By the time the American colonies decided to break the political bonds connecting them to their Motherland, the erstwhile colonists had already had several hundred years to develop a thriving political atmosphere in North America. Mostly ignored by the British Crown under the policy of salutary neglect, the colonists had functioning governments in place since the Virginian House of Burgesses was formed in 1619. Despite this cushion of experience, the new Americans were unprepared for the sudden expansion of power from a regional setting to a national one after the American Revolution. Instead of dealing with issues only pertaining to their colony (now state), politicians had to enlarge their focus to a national scale, balancing competing sections, interests, and philosophies. It is out of these early disagreements that the United States' political party system came into existence. Throughout early American history, the two major parties were diametrically opposite on constitutional interpretation: one loosely interpreted the Constitution to afford the federal government more power; the other strictly interpreted the law of the land to give more power to the states and decentralize Washington's power. However, as the slavery issue polarized the different sections of the nation (pitting the North and Northwest against the South), it destroyed the national parties of the time and led to the creation of the sectionalist Republican Party. When the parties split, the last ropes binding North to South dissolved and the South formed its own government.

The Constitutional Debate: Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist (1787-1790)

The first semblance of national political parties in the United States appeared during the debate over ratifying the Constitution. Though the young nation began its life as a confederacy, allowing each of the 13 original states sovereignty, it quickly became apparent to many that a confederal form of government was too weak to effectively govern a burgeoning democracy such as the United States. When the new Constitution meant to replace the original Articles of Confederation was released, two sides quickly polarized in the battle over ratification.

The first faction, the Federalists (named after the federal form of government they advocated), were composed of many of the famed Founding Fathers, including war-hero George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. They were mostly supported by the propertied classes, who felt threatened by the liberal strides towards democracy made in the heady days after the Revolution. The group was intent on ensuring a conservative bent in the new republic, thus protecting their property and allowing them to retain large amounts of their political power.

The second faction, the unimaginatively named Anti-Federalists, were naturally opposed to the proposed Constitution. Composed of much of the lower classes, the Anti-Federalists were wary that the "rich snobs" were pulling the wool over their eyes. A stronger central government, according to them, would threaten the power of the people and become a haven for corruption.

After a fierce debate raging throughout the states, the new Constitution was ratified, and the newly-empowered central government began gaining dominance over the once-proud states. However, more importantly to partisan politics is the formation of the short-lived Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Though neither of the groups survived long, they succeeded in moving America into the embryonic stage in the development of political parties. They illustrate that the nation's politicians will band together around a particular issue and also illustrate the traditional conservative-liberal split between the two major parties that continues to this day. While "parties" in the traditional sense were non-existent in this stage of American history, factions did exist within the country that will someday evolve into the well-oiled party machines America had at the time of the Civil War.

The Merchant vs. the Yeoman Farmer: the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans (1789-1815)

As the infant United States settled in as a federal republic, new divisions began appearing within the cabinet of George Washington, America's famed general-turned-first-President. Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury under Washington, quickly began clashing with Thomas Jefferson, Washington's Secretary of State. Hamilton, a conservative at heart, pushed policies that promoted:

  • a national Bank of the United States as a repository for the federal treasury
  • the assumption of state debts by the federal government as a way of tying the upper-class and the states to the new central government
  • a protective tariff to keep the infant industries of the United States on firm footing
  • an overwhelmingly strong federal government based on the strengthening power of the Constitution's elastic clause
  • British-American relations; as the former Motherland and a conservative government, Britain's relationship with the United States was paramount for Hamilton's dreams for the future.
Jefferson, on the other hand, was an idealist. He dreamed of expanding suffrage to the working-class yeoman farmer, the backbone of Jefferson's view of the United States. He therefore supported such beliefs as:

Proponents of Hamilton's philosophy (mostly the rich New England merchants) flocked to his banner and resurrected the name of the Federalists. Jefferson's followers (mostly the Southern plantation owners and lower classes) dubbed themselves the Democratic-Republicans (shortened to Republicans). The two factions refused to identify themselves as political parties, Jefferson and Hamilton always retained a healthy distrust of parties, seeing them as corrupt and divisive. However, by the time Washington left office the atmosphere in the capital mimicked the intensely partisan one seen today; the Democratic-Republicans had no qualms decrying Washington as a British-loving Federalist just as the Federalists were unafraid of hurling anti-French insults back at them.

A Tragedy in Three Presidencies: the Death of the Federalists (1800-1815)

When Washington, a nominal Federalist, was succeeded by the equally conservative (but much less likable) John Adams, the death knell of the Federalists began to sound. By pushing through the unpopular, xenophobic, and authoritarian Alien and Sedition Acts, he galvanized the Democratic-Republicans while alienating the electorate away from his party. Facing severe restrictions on their constitutional rights to free speech, the leaders of Democratic-Republicans revolted in the next election. Though Adams had hoped to silence criticism of his nascent political party, he was instead left with a political revolution on his hands.

The election of 1800 can be considered the beginning of the end of the Federalist Party. Democratic-Republicans, led by an enraged Jefferson, stooped to mudslinging to alienate voters away from the Federalists. Adams, who was running again for office, was further handicapped by the split in his own party; Hamilton's branch of the party had abandoned Adams to his fate because of anger with him for not going to war with France over the XYZ Affair. Faced with insurmountable odds, Adams lost to Jefferson by a thin margin, thus being the last Federalist President to serve in the Presidential office.

The Federalists, now a minority party, suffered further disaster when Jefferson came to office. Though a strict constructionist at heart, he was forced to adopt many Federalist teachings when he ascended to the White House. Napoleon's offer to sell the United States the Louisiana Territory, and thus double the size of the country, convinced Jefferson that a loose interpretation of the Constitution was sometimes necessary to ensure a smooth-running federal government. He and his party also adopted many of Hamilton's economic policies, including the assumption of the national debt and the support of the Bank of the United States.

Bereft of a message, the Federalists were reduced to parroting the old Republican vision, with none of its appeal to the masses. Though they might have trudged through these dark times, their lack of a leader made matters hopeless. (Hamilton had his brains blown out during a duel with Aaron Burr and was without a fit successor.) Matters just kept getting worse during James Madison's administration. The Federalist members of Congress, older and more conservative on the whole than their Republican counterparts, were unwilling to sign up to Madison's war against Britain.

The Federalist anti-war stance succeeded in alienating the Western States and many of the lower classes, which were increasingly gaining the vote and whose members generally supported the war. Though the Federalists might have eked out a subsistence in their New England power base, the ill-conceived Hartford Convention sealed their fate. Federalist New England was seen as selfish for opposing the war; its shippers had the most to lose from the disruption of trade with the Britannic Empire. The Convention, attended by New Englanders of Federalist persuasions, only strengthened the image. The delegates recommended unpopular and obviously authoritarian measures in an attempt to hobble the Republicans in Washington and end the war. Because of such actions, Federalists were increasingly seen as anti-patriotic and as such died out after the war. After only two successful presidential administrations, the Federalists were gone, relics of a bygone era of authoritarian and upper-class rule. Though they functioned as an important balance to democratic excess after the Revolution and succeeded in strengthening the new federal government, in the end they failed next to the idealism of the Democratic-Republicans and the national movement towards liberalization and democracy.

The Era of Good Feelings (1815-1820)

After the dismantling of the Federalists in the aftermath of the War of 1812, the United States faced a situation that it has never faced before or since: no-party rule. Though the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans lacked the organization of later parties, even that loose sense of purpose was lost in the Era of Good Feelings, which lasted from the end of the War of 1812 to the panic of 1819. Without a real Federalist opposition, the Democratic-Republican organization faded into history as relative harmony graced the halls of the nation's capital. The United States, under the leadership of President James Monroe, chartered a new course of increased nationalism, binding the disparate sections of the country together and creating a sense of unity never before felt between Americans. However, this period of relative calm did not last long. New debates began springing up between politicians over the tariff, the Bank, federally-sponsored internal improvements, and slavery. Factions began forming around the issues, again generally along strict vs. loose constructionist lines. The financial crisis that hit in 1819 finally caused the splits to become apparent; arguments erupted amongst the various factions over who was responsible for the disaster and how to repair the economic damage. Unfortunately, the relative calm of the Era of Good Feelings only lasted several years. But, in that time, the old institutions governing American politics began to fade away, opening up a power vacuum for new political parties to be formed, parties that were much more organized than their ancestors and which closely resembled those in power today. From the Era was born the modern-day political party.

The Jacksonian Democrats and the Revolution of 1828 (1824-1836)

With the era of Good Feelings effectively over, a new doctrine took center stage in American politics: universal white male manhood suffrage. This novel idea, which gave the vote to all white men in the United States, forced a permanent shift in power in American politics. No longer could prospective politicians only curry favor with the propertied classes; instead they now had to focus on middle- and lower-class concerns. This profound shift in the electorate helped destroy the Federalists earlier and invigorated Andrew Jackson's new party of Democrats.

Political parties were re-introduced to American society after the so-called "Corrupt Bargain" that landed John Quincy Adams in the White House after the election of 1824. Voters, angry at signs that Adams was "given" the Presidency by Henry Clay (who as Speaker of the House had enormous influence over the deadlocked election that landed in the House of Representative's lap to be decided). Andrew Jackson, a popular general turned populist candidate, was incensed that Henry Clay and the elitist Adams could steal the election from the people (and, more importantly, him). He and his supporters vowed that they would overturn the election in 1828 and began one of the worst smear campaigns in American history. Adam's supporters, who dubbed themselves the National Republicans, viciously retaliated at Jackson's accusations of a "corrupt bargain" with false charges of adultery.

What followed in 1828 can be termed a political revolution. Andrew Jackson defeated the incumbent John Q. Adams in spectacular fashion, with Adams's only support coming from the New England shippers and merchants. Jackson's supporters (who termed themselves Democrats) were now in power and purported to represent the people. To this end, the Democrats, with Jackson as their standard-bearer, were:

  • proponents of personal liberty; the government should be governed under a strict adherence to the Constitution to allow law-abiding citizens to go about their business without governmental interference
  • rabidly anti-Bank (Jackson saw it as unconstitutional and never forgave it for supporting Adams over him in 1828; he succeeded in dismembering it during his Administration, helping to plunge the United States into a fiscal crisis)
  • against federally-sponsored internal improvements; having Washington subsidize the states in their efforts to build roads and canals would be unwarranted interference and unconstitutional.

The Democrats under Jackson also made permanent a fixture of political parties seen today: the spoils system. Under this policy, Jackson cleared out the "dead wood" of previous administrations and filled governmental posts with his political cronies. While this did keep "new blood" circulating in the appointed posts of the federal government, it also removed job security for most administrative positions in Washington and allowed people to occupy posts on political affiliation rather than personal merit, leading to corruption and bad management.

A Name from the Past: the Formation of the Whigs (1836-1840)

Resistance to Andrew Jackson's coalescing Democratic Party was first found in the National Republicans. Anti-Jackson and led by Henry Clay and John Q. Adams, the National Republicans supported the Bank, favored internal improvements, and believed in a strong central government. They unsuccessfully attempted to run Clay against Jackson in 1832, but lost to Jackson's popular appeal.

However, by 1834, the National Republicans, along with many other disparate groups, had joined forces to create the Whig Party. Led by Henry Clay, James C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, the Whigs were a factionalist mess, representing virtually every end of the political spectrum. What united them, however, was their hatred of Andrew Jackson and his (at least according to them) dictatorial policies, such as the arbitrary destruction of the Second Bank of the United States. (The Whigs drew their name from this “resistance movement” atmosphere. The Whigs were an ancient political party in Britain that had resisted the Crown's efforts to dominate politics and the former American colonies.) Because of this disorganization, the Whigs attempted a novel idea to win the election of 1836. They ran several "favorite son" candidates, hoping to split the vote between them and the Democrats' contender Martin Van Buren. If no candidate received a majority of the votes, the election would pass into the House, where Henry Clay would orchestrate a win for the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison. Unfortunately for the Whigs, Van Buren managed to scrape by.

Though the election was a loss, it did manage to secure the Whig's a place in American politics, which only grew as their cohesiveness increased. Eventually, the Whigs were able to define themselves as:

  • slightly more upper-class than the Democrats; the Whigs drew much of their strength from the growing industrial class
  • more in favor of big government than the Democrats
  • looser constructionists of the Constitution
  • more open to the Bank
  • generally in favor of federally-sponsored internal improvements in the form of road and waterways as a means to making Henry Clay's American System a reality.

Though the Whigs were soundly beaten in 1836, they scored a striking victory over Van Buren's reelection campaign, managing to seat William Henry Harrison in the Presidency. Though he died early in office and was replaced by John Tyler (who was expelled from the Whigs and held strong Democratic values) the Whigs nevertheless managed to become the "underdog" party of America.

Political Factions Mature into Parties (1840)

The election of 1840 heralded the birth of the first true political parties in the United States. Both parties under the existing two-party system operated under slightly different constitutional interpretations; in this case, the Whigs were the liberals while the Democrats were the conservatives. Both parties were also gaining the fixtures of a true national political party:

  • they appealed to voters from all sections of the country
  • they began holding primary elections to decide on one candidate to represent their party in the presidential election
  • they began using party platforms as a succinct way to express their philosophies and stances on a variety of issues
  • they made use of the spoils system (created by Jefferson and made permanent by Jackson) as a way of rewarding party loyalty
  • they attempted to appeal to the widest section of the electorate possible and therefore avoided radical stances on most issues.
Gone were the days of disorganized factions that were only loosely allied with one another. Party bosses began keeping an iron hold on their politicians. Most importantly of all, however: in the age of Jacksonian Democracy, political parties lost the anti-democratic taint associated with them in the past and were consequently accepted as a necessary part of the burgeoning American political experiment.

Slavery and the Sectionalist Split: the Death of the Whigs and Factionalization of the Democrats (1840-1856)

While the Democrats and Whigs continued their spirited debate over such issues as the tariff, an independent treasury, and the always present problem of internal improvements, one issue overrode them all: slavery. Though neither party wanted to confront this overarching issue for fear of alienating either the North or South, slavery kept rearing its ugly head as the years wore on. When the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was introduced to the Democratic Party, Southern slave-owners seized on the idea as a way of insuring the Southern "right to slaves" through a large slave-state presence in the Senate. Using this belief (which was defined by John L. O'Sullivan to be "our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions"), Southerners in the Democratic party succeeded in convincing the American people to go to war with Mexico as an expedient way of gaining more slave territory. Under Democratic President Franklin Pierce, an attempt was also drawn up to invade Cuba. Though these events did not directly cause the future breakup of the major political parties, they did succeed in re-opening wounds closed by the Compromise of 1820. Slavery was slowly becoming an issue that neither party could avoid and which would eventually cause their doom.

Around this time, events conspired to cause the death of the once-proud Whigs. The Compromise of 1850, which temporarily ended the slavery dispute and pushed the Southern states' secession back a decade, also contained a new Fugitive Slave Law that caused the splintering of the Whig Party. The "conscious Whigs," a fairly large faction within the diverse party that opposed slavery on moral grounds, were appalled by the harshness and outright cruelty that the Fugitive Slave Law subjected escaped slaves to. Northern voters rallied around the conscious Whigs and openly decried the party's official position of acceptance. Southern Whigs, on the other hand, were angered by their Northern counterparts' criticism of the Slave Law. Coming into the election of 1852, the Whigs chose a candidate, Winfield Scott, that attempted to pacify both sides but managed to please neither. Northern Whigs decried Scott's platform of acceptance of the new Law while Southerners praised the platform but doubted Scott would uphold it. Because of this division, the Whigs were soundly crushed by their Democratic opponent, the aforementioned Franklin Pierce. Without competent leadership (the party's leaders, including Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, were dead or dying after the Compromise of 1850 was signed into law), the Whigs listed from the fatal wound of the growing sectionalist struggle and never managed to put another candidate on the ballot for President. Though the Whigs were a positive force of liberalization and national unity for years, they were unable to survive the growing national obsession with slavery.

The Democrats, though lasting longer, fared no better in the long run. The explosive Kansas-Nebraska Act fatally divided their party. The Act, which opened up Kansas and Nebraska to deciding their slave status by popular sovereignty, angered both the North and South. By repealing the almost-sacred Compromise of 1820, the Act convinced Northerners that the South was attempting to make a power-grab and ensure slavery's dominance in the United States. The South saw Northern attempts to influence Kansas into voting against slavery as breaking a sacred trust and attempting to disturb the balance of power. The backlash unleashed by the Act caused the Democratic Party to split along sectionalist lines and created the Republican Party, the nation's first major party created along sectional lines.

The Republican Party and the Secession of the South (1854-1861)

The Republican Party was formed as a direct counter to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Consisting of many former "conscience Whigs," abolitionists, and Northern businessman, the party aimed to:

  • pass a Homestead Act to give poorer pioneers the ability to own the land they settled in
  • erect a tariff that would protect the United States' growing industry
  • halt the spread of slavery into the territories (Note: The Republican Party was not an abolitionist party, but it was against slavery's spread).
The most dangerous aspect of the Republicans was that they were purely sectionalist. They appealed to the North only and were seen as a threat by the Southern slave culture. The South made abundantly clear that if a Republican won the Presidency, it would secede to preserve its "rights."

Republican candidate John C. Fremont lost to Democratic contender James Buchanan in 1856, largely due to the Know Nothing Party's platform that drew many former Whigs to support it rather than Fremont. However, the Dred Scott decision two day's after Buchanan's inauguration gave new energy to the nascent party. The decision declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and forbade Congress from legislating on slavery in the territories. The North and saw this as an attempt by Southerners (through the Southern-dominated Supreme Court) to mix politics with the carrying out of the law. Northerners, no longer concerned about alienating the Southern states, rallied to the Republican banner in droves.

The election of 1860 was an obvious Republican victory. With their standard-bearer Abraham Lincoln, Republicans marched to triumph despite being left out of most Southern states' ballots. The Democrats were unable to resolve their own internal struggle over slavery preceding the election and ended up with two candidates: James Buchanan representing Northern Democrats and John C. Breckinridge propped up by the Southern pro-slavery "fire eaters." Buchanan's arm of the party favored:

Breckinridge came out with a platform based on the expansion of slavery:
  • the expansion of slavery into the territories as a way of increasing Southern power in the Senate
  • the invasion of Cuba and its partition into new slave states.
Neither of these platforms appealed to the North, which gave all but three of its electoral votes to Lincoln and his platform against the spread of slavery. The South, its worst fears realized, seceded from the Union soon after, afraid that a Republican President would make inroads into their "right" to own slaves. Now that both of America's national parties were gone or splintered, nothing kept the South tied to the North.

The Union Party (1861-1865)

The Democrats remained as fractionalized during the Civil War as before. The Northern remnants of the party remained split into three: the "War Democrats" supported the Civil War, the "Peace Democrats" wanted a quick, political settlement with the South, and the "Copperheads" openly opposed the war and even betrayed the Union to help the South. To ensure the war's continuance through the election of 1864, Republicans formed a temporary alliance with the War Democrats known as the Union Party. Lincoln was chosen as its presidential candidate and Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat, as his Vice Presidential candidate. Together, they managed to defeat the Democratic candidate Scot McClellan's platform generally against the war. The Union Party, though it only lasted for the duration of the war, enabled the North to continue fighting and holds a unique place in American history. Never before or since have two parties come together to support a common cause in such a fashion, rejecting selfish notions of power and working beyond their differences to save the nation. The short-lived Union Party may represent the best face of American politics ever put forth, a face of unity during a troubling time.

Radical Republicans and Reconstruction (1865-1877)

After the war, Republicans immediately clashed with now-President Johnson over Reconstructing the South (Lincoln had been assassinated immediately after the South surrendered). The unity during the war between War Democrats and Republicans abruptly ended over ideological differences. The Republican agenda was largely dominated by the so-called "Radical Republicans," who wanted to grant full civil rights to the emancipated slaves. The Democrats, on the other hand, wanted to end Reconstruction as soon as possible. After all, Southerners now constituted their main power-base and angry constituents makes for lost elections. Republicans had no wish to welcome their Democratic brethren back to Capitol Hill (they actually went so far as to refuse to seat representatives from the Southern states during legislative sessions); they were quite pleased with a Republican majority in government. Furthermore, Republicans had a vested interest in black civil rights, as freedmen would constitute the only part of the Southern electorate that would vote Republican. By the end of Reconstruction, the Republicans had managed to alienate most of the Southern, white electorate and, with the gradual disenfranchisement of the black population, lost all power in the South and were virtually un-electable there until the 1950's. What followed was a precarious balancing act between both parties, with neither one able to gain dominance over the other.


From the Revolution to Reconstruction, political parties always a preeminent role in national politics. They unified people sharing the same basic principles into a vehicle for change. One party in the United States' two-party system was always a strict interpreter of the constitution and wanted to curb the growing power of the federal government. The other favored a Constitutional interpretation using the elastic clause as a way of increasing federal power. Throughout the first half of American history, parties evolved from the mere alliances of convenience of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists to the complex political machines of the Democrats, Whigs, and, later, Republicans. Though parties began their lives as hated by even the people who created them, by the time of Reconstruction they were accepted as a necessary part of the healthy democracy that the United States was evolving into. One thing is certain, though the names of the two parties changed over time, there have always and will always be groups of people united to further their own ideological ends. It is up to the electorate to decide which ends are most noble.

This write-up would not have been possible without the plethora of knowledge found in The American Pageant, the definitive AP US History textbook written by Thomas Bailey and David Kennedy.

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