Elite Political Action and the Formation of the First American Party System: The Case of New York

Benjamin Rohr, University of Mannheim
Marissa Combs, Harvard University

Political sociologists have recently returned to the study of political parties and party systems. Yet despite these efforts, we still know little about the origins of the first American party system. Much of our thinking has been shaped by John Aldrich’s rational choice theory, according to which parties were the product of rational political entrepreneurs. By putting elites front and center, Aldrich has greatly advanced our understanding of why and how parties developed. But we argue that what is needed is a more substantive and historically accurate theory of elite political action. Based on a case study of political action in Washington County, New York during the 1790s, we wish to highlight two things in particular. First, Aldrich, like most scholars of the first party system, describes a top-down process of party formation whereby parties first formed in the cabinet or in Congress and then “trickled down” as those parties-in-the-legislature began to mobilize voters. But in a federal system in which political units are nested within other political units, and where political actors regularly move between these levels, political actors are simultaneously embedded in multiple political networks at multiple levels of government. The focus on the national level has clouded our view of what it meant to act in the new political world that was brought about by the creation of the federal government. Second, Aldrich envisions largely disembedded cosmopolitan elites. But political action in the early republic took place in a thick social world. Political actors used existing relationships to form political alliances and cemented new alliances with new relationships. But they also sometimes had to break existing ties in order to create fresh action and advance politically. Parties are the complex webs of alliances that resulted from these small actions.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 91. New Developments in the Historical Sociology of Elite Political Action