Thursday, February 25, 2016

Houghton's Diagram of the History of Political Parties in the United States, by Vincent Szilagyi

In our line of work we deal with relics of the past that were created to meet some pressing need, be it scientific, cultural, financial or artistic. Sometimes the forces that made these prints important have faded with time, rendering them charming, but somewhat bland, pieces of history. Yet, often the reverse is true, where the events and feelings of today give a deep and often urgent sense of importance to parts of our collection. This is certainly true of this next print.



This marvelous chart, entitled “Plate VI. Diagram of the History of Political Parties in the United States”, is the work of American historian Walter R. Houghton. Houghton was a teacher, author and historian of politics and religion at Indiana University. In 1880 he issued a short work, Conspectus of the History of Political Parties and the Federal Government, expanded and issued over the next several years as History of American Politics (Non Partisan.). This work was the first really detailed look at the subject and its insights are of interest even in today’s world of very partisan politics. The most impressive and influential aspect of Houghton’s work is this chart which showcases the “History of Political Parties in the United States”. Although overwhelming at first glance, the chart is actually quite straightforward and easy to understand. Houghton shows American political history from before the Revolution until 1880 through the lens of political parties, with presidential terms indicated with vertical lines. Each political party is shown as a line, with the thickness or thinness of the line indicating its level of support. The political party that controls the presidency is on top, while the other party (or parties) is below. The party lines splinter and merge often, with various issues causing groups of people to leave one party and join another, or start one of their own. Houghton indicates the reasons for these departures with descriptive text, which briefly explain what fissures drove people to seek new parties.



In our hectic election season we are bombarded with claims that we are hopelessly divided by party, ideology and the breakdown of civil society. While hyperbole might sell papers and fill airtime, the struggles of today cannot hold a candle to the chaos of the 1850s and 60s, as Houghton’s chart perfectly illustrates. The years leading up to the Civil War is where the party lines veer from a mostly simple two party system to a tangle of competing vines. This accurately captures the political chaos of the period, where the struggle over slavery obliterated the Whig Party and severed the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern wings. New Parties like the Free Soilers, Native American [Know Nothings] and Silver Gray eventually coalesced around opposition to the Kansas Nebraska Act, and formed the Republican Party. A few years later, a reconstituted Democratic Party emerges from the union of former Confederates and Northern Democrats and the chart returns to a more simplified give and take between two major parties. People still splinter off and join the opposing Party, but this basic configuration of Democrats and Republicans remains even today, despite some occasional third party challenges over the years.



In light of our current political climate, studying this chart gives us a healthy and much needed dose of perspective. While we certainly have room for improvement, we are a far cry from the rhetoric and vitriol that tore apart all but a precious few American institutions 150 years ago. This marvelous chart is a fantastic tool for viewing America’s political history, as well as a beautiful piece of Americana.


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