[Editor’s note: This column appeared in The Citizen for Aug. 26, 1998.]
No provision was made in the U.S. Constitution for political parties, and almost all of the early leaders of the republic hoped to govern without them. However, by President George Washington’s second term, factionalism was rearing its head.
The Democratic-Republican Party was instituted by Thomas Jefferson and held together until Andrew Jackson’s run for office in 1824. It had become so torn with dissension that many began to split off, and by 1832 it was known as just the “Democrats.” It is the oldest continuing political party in the world.
By 1850 the issue of slavery was another divisive factor, paving the way for the Republican Party to gain strength, putting its first president, Abraham Lincoln, in office in 1861. It held power until Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and then again until Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.
After the Civil War, southern farmers were impoverished and found that any available funds were being used to rebuild towns and businesses. Banks were no longer interested in taking land for credit and things went from bad to worse. The price of cotton steadily dropped from $1.00 to less than seven cents a pound by the 1890s. Lenders told farmers to plant more cotton because it could be used for credit rather than land; yet with prices dropping, farmers could not afford to do that. It became a “catch-22” situation.
By the 1890s, southern and western farmers decided to band together to enter the political arena, hoping to see a favorable change in their plight.
Originally called “The People’s Party,” the farmers’ effort evolved as “The Populist Party.” Individual clubs within the party were called “Alliances,” and by 1890 the Southern Alliances had three million members.
There were several Alliances in Fayette County, although the number of members is not known. The Populist Party waned by 1910, in part because the Spanish-American War turned attention from domestic issues to foreign affairs. Also, the Democrats won over the Populists by promising to promote agrarian issues. They kept their promise, but the Republicans won the Presidential election in 1896. The Populists went downhill thereafter, but left two important legacies: rural free mail delivery and the lowering of tariffs by the railroads.
On the local political scene, the Democrats ruled for the first 140 years of recorded elections. There were, from time to time, several Fayette Countians who claimed to be Republican, but it is thought that they only did so to gain attention or to be appointed as postmaster.
A newcomer to the county in 1959 requested a Republican ballot in the primary election; there were none in the county. A request from someone accustomed to “two parties” became a topic for discussion for weeks.
By the mid-1960s, a total of eight really serious Republicans met at a farm in south Fayette County. By 1988 the county’s population increase had considerably added to the number of Republicans. In fact, a Republican Party dinner that year drew over 400, up at least 392 from the formation meeting.
In the 1998 primary, 12,535 of the 15,424 who voted were Republican, up from that first count by a mere 156,000 percent.
As a result of a majority-Republican electorate, the political climate of Fayette County has changed. A wizened veteran of local politics reportedly was turned down for a post on a library board because he is “no longer affiliated with the socially correct political party.”
Musing on the matter, as the Republicans must have done years ago, the veteran politico said, “What this county needs is a strong two-party system to equalize things.”
Democrat, Populist, Republican Fayette County marches on. If you don’t like the politics of today, it will probably change tomorrow.
[Carolyn Cary was Fayette County’s official historian and editor of “The History of Fayette County,” published by the Fayette County Historical Society. She died, age 85, Nov. 4 in Fayetteville, her adopted hometown.]