Partisan Political Theory and the Unwritten Constitution: The Origins of Democracy in Illinois, 1818-1840

Document Type


Publication Date



The University of Michigan


A wave of scholarship in recent years has analyzed the creation of American mass party politics as a function of the intrusion of market capitalism into the daily lives of the mass of Americans. The argument usually is that Americans divided into two basic orientations to the market economy and that such wide conflict inevitably resulted in mass party politics. To historians of this bent, the interesting subject matter is how people argued about their economic situations through politics in a time of fundamental economic change. Without denigrating the importance of that subject, I have put aside the assumption that mass party politics was inevitable and asked why and how Americans chose to work out their conflicts by mass party conflict, a mechanism all but universally condemned until the very eve of its invention. This dissertation questions the assumption that politics is mainly a product of other spheres of life, especially economics, rather than possessing a large degree of autonomy. I seek to show how a conflict of theories almost wholly political in their nature not only predominated over economics in influencing the development of the political system but also came to affect economic life as much as economic change affected the development of politics. More concretely, this is a case study of the invention of the party system in Illinois. It finds that before the 1820s, a universal aversion to mass parties coexisted with the "constitutional" conviction that democracy could only be guaranteed under very specific political-structural conditions. Differences over what exactly those conditions were, primarily over the role that party could or could not play in the unwritten constitution of democratic politics, created party alignments among people who had always rejected party in principle. These alignments soon appropriated the economic issues of the day to fortify their constitutional arguments about party. By 1840, these alignments had become mass parties with clear economic orientations, but their cores were still their theories of party and of the proper constitution of democracy.