Political Parties in the United States

Political Parties in the United States
Political Parties in the United States

From the nation’s earliest days U.S. leaders struggled over how to deal effectively with political disagreements. Many Americans feared that faction—what today would be called special interests—would distort the new republic, setting citizens against one another and encouraging attacks by hostile foreign powers.

In April 1789 George Washington, elected unanimously, became America’s first president. Within months, sharply opposed political coalitions were arguing inside Washington’s own cabinet. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had founded the Federalist Party, reclaiming the name given supporters of the Constitution. In 1792 Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson organized the Democratic-Republican Party, completing what came to be called the first party system.

Federalists and Republicans (as Jefferson’s party soon called itself) had very different views of America’s future. Would it be an agricultural nation or a commercial and industrial power? Should individual states exercise power or the federal government prevail? Was France or Britain America’s trusted ally? Partisan newspapers criticized even Washington; his successor, John Adams, the first and only Federalist president, faced harsher attacks for his Alien and Sedition Acts.

Jefferson won the vicious 1800 election, outpolling fellow Republican Aaron Burr and three Federalists, including Adams.

One result of this political shakeup was the Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804 to fix a constitutional defect. Instead of making the electoral runner-up vice president, whether or not he shared the president’s views or even his political party, candidates would now run as a slate. This change elevated the importance of party over individual ambition.

Hamilton’s death in an 1804 duel with Vice President Burr cost the Federalist Party its most dynamic leader, accelerating its decline despite continuing strength in New England. Federalist opposition to the War of 1812 was decried as treason by political foes. The last Federalist ran (and lost) in 1816.

Fading Partisanship

During Republican James Monroe’s two terms, partisanship briefly seemed to fade. In fact, the Republican Party was splitting internally between national Republicans and states-rights Republicans. Monroe’s Era of Good Feeling evaporated in 1824, when four candidates, all nominally Republican, vied for the presidency.

Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, a statesrights Republican, won a plurality of the popular vote but lost the election when national Republican rival Henry Clay transferred his votes to John Quincy Adams, son of the second president. Jackson supporters never forgave this “corrupt bargain.” When Jackson won easily in 1828, he became the first president not from Massachusetts or Virginia. His victory initiated the second party system.

Jacksonians in 1844 renamed themselves the Democratic Party and benefited from the growth of universal white male suffrage. Among Jackson’s innovations was patronage—awarding jobs and favors to supporters to cement their party loyalty. Democrats also pioneered national political conventions.

Clay’s national Republicans in 1834 reinvented themselves as Whigs, named for the British political party that had backed the American Revolution. Whigs favored national improvements, the Bank of the United States, proindustrial policies, and middle-class values.

Clay never achieved his presidential dream. Only two Whigs were elected president, despite campaign strategies (borrowed by rivals) that significantly increased voter turnout. The 1840 William Henry Harrison campaign included marches, bonfires, and copious helpings of hard cider. Whigs even encouraged women (who could not vote) to attend campaign events. War of 1812 hero Harrison, the first Whig president, became ill at his inauguration and died shortly thereafter.

Dissident Third Parties

Although the U.S. political system has historically generated success for only two major parties, in the 1830s, dissident third parties began to tackle major issues, including growing opposition to slavery and southern political power and increasing immigration.

In 1844 James G. Birney, a slaveholder turned abolitionist, was the Liberty Party’s presidential nominee. In 1848 amid sharp regional divisions caused by the Mexican-American War, former president Martin Van Buren campaigned for the Free-Soil Party.

As politics in the 1850s fractured along sectional lines, the new American, or “Know-Nothing,” Party, founded in 1849 in New York, became a major factor in the Whigs’ demise as a functional political organization. Nativist, secretive, and anti-Catholic, Know-Nothings were strong in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, even attracting some slave-state voters.

Former president Millard Fillmore in 1856 won 22 percent of the vote for the Know-Nothings. Third-party success explains more about the political chaos of the 1850s than it does about campaign skill. Amid a series of failed compromises, growing distrust between North and South splintered any political party hoping to appeal to both sections.

Whigs fielded their last presidential candidate in 1852. Northern Whigs joined Free Soilers and antislavery Democrats and Know Nothings to create a new Republican Party (not to be confused with the party by then known as Democrats). Former Whig Abraham Lincoln became the nation’s first Republican president in a four-way race.

Democrats remained strong in the North during the Civil War. Those nicknamed Copperheads were especially critical of Republican leadership. To aid his 1864 reelection, Lincoln chose a Democratic running mate—Senator Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean who had refused to secede. Nor did Republicans always support their president.

The radical wing of the party complained that Lincoln was too slow to end slavery. Other Republicans preferred to focus on postwar reunification and their northern war party’s future.

The Reconstruction began shakily after Lincoln’s assassination as now-President Johnson struggled with radical Republicans for political domination. Although Republicans would win six of eight presidential elections between 1865 and 1900, their commitment to Reconstruction and reform wavered.

Boss politics held sway in many American cities. Ulysses S. Grant’s administration was riddled by corruption, undercutting his ability to protect African-American voting rights.

In 1877 deals made after the closest election in U.S. history (prior to 2000) put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in office with a tacit promise to leave the former Confederacy alone. With white-dominated southerners voting solidly Democratic and Congress narrowly split, the nation experienced a politics of dead center.

Amid Gilded Age inertia, new third parties emerged. In its first presidential campaign in 1872, the Prohibition Party attracted many female Temperance advocates to its crusade against alcoholic beverages.

The Greenback-Labor Party, founded in 1878, focused on farmer debt relief and worker rights. Populists in 1892 carried four western states and parts of two others. In 1896 Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan appropriated much of the populist agenda but lost to William McKinley.