New York exerted tremendous influence in the politics of the early republic. Along with Pennsylvania, it was a battleground state, and competition bred innovation. During the 1790s, partisan activists in New York (like those in Pennsylvania) pioneered methods of popular partisan mobilization. After 1820, Empire state pols created the model of the party as a disciplined peacetime army, focused on winning and keeping political power.
The state constitution of 1777 divided state government between a governor with a three-year term, a Senate with staggered four-year terms, and an Assembly that was elected every year. A Council of Revision (consisting of the governor, the chancellor, and the judges of the supreme court) held the power to veto legislation. The governor and both houses of the legislature were elected, along with a lieutenant governor and town clerks, supervisors, assessors, constables, and collectors. All other offices were appointive—most of them by the governor and/or a Council of Appointment, which consisted of the governor and four senators. The constitutional language on appointments was contradictory and a source of fierce partisan conflict. Until 1793 the governor made appointments with the advice and consent of the Council of Appointment; after that date, the Council assumed a "concurrent right" to nominate officers. Adult male freeholders who owned real and personal property worth at least £20 and tenant farmers who paid at least 40 shillings in rent, along with the freemen of Albany and New York, could vote for members of the Assembly. Electing the governor and senators was limited to adult males worth £100. Voting was by paper ballot, but in some areas the political "friends" of great men handed voters colored or intricately folded ballots and watched them deposit those ballots to ensure that they voted properly!
Within this institutional framework, New York political leaders forged a fiercely competitive politics. By 1787, two clear partisan groupings had emerged in state politics: the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the followers of Governor George Clinton. While the former practiced an elitist politics, the latter appealed to the egalitarian yearnings of middling and poor constituents and, by 1800, allied themselves with the national Republican Party. The two parties were evenly matched during the 1790s, when Republicans pioneered techniques of mass political mobilizations: electoral rallies and parades, printed ballots, partisan newspapers and handbills, door-to-door canvassing. Republicans won a commanding majority in state government in 1800 and then quickly split into three competing factions, each centered on a single leader and held together by personal loyalty and patronage: the Clintonians, increasingly led by George Clinton's nephew De Witt; the Burrites, led by Aaron Burr; and the Livingston family.
These factions' squabbling spilled over into the electoral arena with alarming regularity. In 1804, the Burrites broke from the party, running Aaron Burr for governor against the candidate of the Clinton and Livingston factions. The following year, the Clintonians staged a revolt against Governor Morgan Lewis, head of the Livingston faction, and appealed to the Burrites for an alliance. This move split the Burrites, with opponents of the alliance taking the name Martling Men. For their part, the Livingston faction, known as the Quids, forged an alliance with the Federalists. The Clintonians trounced the Quids in the 1807 gubernatorial election, bringing rival tickets (but not internectine struggles) to an end—for a while. In 1812 the Republicans nominated De Witt Clinton for governor, a move that inspired the Burrites to run their own candidate. This ever-shifting factional dance gave New York politicians a well-earned reputation for intrigue. Oliver Wolcott, a New Englander who relocated to the state, wrote that "after living a dozen years in New York, I don't pretend to comprehend their politics. It is a labyrinth of wheels within wheels, and it is understood only by the managers."
The years immediately following the War of 1812 brought important changes to this factional mess. The Livingstons and Burrites lost power. The Federalists, discredited by their behavior during the war, disbanded in 1820. The Bucktails, led by Martin Van Buren, emerged as the sole challengers to the Clintonians. In some respects, the Bucktails were just like the factions they replaced, frequently forging new alliances and changing their policies for tactical advantage. But in important ways they were different. Led by upwardly mobile men of middling origin, they explicitly rejected the personalist politics that had dominated New York since before the Revolution. Rather than basing political allegiances on personal loyalty and patronage, Van Buren envisioned parties as embodiments of competing social interests, held together by principle and policy. Although the Bucktails did not hew to consistent policies or principles until the early 1830s, they did become a disciplined political machine. Activists united behind party candidates and policies, on pain of losing office; Bucktail newspapers and activists propagated a single, clear partisan message. Van Buren's faction gained control of state government in 1820. So effective were the Bucktails in retaining power that their Clintonian enemies dubbed them the Albany Regency.
The Bucktails also proved the champions of a widened popular participation in politics. They dominated the 1821 state constitutional convention, which dramatically expanded the suffrage, increased the number of elective posts, and abolished constitutional checks on the power of elected officials. The new constitution eliminated the Council of Revision, empowering the governor with the legislative veto. It abolished the Council of Appointment, transferring the selection of sheriffs, county clerks, and coroners to the voters, while leaving the election of most state officials in the hands of the legislature. And it eliminated the property qualification for the vote among white men. Beginning in 1822, any white adult male who paid state or county taxes, worked on the public roads, or served in the militia could vote for all elective officers. African American males, however, faced a $250 property qualification for the suffrage.
The Bucktails dominated state politics after 1820. Only in 1824 did the Clintonians, now dubbing themselves the "People's Men," win the governorship and a majority in the legislature. The next year, both factions, shaken by John Quincy Adams's ascension to the presidency, made an alliance behind the presidential ambitions of Andrew Jackson. By 1828 the state's factional conflict turned on national allegiances, with a Jacksonian party opposed by Adams men (also known as National Republicans). The political conflicts of the 1820s led both Clintonians and Bucktails to revive many of the old techniques of popular mobilization pioneered in the 1790s—and to increase their effectiveness through an unprecedented degree of discipline among party cadre. When Martin Van Buren became Andrew Jackson's campaign manager in 1828, the Bucktails' methods and organization provided the core model on which national party politics was built.
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