The history of American politics seems to be viewed as Democrats vs. Republicans or liberals vs. conservatives. But there has been a strong urban vs. rural aspect in American political history. With 21st century presidential elections showing Republicans dominating rural counties and Democrats dominating urban areas, this urban-rural divide can be traced from the nation’s origins and through the nineteenth century.
Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson
It started perhaps in President George Washington’s first cabinet where two versions of America’s future clashed. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had an agrarian vision of a nation of small-time yeoman-farmers depending on their own civic virtue rather than a central government. Jefferson detested the concentrated cities and their filthy factories or workhouses that he observed in Europe. They spread disease and death while the agricultural life was healthier.
On the other hand, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had an industrial vision. In his Report on Manufactures in 1791, Hamilton suggested strong federal government support of manufacturing to supplement agriculture. Manufacturing would provide “additional employment to classes of the community not ordinarily engaged in the business,” and promote “emigration from foreign countries.” However, the report was shelved by Congress.
But a remnant of Hamilton’s policies, a national bank (Bank of the United States), lived on to create an uproar in the 1830s. Leading the crusade against the B.U.S. was Jefferson’s political descendant Andrew Jackson. Raised in the rural south, Democrat Jackson won his two presidential terms mostly on the support of his rustic neighbors of the south and west, while the ever-increasing industrial northeast and some middle-Atlantic states opposed him. The northeast was the center of support for Jackson’s opponents – the National Republicans and Whigs
Not surprisingly, backing Jackson in his fight to dethrone the B.U.S. were those farmers and planters of the west and south (with some urban labor support). Saddled with debt and constrained by the lack of credit or money due to the actions of the B.U.S. all the way in Philadelphia, farmers deplored the idea of a distant and powerful institution controlling their lives. Frontier farmers had a desire to throw off the restraints of the urban eastern establishment on the local issue of paper money.
American Civil War
The War Between the States has mostly been seen as North vs. South. It can also be interpreted as industry vs. agriculture. The predominantly agricultural south saw its slavery system vulnerable to attack by northerners because of the faster population growth in the north which fed its burgeoning factories. More people meant more congressional, senatorial, and electoral votes, thus the north would eventually hold sway in Washington D.C., paving the way for abolitionists to pass a slavery ban.
There was also a moral tinge to the southerners defense of slavery. As explained by historian Walter McDougall, author James Hammond insisted that slavery was sturdier than the fractious, dissatisfied working class in the north who despised those above them that treated them as expendable. Southerners, on the other hand, paid handsomely for slaves, treated them humanely, and supported them for life. Other slavery defenders believed that slaves benefitted from the healthy pastoral life while northern “wage slaves” endured poor conditions in cities and factories.
The watershed event that was the Civil War, however, did not change the financial condition of the farmers in the south, midwest, and west: debt-ridden and with not much credit. The principally rural Populist movement erupted in the late 1880s protesting the lack of money, low crop prices, high railroad shipping charges, and monopolies. Populist heroine Mary E. Lease voiced a regional anger in the movement, “The West and South are bound and prostrate before the manufacturing East. Money rules.”
To solve the money problem, Populists and some Democrats believed the increased coinage of silver was the key to raise inflation, crop prices, and farmers’ incomes. The 1896 presidential election pitted this idea, championed by Populist and Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, against the Gold Standard and protective tariffs for manufacturing, championed by Republican nominee William McKinley. During the campaign, the urban-rural divide was stark. Bryan frequently referred to the northeast as the “enemies’ country” while the eastern press labled Bryan and the silverites as anarchists.
All these examples of urban-rural or industrial-agricultural political conflict from the 1790s to the turn of the twentieth century serve as a foundation for some of today’s political differences. Hamilton’s vision may have won out, but Jefferson’s vision is still relevant. The South, Great Plains and Rockies – the areas that supported Democrats Bryan and Jackson more or less – are now in the Republican column and still clamor for local control.
Bailyn, Bernard, et al eds, The Great Republic, Volume 2, 3rd edition, Lexington MA: Heath, 1985.
Brands, H.W., The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s, New York: St. Martins, 1995.
Burstein, Andrew, and Nancy Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson, New York: Random House, 2010.
Chernow, Ron, Alexander Hamilton, New York: Penguin Press, 2004.
McDougall, Walter A., Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877, New York: Harper, 2008.
Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., The Age of Jackson, New York: Back Bay, 1945.