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02.05.13 : Risjord, Norman K., The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson, published in 1965.

Notes Concerning the Author

Norman K. Risjord is emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where the taught for over 30 years.  He has authored many books.  For more information, go to Amazon.

Our Review

     In The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson, published in 1965, historian Norman K. Risjord fashioned a detailed and useful study of national politics in the early nineteenth century. Focusing in great detail on Congressional policy debates, the book carefully connects the dots between the Age of Jefferson and the Age of Jackson. Its chief protagonists are the Old Republicans, or Tertium Quids, who upheld strict construction of the Constitution and the states rights ideas of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798. The two most notable leaders of this group were North Carolina’s Nathaniel Macon and Virginia’s John Randolph of Roanoke, each of whom served as Speaker of the House during the era. Small in number but strong in voice, the Quids remained ideologically wedded to the principles of ’98. Perhaps oddly, their ideas were not popular in a time when mainstream Republicans, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison themselves, adopted, once in power, Federalist-style policies of broad construction of the Constitution and relatively strong centralized government.
     The first break between the Jefferson administration and the Old Republicans came in 1805-1806 with the Yazoo land settlement and the attempted purchase of West Florida from Spain. This schism occurred during Jefferson’s second term as president, after Randolph and associates had acquiesced to the constitutionally suspect Louisiana Purchase. Personal rivalries certainly played a part in this division, but, more generally, the Old Republicans grew ever more uneasy about their party laying aside the states rights philosophy which had helped it win power. Using today’s terminology, they viewed the party mainstream as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) who had betrayed real Jeffersonian principles.
     Generally speaking, the Tertium Quids opposed administrative policies which involved expanding federal power. Before the War of 1812 this struggle included battling against expansion of the military (especially the Navy) and fighting restrictions on free trade associated with the Embargo Act and related measures. After the war the Old Republicans generally opposed all three aspects of the American System–the protective tariff, the Second Bank of the United States, and internal improvements. To be sure, such opposition was not always consistent, and political debates of the era were messy. For example, Randolph, shockingly, actually voted to re-charter the First Bank of the United States. Meanwhile, Macon voted against Macon’s Bill #2 which received its name because it came out of a House committee which he chaired.

     The Old Republicans had an uneasy relationship with Jefferson and were mostly hostile to Madison. Although more supportive of James Monroe, they did not exercise a great deal of influence on his administration. Mostly the history of Randolph, Macon, and associates was one of repeated failure. Marginalized by their party’s presidents, swamped by the War Hawks in the prewar period, and outmaneuvered by Henry Clay in the postwar era, the group appeared perennially mired in futility. Amid the triumphal glow following the Battle of New Orleans, the Quids seemed mere relics of an older time.

     However, they had managed to keep the flame of states rights philosophy alive in an unfriendly political environment. Eventually, events renewed their strength. John Quincy Adams’s grandiose plans for federal expansion, the Depression of 1817, and the Missouri crisis of 1819-21 caused many southerners to cast wary eyes on federal authority. Some, like John C. Calhoun, moved strongly toward a states rights positions which others, such as Andrew Jackson, adopted Old Republican rhetoric about the dangers of federal power. Risjord is sometimes quite critical of the fussiness and impracticality of his subjects. However, he quite accurately sums up their importance by noting that the chief “legacy” of the Tertium Quids was “preservation of the tradition” that “centralized power represents an ever-present threat to individual liberty” and that diffusion of such power among the states can help preserve freedom (281). Perhaps, in our own era of ever expanding federal government, the contemporary world still has much to learn from the ideas of the Old Republicans.

Availability of this Book

Available at Amazon.  Click on link below. .