Friday, August 24, 2007

Early U.S. Party System

If you can track it down, I encourage you to read The History of Legislative Methods in the Period Before 1825 by Ralph Harlow (Yale University Press, 1917). This is a fascinating book about the growth of legislative political parties in the colonies and early U.S. Congress.

In Party Government (1942), Schattschneider goes out of his way to criticize James Madison's Federalist 10. Madison, of course, was warning us about the dangers of faction, and was apparently oblivious to the necessity of parties in running a democracy. Schattschneider claims that Madison couldn't have known how important parties were to democracies because neither Madison nor anyone else alive at that time had ever seen a real functioning representative democracy.

Harlow shows that Schattschneider's claim is bunk. The pre-revolutionary colonial legislatures had evolved party systems (called "Juntos") to counter the power of the colonial governors, who were usually picked by the king of England. In many of the colonies, the Junto was as powerful or even more powerful than the governor.

One of my favorite examples came from Massachusetts. In 1766, the governor urged the statehouse to investigate the recent riots over the Stamp Act and find out who was responsible. The statehouse, under the control of the Boston Junto of brewer/patriot Sam Adams, John Hancock, and others, appointed five investigators from outside Boston who knew nothing of the city, of committee work, or of the riots. Thus did the legislature follow the governor's orders while producing exactly the results it wanted - none of the riot's perpetrators were brought to justice.

While I usually don't get into books on committees, Harlow's examination of the growth of committees as an arm of legislative parties is really quite interesting. If you're remotely interested in parties or early U.S. governmental history, this is a great book for you.

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