In a new book about the antiparty feeling of the early political leaders of the United States, Ralph Ketcham argues that the first six Presidents differed decisively from later Presidents because the first six held values inherited from the classical humanist tradition of eighteenth-century England. In this view, government was designed not to satisfy the private desires of the people but to make them better citizens; this tradition stressed the disinterested devotion of political leaders to the public good. Justice, wisdom, and courage were more important qualities in a leader than the ability to organize voters and win elections. Indeed, leaders were supposed to be called to office rather than to run for office. And if they took up the burdens of public office with a sense of duty, leaders also believed that such offices were naturally their due because of their social preeminence or their contributions to the country. Given this classical conception of leadership, it is not surprising that the first six Presidents condemned political parties. Parties were partial by definition, self-interested, and therefore serving something other than the transcendent public good.
Even during the first presidency (Washington's), however, the classical conception of virtuous leadership was being undermined by commercial forces that had been gathering since at least the beginning of the eighteenth century. Commerce--its profit-making, its self-interestedness, its individualism--became the enemy of these classical ideals. Although Ketcham does not picture the struggle in quite this way, he does rightly see Jackson's tenure (the seventh presidency) as the culmination of the acceptance of party, commerce, and individualism. For the Jacksonians, nonpartisanship lost its relevance, and under the direction of Van Buren, party gained a new legitimacy. The classical ideals of the first six Presidents became identified with a privileged aristocracy, an aristocracy that had to be overcome in order to allow competition between opposing political interests. Ketcham is so strongly committed to justifying the classical ideals, however, that he underestimates the advantages of their decline. For example, the classical conception of leadership was incompatible with our modern notion of the freedoms of speech and press, freedoms intimately associated with the legitimacy of opposing political parties.