Kentucky, never having been a territory, broke off from Virginia to become the nation's fifteenth state in 1792. Its first constitution, drafted that year, was soon found unsatisfactory, and a second constitution was framed in 1799. Despite the presence of a few prominent Federalists, Kentucky was a virtual one-party state, with the Jeffersonian Republicans dominating throughout the era of the First Party System. This ostensible political unanimity, however, masked substantial political conflict throughout the state's early history, antagonisms that exploded in the wake of the Panic of 1819.
The first white settlers moved into Kentucky on the eve of the Revolutionary War, and the region remained the westernmost district of Virginia for almost twenty years. After extensive negotiations—including several enabling acts passed by the Virginian Assembly and a seemingly endless series of state conventions convened to discuss the terms of separation and the structure of the proposed state government—Kentucky finally secured its independence from Virginia in 1792.
Late that spring, a state constitutional convention, dominated by the well-connected and aristocratic George Nicholas, convened at Danville and finished its work in less than three weeks. Kentucky's first constitution has often been characterized as a forward-looking product of the democratic frontier, and many of its features do support this view: The document abolished all religious qualifications, incorporated a comprehensive Bill of Rights, prohibited viva voce voting, provided for the annual election of state representatives, and, most notably, granted universal white adult male suffrage. Yet the decision to lift property requirements for voting had as much to do with extraordinary high rates of landlessness and rampant confusion over land titles as it did with democratic enthusiasm; the delegates did not dare disfranchise well over half of the state's population. In fact, a majority of the convention was determined to contain the swiftly moving democratic currents of the early republic, and they leaned heavily on Pennsylvania's 1790 constitution—itself a conservative revision of the state's far more radical 1776 constitution. The document, therefore, created a powerful executive, one chosen by electors every four years and possessed of substantial powers of appointment; a bicameral General Assembly in which the upper house would also be decided by an electoral college; and a nonelective judiciary. Significantly, the constitution gave original and final jurisdiction over land cases to the state supreme court, a provision that the great landowners of Kentucky had advocated for years because it precluded any chance for appeal. Furthermore, conservative elements at the convention turned back an attempt to end slavery in the state and, in fact, secured a positive and explicit protection for slavery, the first such constitutional provision in the nation.
The delegates, apparently not overly confident in their handiwork, included an unusual provision for another constitutional convention seven years hence if "it shall seem expedient." Sure enough, many Kentuckians soon became convinced that fundamental changes to the state's supreme law were not only expedient but necessary. Proposed reforms ranged from the relatively mild suggestion that members of the county courts be prohibited from serving in the legislature to more radical demands for the emancipation of slaves, the abolition of the governorship and the Senate, a complete overhaul of the state's court system, and a renunciation of the separation agreement with Virginia that protected the property rights of nonresident landholders.
And so, in 1799, the state's voters authorized a second state constitutional convention. This time, John Breckinridge, a Virginia-born lawyer soon to be Thomas Jefferson's attorney general, dominated the proceedings in much the same way that Nicholas commanded the first convention. Under Breckinridge's guidance, the conservatives succeeded in curbing the most radical demands for reform: The legislature remained bicameral, the separation agreement with Virginia was upheld, the attempt to reform the judiciary and its control of land titles was turned back, and slavery was once again protected and preserved. Although delegates made some concessions to popular sovereignty (including the direct election of the governor and state senators), they reinstated viva voce voting, preserved the appointment of judges, and made other minor offices, previously elective, appointive. To cap things off, the conservatives included a clause that made further revision of the constitution extremely difficult.
Throughout its first thirty years, Kentucky overwhelmingly supported the Republican Party. In 1798, when Vice President Thomas Jefferson needed a friendly venue to channel anonymously his resolutions condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts, he naturally turned to the legislature of Kentucky. Although a nominal Federalist Party did exist in the state, and a few of its adherents managed to secure election, the Republican Party's dominance was virtually unchallenged.
But however monolithic Kentucky's political structure may have been, by no means did this translate into political consensus. Several issues proved to be immensely contentious in the state's early years: the establishment of a state circuit court system in 1803, the creation and spread of a banking system in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, and the controversy in 1817 over whether the death of a sitting governor necessitated a new election. One traveler in 1807 amused himself in a Lexington coffee house by perusing "the wonderful mass of political contradiction to be found in forty different newspapers, where scarcely any two editors coincided in opinion."
But it was the financial ruin that descended upon the country in 1819 that triggered early Kentucky's most divisive and vehement political conflict. In the wake of bank failures, sheriff's sales, and ruinous deflation, the state's citizens demanded that the state government alleviate their suffering. By 1821 the General Assembly had constructed a relief system that allowed debtors to postpone repayment of debt, created a Commonwealth's Bank that generously lent paper money, and mandated that any property sold under execution must bring three-quarters of its pre-depression value. An Anti-Relief faction appeared almost immediately, vehemently insisting that the state and federal constitutions prohibited such legislation. After the state courts struck down major portions of the relief system in 1823 and 1824, the General Assembly responded by actually attempting to abolish the state high court (the Court of Appeals) and establish a new court more to their liking. It was, as it turned out, a bridge too far, for in the next year's elections, the "Old Court" Anti-Relief candidates decisively defeated the "New Court" pro-relief slate. In early 1827, the new legislature restored the original court, thus bringing to an end the state's notorious Relief War. In the 1830s, Kentucky reverted to its traditional one-party status, as the Whig Party came to dominate the state's politics for another generation.
- Aron, Steven.
How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay.Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
- Coward, Joan Wells.
Kentucky in the New Republic: The Process of Constitution Making.Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1979.
- Ellis, Richard.
The Jeffersonian Crisis: Courts and Politics in the Young Republic.New York: Norton, 1971.
- Friend, Craig Thompson.
Along the Maysville Road: The Early American Republic in the Trans-Appalachian West.Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.
- Harrison, Lowell H.
Kentucky's Road to Statehood.Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992.
- Tachau, Mary K. Bonsteel.
Federal Courts in the Early Republic: Kentucky 1789-1816.Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.
- Teute, Fredrika Johanna.
Land, Liberty, and Labor in the Post-Revolutionary Era: Kentucky as the Promised Land.Ph.D. dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1988.
- Watlington, Patricia.
The Partisan Spirit: Kentucky Politics, 1779–1792.Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.
- Young, Bennett H.
History and Texts of the Three Constitutions of Kentucky.Louisville, KY: Courier Journal Job Printing Co., 1890.
- First American West
- Kentucky Historical Society
- Filson Club Historical Society
- Kentucky Virtual Library
- Kentuckiana Digital Library
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History The Old Court / New Court Struggle
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History The Boundary
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History The Dueling Oath
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History Housekeeping
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History Henry Clay and Homespun cloth
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History Kentucky Resolutions
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History First Session
What is today referred to as the Democratic Republican Party did not exist as such under that name.
"The party name which the Jeffersonians used most commonly in self-designation was Republican. Since nearly all Americans professed to be supporters of a republic, Federalists were reluctant to allow their opponents the advantage of this name, preferring to label them as Antifederalists, Jacobins, disorganizers, or, at best, Democrats." (Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., History of U.S. Political Parties Volume I: 1789-1860: From Factions to Parties. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. New York, 1973, Chelsea House Publisher. p. 240.)
"No precise date can be given for the establishment of the Republican party, for it did not spring suddenly into being, and even those leaders most intimately involved in its formation were not fully aware of what they were creating. The beginnings of what in course of time became the Republican party can be found in the Second Congress in the congressional faction that contemporaries referred to as the 'republican interest.' . . . An examination of roll calls during the Second Congress indicates that a voting bloc was forming around Madison in opposition to another bloc that united in support of Hamilton's program. While only about half of the membership of the House could be identified with one or the other of these factions, two such groups had not been observable in the First Congress." (Cunningham, p. 241)
"As members of Congress defended their legislative records and sought reelection, they took to the electorate the issues and the disputes that had divided Congress, and they tended in their campaigns for reelection to impart to the voters something of the partisanship that was developing in Congress. Thus, the party divisions in Congress filtered down to the voters through the electoral process, and voters came to align along the lines that divisions in Congress had marked out. In this process the congressional factions acquired the mass followings in the county necessary to transform them from capital factions into national political parties." (Cunningham, p. 244)
Though Thomas Jefferson was seen as the primary leader of the emerging Republican Party, his retirement in 1793 would force that mantle back upon James Madison. "Contemporaries referred to 'Madison's party,' and, when Jefferson was put forward for the presidency in 1796, he was recognized as the candidate of Madison's party. Adams's supporters warned that 'the measures of Madison and Gallatin will be the measures of the executive' if Jefferson were elected. Under Madison's leadership, the Republican party in Congress moved from a role characterized largely by opposition to administration measures, mostly Hamiltonian inspired, to one of offering policy alternatives and proposing Republican programs." (Cunningham, p. 246)
"As the country became dangerously polarized, the Federalists, in 1798 with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Laws, used the full power of the government in an effort to destroy their opponents, whom they saw as subversive. The Republicans, forced to do battle for their very survival, were compelled to change their strategy radically. Prior to 1798 they had optimistically believed that the people would repudiate leaders who supported antirepublican measures hostile to the general good of society. By 1798, however, the Federalists' electoral successes and their hold on the federal government seemed to belie that belief. Therefore, the Republicans shifted their focus of attention from the national to the state level. And by emphasizing a more overtly, self-consciously sectional, political enclave strategy, they left the clear implication that state secession and the breakup of the union might follow if the federal government refused to modify its policies and actions to make them more acceptable to opponents, especially Southerners." (American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. James Roger Sharp. New Haven, 1993, Yale University Press. p. 12)
"On the national level, Republican members of Congress through their informal associations in the national capital formed the basic national party structure. Many of them lodged together in boarding houses or dined together in small groups where there were ample opportunities to plot party tactics. They kept in close touch with political leaders and party organizations in their home states. In 1800, Republican members introduced what was to become the most important element of national party machinery and the most powerful device for the maintenance of congressional influence of the leadership of the party: the congressional nominating caucus." (Cunningham, p. 252)
"The coming to power of the Jeffersonians in 1801 marked the beginning of the Republican era that saw the presidency passed from Jefferson to Madison to Monroe. When the Virginia dynasty came to an end in 1825, the presidential office went to a former Federalist who had become a Republican while Jefferson was president. But, although John Quincy Adams was a Republican, the presidential election of 1824 shattered the Republican party and destroyed the congressional nominating caucus which had given direction to the party's national structure since 1800. Adams's presidency was a period of restructuring of parties - a transitional period from the first party system of the Federalists and the Jeffersonians to the second party system of the age of Jackson." (Cunningham, p. 258-259).
"During the period from its rise in the 1790's to its breakup in the 1820's, the Jeffersonian Republican party made contributions of major significance to the development of the american political system. It demonstrated that a political party could be successfully organized in opposition to an administration in power in the national government, win control over that government, and produce orderly changes through the party process. In challenging the Federalist power, Republicans were innovative in building party machinery, organizing poltical campaigns, employing a party press, and devising campaign techniques to stimulate voter interest in elections and support of republican candidates at the polls. In the process, it became acceptable for candidates to campaign for office and for their partisans to organize campaign committees, distribute campaign literature, see that voters get to the polls, and adopt other practices which, though subsequently familiar features of american political campaigns, previously had been widely regarded with suspicion and distrust. Many of the methods of campaigning and the techniques of party organization, introduced by the Jeffersonian Republicans, while falling into disuse by the end of the Republican era, would be revived by the Jacksonians. In taking office in 1801, the Jeffersonians led the nation through the first transfer of political power in the national government from one party to another; and Jefferson demonstrated that the president could be both the head of his party and the leader of the nation." (Cunningham, p. 271)
- History of U.S. Political Parties Volume I: 1789-1860: From Factions to Parties. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. New York, 1973, Chelsea House Publisher.
- American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. James Roger Sharp. New Haven, 1993, Yale University Press.
- Partisanship and the Birth of America's Second Party, 1796-1800: "Stop the Wheels of Government". Matthew Q. Dawson. Westwood, CT, 2000, Greenwood Press.
- Party of the People: A History of the Democrats. Jules Witcover. New York, 2003, Random House
Beginning in 1799, many Federalist papers began to refer to the Republican Party as Democrats or the Democratic Party. This continued throughout the first quarter of the 18th Century until what is currently known as the Democratic Party emerged among the followers of Andrew Jackson in the 1828 Presidential Election.
Republicans were also called by a variety of different terms in various newspapers throughout the period:
Though the Anti-Federalists were not quite the exact same group as the Republicans as they would develop after 1792, there were still some of those who referred to them as such. The term was used by the following newspapers in the following elections:
- Porcupine's Gazette (Philadelphia). October 22, 1798. Pennsylvania 1798 Assembly, Chester County.
- Virginia Gazette (Richmond). April 30, 1799. Virginia 1799 House of Delegates, New Kent County.
- The Virginia Federalist (Richmond). April 26, 1800. Virginia 1800 House of Delegates, Norfolk County.
- Virginia Gazette (Richmond). May 12, 1802. Virginia 1802 House of Delegates, Bedford County.
- Virginia Gazette (Richmond). May 12, 1802. Virginia 1802 House of Delegates, Pittsylvania County.
- The Salem Gazette. May 17, 1805. Massachusetts 1805 House of Representatives, Salem.
Though the term is commonly used today to distinguish the Jeffersonian Republicans from the later Republican Party and because so many of those among the Jeffersonian Republicans eventually became Jacksonian Democrats, this term was extremely rare during the actual period. It was used by the Readinger Adler in the October 27, 1818 edition recording the 1818 county elections in Pennsylvania.
French / War / Warhawk / Jacobin:
Starting in 1798, various Federalist newspapers would refer to Republicans as Jacobins. ("In Newbern district the contest lay between two federalists -- No Jacobin had the effrontery to offer himself." United States Gazette. September 1, 1798.) These references continued through until at least 1810. ("From the Cooperstown Federalist: The election in this County has terminated in favor of the Jacobin Ticket for Assembly. An important revolution has been effected by the most shameful artifices. Never before were the jacobin ranks so completely formed and thoroughly drilled for action. We hope next week to be able to lay before our readers a correct statement of votes, and to exhibit to the world a picture of depravity in the conduct of some of the inspectors of the election which has no parallel." The American (Herkimer). May 3, 1810.)
Beginning in 1810, the Newburyport Herald (MA), began referring to Republicans as the French Party (as opposed to the "American" Party, who were Federalists). This continued in the 1811 elections.
Beginning in 1812 ("In laying before our readers the above Canvass of this county, a few remarks become necessary, to refute the Assertion of the war party, that the Friends of Peace are decreasing in this country." Northern Whig (Hudson). May 11, 1812.) and continuing through 1813 and 1814 a number of newspapers were referring to the Republicans as the War Party (or Warhawk Party, as the Merrimack Intelligencer (Haverhill) of March 19, 1814 used) due to their support of the Madison administration and the War of 1812 (most of these same papers referred to the Federalists as the Peace Party). These newspapers include the Trenton Federalist, the Columbian Centinel (Boston), the Northern Whig (Hudson), the Independent American (Ballston Spa), the Broome County Patriot (Chenango Point), the New York Spectator, the Commercial Advertiser (New York), the New York Evening Post, the Albany Gazette, the Political and Commercial Register (Philadelphia), the Merrimack Intelligencer (Haverhill), The Federal Republican (New Bern), the Freeman's Journal (Philadelphia), Alexandria Gazette, Poulson's, Middlesex Gazette (Middletown), the Raleigh Minerva and The Star (Raleigh).
Jackson / Jacksonian:
With the Presidential election of 1824 split among four candidates who were, ostensibly, members of the same political party, the divisions among the Republican Party began to be apparent.
The phrase "Jackson" or "Jacksonian" candidate was used in nearly every state election in Georgia in 1824 to distinguish between those were were supporters of Andrew Jackson as opposed to the supporters of William H. Crawford. The Maryland Republican (Annapolis) and the Federal Gazette (Baltimore) used the term "Jacksonian" in the Cecil County elections of 1824 (as opposed to "Adamite" or "Crawfordite") and the Allegheny and Butler county election in Pennsylvania in 1824.
The New Hampshire Gazette of March 5, 1816 would refer to the Republican ticket as the Whig Ticket and as being in favor of Peace and Commerce.