The First Divided Government

John Randolph. By: John Wesley Jarvis.

Divided government, where one branch of government is controlled by a different political party than the other branches, is a familiar concept for most Americans. The midterm elections of 1826 and 1827 brought about the first instance in American history of divided government.

President John Quincy Adams was faced with the midterm elections of 1826 and 1827 with the prospect for a divided government, preventing him from achieving his goals. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 259. Secretary of State Henry Clay disagreed with President Adams as to how to best approach the midterm elections. At that time, each state set “its own election date,” so “the voting was staggered across the months, like presidential primaries today.” Id.

Secretary Clay “thought it time to abandon non-partisanship and purge the government of officials who were not backing the administration, but Adams did not feel ready to give up on government by consensus.” Id. In this way, President Adams was more of an old-fashioned politician than Secretary Clay, as Adams favored courting regional leaders who would bring their followers along with them. Id.

President Adams’ approach to politics differed greatly from the more populist-focused politics of Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson, who focused on “patronage, organization, and partisan loyalty.” Id.

The midterm elections showed just how weakly organized the Adams administration was. Both houses of Congress had turned against Adams, producing America’s first divided government. Id. The only success of the midterm elections was that Virginia’s legislature replaced Senator John Randolph with John Tyler, someone more friendly to the administration. Id.

This earliest example of divided government reflects just how engrained the American political system is, as the system continually encourages the changing whims of the people to change their government. That has been the case, certainly with the presidency, since the midterm elections of 1826-27. Americans who have become frustrated or disappointed by a president’s actions have recourse after just the first two years: vote for the other party in the midterm elections.

While perhaps this is an unintended consequence of the system that the Founding Fathers constructed, it is yet another check on the power of government. It prevents the three branches of government from uniting against the people, as the people regularly control either the executive or legislative, or both, depending on the election. This has the benefit of empowering the people every two years, which some could argue is just enough to prevent the government from being controlled by trends or whims and predominantly filtering those out.

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