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Thematic Guides

Theme 5 (PCE) - Politics and Power

9 min readjune 7, 2020

Sander Owens


The one thing you need to know about this theme:
Politics and Power🗳️📋🖋 Although almost everyone has agreed about the United States’s fundamentally democratic nature, there was less of a consensus on how that democracy would actually work, and debates have continued throughout the entire history of the US about how the US should actually be governed.

College Board Description 📘

Debates fostered by social and political groups about the role of government in American social, political, and economic life shape government policy, institutions, political parties, and the rights of citizens.

Historical Examples of this Theme

Period 3 (1754-1800)

During this time period, the newly formed United States had to make a decision on how it wanted to be governed, and about the only thing people could agree on was that it shouldn’t be like Britain, but people disagreed on the particulars of how. All of a sudden, the revolutionary patriotism that united the colonies during the Revolutionary War disappeared in favor of debates about the structure of the new government.

Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists

One of the biggest debates that happened in this time period is where most of the power should reside: in the state, or in the national government. Those who believed that power should mostly reside in the national government, such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who wrote the Federalist Papers, were called federalists, which later evolved into the first major political party, the Federalist party (note the capitalization! Lower-case is talking about the Constitution, upper-case is talking about early parties). These people supported the new Constitution that was ratified in 1788 because they believed the previous governing document, the Articles of Confederation, had too weak of a federal government as an overreaction to British oppression, and wanted a stronger federal government and executive branch. 
The anti-Federalists, such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, wanted more power to reside in the state governments. However, the federalists eventually won because early economic and foreign relations troubles meant that most could see the need for a strengthening of the federal government such as it was. The Bill of Rights was soon added to the Constitution to calm anti-federalist fears about a loss of individual rights with a stronger federal government.

Image Courtesy of Lynn Cooper

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Another debate was about who should have the right to vote, with some states retaining property qualifications, arguing only the successful and educated had the discernment to decide who should vote.
One of the central points of the Constitutional Convention and the Constitution was to create a central government that had limited powers but still could react quickly that was based on federalism, or a hierarchy of governments, each with their own appropriate powers, as well as separate and balanced powers among its three branches.
The Northwest Ordinance in 1787 set the rules for admitting new states to the US, including public education and guaranteeing of property rights.
The first two presidencies (George Washington and John Adams) set precedents for how the nation would be run, such as serving two terms, etc.

Formation of Political Parties

However, disagreements led to the formation of political parties: the Federalists, as mentioned above, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison that grew out of the anti-Federalist movement, arguing for limits on national government and political equality (though mostly for white men). 
George Washington, in his farewell address, argued against political parties and cautioned against political factions and alliances.

Period 4 (1800-1848)

The government continued to grow and mature in this period, with many of Thomas Jefferson’s fundamental principles, known as Jacksonian Democracy were developed into guiding principles.
There were many key Supreme Court cases during this time period that led to the judicial branch as being the interpreter of the Constitution, as well as the superiority of federal laws over state laws. The most important case that you need to know in this time period was 1803’s Marbury v. Madison, which ruled that the Supreme Court could declare laws to be unconstitutional and repeal them.
Manifest Destiny was also an important idea during this time and the goal to expand westward was at the forefront of politics, with land acquisitions such as the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and the relocation of Native Americans in movements such as the Trail of Tears during the Andrew Jackson administration.
During this time period, regional divides began to become even more apparent as the agrarian South butted heads with the industrial Northeast and rural Midwest. These divides were also a key part of development plans such as Henry Clay’s American System, which proposed a bank, import tariffs, and infrastructural improvements. These plans created divides among those who thought that these plans were unfair towards specific regions. Congress couldn’t get much done either with these conflicts, with attempts such as the Tallmadge Agreement and Missouri Compromise only put a bandaid of compromises on the gaping wound of issues over slavery.
Suffrage, or the right to vote, was also expanded to all adult white men, with the clause of property ownership being dropped. New political parties, such as the Whigs, a party formed by Henry Clay around the American System, also grew in this time. These opposed the Jacksonian Democrats, who were in favor of state’s rights and a smaller federal government.
Native Americans were continuing to be pushed back by frontier settlers during this time.

Period 5 (1844 - 1877)

The big theme of this period was the attempts made to unify the country eventually breaking down in this time period, with the focal conflict being the Civil War.
Attempts were made to salvage the conflict over slavery, such as the Kansas-Nebraska act regulating slavery in the territories, as well as the Dred Scott decision deciding the status of slaves in free territories, but these ultimately collapsed. 
Eventually, the Whig-Democratic balance collapsed and a new, sectional party system emerged, with the new Republican party in the North, with leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, and the Democratic party split between Northern and Southern factions.
Eventually, Southern states decided to secede in the Civil War after some heated debates, and Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election without any Southern electoral votes.
The next major political event in this period was the Civil War. Both the Union and the Confederacy, despite opposition from many citizens, increased their economic production drastically. Eventually, the Union won in the conflict because of their greater resources – they had more factories, railroads, and other infrastructure, whereas the Confederacy had fewer, and more of it was destroyed over the course of the conflict. The Union also had stronger political leadership.
The final big event from this period was Reconstruction after the Civil War. One of the biggest debates from Reconstruction was over the rights of those who didn’t have the right to vote (franchise) at that time, such as African-Americans and women. Some early advances were made, with even some African-Americans serving in Congress, but these soon went away after Reconstruction ended.
One of the biggest advances for equal rights came in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which abolished slavery, guaranteeing equal protection for all under the law, and securing voting rights for African-Americans. These rights divided women, who thought that these were obviously steps in the right direction, but were still angry that they didn’t get the right to vote.
Ultimately, Reconstruction was a short-term success, but a long term failure. There were some improvements made in the balance of power between Congress and the President and improvements in race relations, but there were setbacks because of southern opposition, and the North’s enthusiasm diminished, and so Reconstruction ultimately failed. 

Period 6 (1865 - 1898)

This period contained the era of opulence in capitalism known as the Gilded Age, and political turmoil arose in this period as socio-economic disparities rose to the forefront of daily life, especially in cities.
While many believed that the laissez-faire (government not influencing economy) system was detrimental and contributed to the growing divides between rich and poor, others argued that this promoted long-run economic growth.
As the domestic economy grew, politicians looked outside of the US for potential global influence and securing of natural resources in the Pacific, Asia, and Latin America, leading to US control of places like the Philippines.
This massive domestic growth was accompanied by increased volatility and economic panics, which adversely affected farmers and other agrarian workers. This led to the creation of the Populist Party, which argued for more government control of the economy to enhance stability.
Corruption was a big theme of politics and the public perception of politics during the Gilded Age. Many believed that greed had corrupted politics. One example of this were the political machines set up in cities, which manipulated poorer residents, especially immigrants, by giving them jobs in exchange for their vote. Many saw this as a manipulation of the system.

Period 7 (1890-1945)

The largest political theme in this period is the Progressive party, which gave rise to the Progressive Era. This time was characterized by reform movements combating injustices through muckraking journalism that exposed the flaws in society, especially in the inner cities, and reformers that sought to bring social change, such as education reform and a renewed, and ultimately successful, push for women’s rights and franchise.
However, there were still divides within the Progressive party. Some were for segregation, and some were against, and some wanted the expansion of participation in government, and others wanted to rely on experts to make the decisions.
Overall, Progressive era legislation pushed for moral reform, an expansion of democracy, and a better-run economy. This can be seen by their amendments having to do with prohibition, a federal income tax, and women’s right to vote.
The next major event of this era was the Great Depression, and the subsequent government response, FDR’s New Deal. The goal of the new deal was to stimulate the economy from the bottom up by solving the unemployment crisis and providing relief for the poor. However, conservatives were reluctant to change the economy.
The New Deal left lasting impacts, with many modern regulatory agencies such as the Federal Housing Administration, Social Security, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation having their roots in the New Deal. It also drew some of the core current demographics of the Democratic Party, such as African-Americans and the working class.
A new wave of urbanization and migration to cities resulted from the need for war-related jobs during World War II.

Periods 8 & 9 (1945 - present)

During the 1950s and 1960s, modern society ushered in a reexamination of society paralleling some of the Progressive Era advocacy.
Although the post-WWII US was relatively successful, poverty was still a lasting issue in society. This and other ideas led to modern liberalism, exemplified in President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, often called the Second New Deal, which aimed to use federal powers to alleviate poverty and end racial discrimination.
Racial issues reached a boiling point during this time, and many legislative advances were made such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in a legal sense, along with many other pushes for rights, although segregation and prejudice were still a social and societal issue that persisted.
This period also saw the beginning of contemporary political polarizations, as conservatives perceived a cultural decline because of liberal advances, and conservatives and liberals clashed. There was also a decline in public trust in politics thanks to scandals like Watergate, and foreign policy crises like the Vietnam War. 
In 1980, with President Reagan’s election, a conservative resurgence occurred, known as the Reagan Revolution. This was perceived as a revitalization from the stagflation (inflation/recession) that characterized the US’s economy of the 1970s. This meant that there was considerable tax cuts and industrial deregulation. Conservatives also tried to overturn liberal programs, but were met with resistance. Conservatives also argued for a return to more traditional social values, and a new series of debates began over many societal issues such as immigration, abortion, sexuality, and diversity in society.

Sample Questions

Sample MCQ

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
–US Constitution, Amendment 1, adopted 1791
Which group voiced concerns that led to the passing of amendments such as those above?
  1. Federalists
  2. Anti-Federalists
  3. Democratic-Republicans
  4. Whigs

Sample SAQ✏️

  1. Name one ideological debate from 1800 - 1860 that led to the Civil War.
  2. Name another ideological debate from 1800 - 1860 that led to the Civil War.
  3. Name one ideology from 1848-1865 that led to a Union victory in the Civil War.

Sample LEQ✏️

Evaluate the extent to which colonial objections to British rule shaped early American democracy from 1754 - 1800.

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Unit 1: Early Contact with the New World (1491-1607)
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