal opposition to the King’s Tory party.  As a political party, the Whigs were largely united only by their opposition to King Andrew, as they called Jackson.  For most of the elections from 1828 to 1856, the two parties were the Democrats and the Whigs.

Elections either changed the country, or more likely reflected or corresponded with changes already surging.  On occasion, when the two major parties overlooked a political hot spot, other parties would rise up.  In ante-bellum America, nativism, which was an opposition to foreign immigrants, attracted enough support to field some candidates in a party known as the Know Nothings (who had one of the most apt names in political history).  After periods of division, the recurring pattern was always the return of the two party system. Although not in the Constitution and often challenged by events, the system is as much a part of the American way as are elections themselves.

This is because elections are always two-party events. You have a winning party and a losing party. You have a majority and a minority. All countries with elections end up with those in power and those out of power. One person once described the multiparty system in totalitarian countries as being one party in power and the others in jail.

Many European countries have multiple political parties. Those with parliamentary governments, often modeled after Britain, then have their prime minister and his or her cabinet chosen by a coalition that pulls together a majority vote. Coalitions are made up of different groups who agree to come together for limited specific purposes. Coalitions are inherent in human nature and society.

When one part of the coalition breaks with the other, elections are called for and a different coalition takes office.

The two main parties in the United States are the Democratic and Republican Parties. This has been the case since 1856. Prior to that, it was the Democratic and Whig Parties. The Republican Party of today arose out of a coalition of Free Soilers, opponents of slavery (including both abolitionists and those who mainly opposed the spread of slavery), Know Nothings (who had the neatest name in political history), and northern Whigs. (In 1860, a group of southern Whigs, known as Cotton Whigs, competed in the election by running John Bell for President.) The Whig Party itself was a fragile coalition of interests that only elected two Presidents, both of whom died in office. Their greater leaders, like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, never won the high office. Interesting side point:  Both Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln were Whig party members in the years before the Civil War.

Both the Democrat and Republican Parties are coalition parties.

                                                Democrats have a coalition of African-Americans, union members, certain ethnic groups like Jews,                                                                                    and ideological zealots for minority causes and issues.

                                           The Republican coalition consists of conservative evangelicals, pro-business conservatives, supporters of a strong military,                                            and ideological zealots for minority causes and issues.

This next point is not original, and I am not sure from whom I learned it: In Europe, political parties form coalitions and govern after an election. In America, political parties form coalitions before an election.  This forming of a political coalition is what is fought out during the primary and caucus season.  The conventions in the summer are designed to further meld the coalitions together.  Party unity is a prime feature of both parties’ election plans and hopes.

For these reasons, political Presidential candidates play the primary roles in uniting their parties. Much of this coalescing comes in the choice of a Vice Presidential candidate. In 1960, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts chose Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson to help keep the south in the Democrat column. In 1968, Richard Nixon chose Spiro Agnew to help cement southern conservative support. In 1976, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, then a moderate, chose the more liberal Water Mondale. Reagan the more western and ideological outsider chose George H. W. Bush, who had strong ties to the more eastern and establishment wings of the party. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts chose Lloyd Bentson of Texas, hoping to replicate JFK and LBJ’s 1960. Bob Dole chose former political rival Jack Kemp, more of a favorite of Reaganites. Barack Obama, with his ties to the more liberal wings of the Democrat party,  chose Joe Biden, whose strengths were found in the traditional labor union, blue collar Catholic Democrat voters.

In painful contrast to those examples, Senator Barry Goldwater, having won the nomination in a fractious convention, chose the unknown conservative Congressman William Miller for his Vice Presidential candidate.  He should have chosen George Romney of Michigan or William Scranton of Pennsylvania.

While Presidential candidates might prefer choosing a political clone, they often look for the person who in some way balances the ticket geographically, temperamentally, or ideologically. For this reason, voters are often more happy with the Vice Presidential candidate than with the Presidential candidate, or visa versa. It’s not just politics; rather, it is smart politics.

This brings us back around to the place of third parties. There have been a number of third parties that have impacted elections, but none have won. (One might argue that the newly formed Republican Party won in 1860.) Often third parties threaten to deny any candidate a majority in the electoral college and thus throw the election to the House of Representatives. (Go back to the election of 1828 to see how that works.) If a third party candidate gets enough votes to deny either major party the 270 electoral votes, then the House picks a winner. Each state gets one vote, and with the Republicans in control of the House currently, the winner this year would most probably be the Republican candidate.

In American election history, third parties have usually divided the votes between the two candidates who are closest and given the election to the remaining party. In 1912, William Howard Taft, Republican incumbent, and Theodore Roosevelt, former Republican President then running on the Bull Moose Ticket, split the Republican votes and gave the election to Woodrow Wilson, Democrat. Wilson won the election with fewer votes than the previous and losing Democrat candidate had received.

In 1968, George Wallace appealed to enough southern voters to threaten Richard Nixon’s chances of winning the Presidency. Enough voters who leaned toward Wallace feared that a vote for him would put Democrat liberal Hubert Humphrey in the White House. In 1992, many Reagan Republicans defected from their party to support Ross Perot’s independent bid. While Bill Clinton might have won without the Perot candidacy, it sure didn’t hurt him.

Most third parties, such as Ross Perot’s American Party, fizzle out after an election or two and their main issues are absorbed by one or both of the main parties. This, by the way, is what zapped the Socialist Party in America when Franklin Roosevelt came to power.  Richard Nixon worked hard within the parameters of his Southern Strategy to pick up the vote in 1972 that went to Wallace in 1968.

If a third party gets traction, one or both of the major parties pick up on the issues that are getting attention.  The result is usual the quick death of the third party, or its being reduced to irrelevancy.  Once again, the pattern continues.  In America, we build political coalitions before an election.  In Europe, the coalitions are formed afterwards.

Fatal Choices: British Redcoats, Scots Highlanders, George Washington, and More

Americans enjoy nurturing the image of British Redcoats that is far more the manufactured product of Hollywood than the reality of history.  The recurring image is that the Brits were effete, prim and proper, constrained by forms and rules, inflexible, brimming with an alleged superiority complex, and quite irritating to work with in military situations.  While James Fenimore Cooper treated the British soldiers with respect in his writings, the movie version of The Last of the Mohicans contrasted the tough, manly Nathaniel Poe (who was supposed to be Natty Bumpo) with a number of His Majesty’s servants who were blockheads.  The British who appeared in The Patriot, while brutal, were easily and often duped by the character played by Mel Gibson.  The trend extends to other wars as well.  Montgomery was quite a boaster and buffoon in contrast to General Patton in the movie named after the latter general.  Even in the epic Bridge Over the River Kwai, the British are often quite irritating to both the viewers and the lone American in the story.

Mel Gibson’s character bests the British officers and even the dog changes sides to join the Americans.

Why shouldn’t we Americans scorn the British?  We not only whipped them in two wars in the 1700s and 1800s, but we got them out of deep trouble in the two world wars.  After all, the British would bring everything to a sudden halt in the midst of the fight simply because it was tea time.  Right?

Truth be known, there are plenty of blunders, too much pomposity, to many vainglorious idiots, and far too many cases such as the battles of Trenton, Yorktown, New Orleans, Singapore, Arnhem Bridge, and others for the British army to be spotless in the eyes of history or Hollywood.  But, as an American, I must refrain since we have had our own multitude of military blunders.  As a Southerner, I would rather not think about Pea Ridge in Arkansas, Shiloh in Tennessee, or Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.  Napoleon once remarked that the winner in battle was the side that made the least number of mistakes.

All this brings me to the topic at hand, which is books about the British military.  Right now, I am dealing with the dilemma of deciding which book to read first.  A connection wit the author gives the inside advantage to the first book listed below.

First up on the roster is The Fatal Land: War, Empire, and the Highland Soldier in British America by Dr. Matthew P. Dziennik.  Several years ago, I was at the Yorktown Battlefield Park.  I was asking someone about the role of Presbyerians in the Continental army and they referred me to a Scotsman who was working there.  With the un-Scottish name of Dziennik (which I think is Polish), I met a young fellow who was in every other respect the ideal Scotsman, meaning the accent and Eric Liddell-like demeanor.  We had a great discussion that day, and in the years that followed, we have kept in contact.  Matthew has traveled back and forth between his native Scotland to the United States and Canada where he has been researching, completing his doctorate,  and teaching.  He is presently teaching history at Annapolis Naval Academy.

Dr. Matthew Dziennik and his wife Sarah in Edinburgh on the occasion of his receiving his doctorate in history.

Along with completing this book, Matthew has the even greater accomplishment of now having a beautiful wife and daughter.  In the area of placing bets about historians, I would advise you to put money on this guy.  This first book is most likely just the first of many.

In terms of the topic,  the Scots provided lots of soldiers for the English (actually German) kings.  While there was plenty of bad blood and feuding between the Scots and the English, the Scots, recognizing the inevitable, found service under the Union Jack agreeable.  Much has been made of the large number of fighting Scots and Scots-Irish on the Patriot side of the American War for Independence.  It makes for a great tale, and those of us who are American and Presbyterian and Celtic, revel in these stories.  But like most popular history, it is distorted.  Scots fought on both sides of the American War as did folks of English heritage.  The British army always had its contingents of Scotsmen.

This book is published by Yale University Press.  As is often the case, it is a bit pricey since it is a hardback university press publication.  But go for it all the same.  I will get back with more as soon as I progress further along in the book.


Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle is by Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone. It is volume #54 in the outstanding Campaigns and Commanders Series published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  And, it is on sale until July 4 for $21.

The description begins by saying, “Historians have long considered the Battle of Monmouth one of the most complicated engagements of the American Revolution.”  As a history student and teacher, I have not considered anything about this battle.  Battles from the War for Independence such as Bunker Hill (ably discussed in Thomas Fleming’s Now We are Enemies), Trenton and Princeton (ably discussed in David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing and David McCullough’s 1776), and battles in the southern campaigns such as King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Yorktown have caught my attention.  Monmouth is a fog in my mind.

As a battle, the significance is largely related to the behind-the-scenes politics and the battle for George Washington’s position.  He probably had about as much opposition among the Patriots as he did with the British.  Looking at the situation in its time, it can be understood why some might have thought that Washington was not the man of the hour and that maybe Horatio Gates would be a good replacement.  Monmouth provided fodder for the cannons of Washington’s partisans.  The battle itself was a draw, but the politics of the battle was a step toward victory for Washington remaining in command.

As may be obvious, my life is incomplete until I get grounded in both the military and political battle of Monmouth.  Quoting again from the publisher’s description, “Replete with poignant anecdotes, folkloric incidents, and stories of heroism and combat brutality; filled with behind-the-scenes action and intrigue; and teeming with characters from all walks of life, Fatal Sunday gives us the definitive view of the fateful Battle of Monmouth.”

While this book is not primarily about the British Redcoats, they are certainly a part of the supporting cast.


If I can wade through those two books, I also have The Man Who Captured Washington: Major General Robert Ross and the War of 1812 by John Mccavitt and Christopher George.  This is volume #53 in the Campaigns and Commanders Series. (I have about 20 of the volumes and would love to have them all.)  I am familiar with the capture of Washington, the city and not the man, in the unfortunate War of 1812.  As an American, I usually want to whip over these parts of the war and move on to celebrate General Jackson’s victory at New Orleans.  Since Ross burned out capital and send President and Mrs. Madison scurrying for safety, he is not highly regarded or known among Americans.  The White House still bears the marks of the fire.

But war is what it is.  He was not only doing his duty, but seeking to defeat the enemy.  The causes and conduct of the War of 1812 are not examples of America’s brightest shining moments.  This general, who accomplished his mission, suffered from history’s most cruel fate–obscurity.  Let’s give Robert Ross his due.


I can only mention European Armies of the French Revolution 1789-1802edited by Frederick C. Schneid.  This is volume #50 in the Campaigns and Commanders Series.  It is also on sale.  The chapters cover French, Prussian, Russian, Austrian, Ottoman, Italian, German state armies, as well as the British army.  If I get to The Final Act: The Roads to Waterloo by Dallas Gregor, then this would be a good follow-up.

As is often the case, all this blog points to this great problem:  Too many books, too little time.

From the Book Hunting Trails

Book Buys LR 2016

On Saturday, I got the chance to spend some time stalking the shelves at River Market Books in Little Rock. This is my second favorite used bookstore in Arkansas. Sad to report, but the history books (usually priced at $4 each) were on sale for half price.

River Market Books 2

From the back row, left to right, I picked up a copy of Andy Stanley’s It Came from Within. This is the older hardback edition of what is now titled Enemies of the Heart (in paperback).  The newer edition is currently being used in the Wednesday night studies at my church.

Also, I got A Company of Readers: Uncollected Writings of W. H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling from the Readers’ Subscription and Mid-Century Book Clubs. What a long sub-title! The inclusion of Barzun made the sale.  But all three men were top notch literary fellows and scholars.  Books of essays are easily dipped into and read in short stretches, here and there, then saved for a later occasion.

On the front row, we have The Final Act: The Roads to Waterloo by Gregor Dallas. Some years back I  1945: The War that Never Ended and thought it was an excellent history.  I think I also have 1918: War and Peace by Dallas. I find him very much in the tradition of great British historians, such as Max Hastings, Piers Brendon, and John Keegan.  The British produce some great scholars in the field of history.  (Some editions of this book are titled 1815: The Roads to Waterloo.)  It looks rather comprehensive in covering the major countries and players in the final defeat of Napoleon.

Then we have The End of Order: Versailles 1919 by Charles Mee, Jr. Both World War I and 20th Century history are specialties of mine (in my own mind, at least).  Of course, the Versailles Conference included some influential leaders and resulted in a disastrous peace.  The title brings out a curious thought.  Versailles was an attempt to bring a new order on Europe.  In a very real sense, it created the seeds of World War II.

The last book is titled Profiles in Folly: History’s Worst Decisions and Why They Went Wrong by Alan Axelrod. From the Trojan Horse to George Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, mistakes and bad judgments abound. Looks fun and instructive.  This is a book of less than 350 pages, so it is obviously only a small glimpse of the bad decisions that fill the ages of the past.  (I am glad we have learned all the lessons from past mistakes and will never make any more.)

Total damage done: $15 for 5 nice hardback books.

Reading for the Heart, the Mind, and the Short Distance Between the Two


Summer mornings are great.  Sunlight is peering through the windows announcing a new day.  The coffee maker sits anxiously awaiting my pushing the button.  The reading chair is all ready for my morning venture.  As Matt Perman has said, “The most important principle for being productive is Bible reading and prayer, before the day begins, every day.” When that is done, I turn to the ever increasing, sometimes dangerous high and tilting, stack of books to be read, scanned, started, or just handled.

Here are some of the current and upcoming reads:

 Keith Sewell

I am currently reading Keith Sewell’s new book The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity, published by Wipf and Stock Publishers.  On the publisher’s website, the book is listed as “history.”  It is that, but more.  It is also a theology work and an examination of contemporary Christianity.  But things never just happen, for they are all results of historical processes.

From the title, one might have two questions.  First, why “crisis”-singular, rather than “crises”-plural?  There are many problems within Evangelical circles and many books detailing the problems.  George Barna created a cottage industry of books detailing views, trends, and attitudes within the circles of professing Christians, many of which are troubling.  Second, if there is a single crisis, what is it?  Ask me that question next week when I am deeper into the book.

Dr. Sewell, with whom I have corresponded on several occasions, offers these reflections from a strong vantage point.  He was born and raised in Great Britain, then he taught history for some years at Dordt College in Iowa, and after retirement, he moved to Australia.  His church affiliations have included the Church of England during his upbringing, was part of Reformed churches (of Dutch variety) during his years at Dordt, and  now worships with Anglican Parish Church in Australia.  His labors and travels have also taken him to other parts of the world, particularly areas that have connections with the British Empire.  Also, Dr. Sewell has written a book on the overly ignored Christian historian Herbert Butterfield.

In the opening chapters, Sewell deals with the interaction (sometimes more a reaction) of Christianity with the prevailing philosophies of the Greco-Roman world, meaning primarily Platonism, and the different approaches to Scripture’s authority within the branches of the Protestant movement during the Reformation.

This book is challenging.  Warning:  Don’t drink de-caf coffee while reading this.  I will post an update on this book soon.

Know the Bible Now is published by Concordia Publishing House.  Concordia, to no surprise, is a Lutheran based publisher of books, commentaries, Bibles, and study helps.  I am certain that they will be unveiling quite a few great works next year during the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation.  While they target conservative Lutherans, they publish quite a few works that are useful for people who designate themselves as Reformed, Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical, or the simple word Christian.

This book is very basic, very much aimed at young readers or people new to the Bible, and helpful for people needing, as the sub-title indicates, a visual overview of the Bible.  In other words, this book is probably needed by the people who sit on both sides of you and on the rows in front of and behind you at church, and you probably need it too.  Just yesterday, Sam Murrell, a preacher and teacher in a Christian school, and I were talking about how little basic Bible knowledge many children have who have grown up in church and who attend Christian schools.  We are better at swearing on a stack of Bibles than demonstrating a simple knowledge of the Bible.

This book is full of charts, short Bible selections that capture big themes, and well done art.  If there were no other recommendation, the fact that Paul Maier, a fine author and editor of Christian works, has written the foreword to the book.

B & H Publishing Groups is one of the best Baptist publishing houses around today.  Like Concordia, they do a wide range of books and materials aimed at a particular segment of the Christian community, but still really useful for the greater Body of Christ.  I recently read The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation by Michael Reeves and am now about one-third of the way through Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George.

Reeves’ book is recent, introductory, and brief.  George’s book is a 25th Anniversary reprint (which came out in 2013), more advanced, and nearly 400 pages long.  As stated earlier, next year–2017–marks the 500 Year Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (assuming we can agree on it “beginning” with Luther’s tack and hammer event in Wittenberg).  If Bible illiteracy is a problem, as indicated in the review above, historical literacy is a greater problem.  If there is a crisis or many crises in the evangelical world, as indicated in the first review, those crises are only going to be understand by some serious historical reading.

I hope to use Reeves’ Unquenchable Flame in my Modern World Humanities course.  It is the best overview of the Reformation I have read in recent years.  For the student, it is a great introduction, and for the teacher, it is a great review, and for a class, it is a fine overview.  From the introduction by Mark Dever (a selling point for anyone who knows his work) to the body of the book, this work is highly favorable to the Reformation.  But it recognizes flaws, faults, and failings as well.  The Reformation is complicated, and historians can ask whether it was successful, necessary, over, or still going on.  But students have to begin with the basic information.  Start here if you have not read on that portion of Church and World History.

Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers is a book I would assign if I were teaching a college level course on the Reformation, the 1500s, the Modern World, early modern Europe, or church history.  I would sneak in a recommendation for it if I were teaching on a number of other unrelated topics.  This book has chapters of 50 plus pages in length–mini-books, in other words–on each of the Reformers.  The first long chapter in this book, corresponding to the first short chapter in Reeves’ work, is on the Medieval world prior to Luther and Calvin.  While each of the chapters provides biographies of the Reformers–Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Menno Simmons, and Tyndale–the focus is on the theological views and actions of the men and those in their circles.

I have read many books on the Reformation and the Reformers.  I have many more that I have only scanned or used for reference purposes.  Don’t ask which 2 or 5 or 20 are the most important.  I could not say, but I will say that if a serious student is to have only 2 secondary sources (for I assume all serious students would have Luther’s Bondage of the Will, Calvin’s Institutes, and a copy of the Book of Common Prayer), these two would set them on the right track.

[Is it a tribute to the Methodist Ecumenical Movement of the 1960s that has caused me–a Presbyterian–to be reading from an Anglican with Dutch Reformed affiliations, a Lutheran work, and the work of two Reformed Baptists? ]