Before the Republicans and Democrats – Early America’s Political Parties

The midterm elections are just a month away, with the Democrats hoping to regain control of Congress and the Republicans hoping to stave them off and keep their majorities in both houses. It’s amazing to me to think that these same two political parties have traded power with each other since the mid-19th century. The Democratic Party was founded in 1828, the Republican Party in 1854. If you look at the political parties in other countries around the world, you find that this persistence of a rigid two-party system is practically unheard of. In dictatorships, the political party in power can be changed with a simple coup, while in democracies, political parties usually squabble, break apart, merge together, and rise and fall in popularity on a whim. In fact, America’s two main political parties are the oldest in the world. The fact that they remain in power is quite the accomplishment.

However, America wasn’t always dominated by these two parties.

After the United States gained its independence, political parties weren’t really a thing at first. The Constitution makes no mention of political parties as the Framers thought that America would be run by the wisest men, and surely the wisest men would never stoop so low as to form rival political factions that would compete for power, right?

Except that then several Founding Fathers formed the first political parties in America, much to the dismay of George Washington, who feared that these parties would divide the country and put their own interests before that of the nation as a whole. He was unable to stop his Cabinet from turning against each other, and by the time he left office, America’s first two political parties had been established: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

The Federalist Party

Existed 1789-1824

Founded by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and John Adams, among others, the Federalist Party supported a strong national government that could rein in the states and keep them in line for the common good of all. They believed the Constitution was only the first step in nation-building, and supported Hamilton’s plans to fix the postwar U.S. economy through centralized control of banking and the establishment of a national debt. In foreign policy, they believed it was in the new nation’s best interests to try to repair relations with the British and maintain neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars that were tearing Europe apart at the time. Washington actually supported this agenda, which is why some lists of U.S. presidents will mistakenly label him as a Federalist as well.

The Federalists were more popular among conservatives, businessmen, urban dwellers, and Congregationalists. Their main base of support was in the northern states, particularly New England and New York. They achieved the height of their power during the presidency of John Adams, controlling the newly-built White House, both houses of Congress, and the majority of the state governments. However, their brief time in power proved to be like Icarus flying too close to the sun. As America waged an unofficial naval war against France, Adams and the Federalists passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts that all but banned immigration and made it a federal crime to criticize the government.

First Amendment? What First Amendment?

Well, criticize the government is exactly what Americans did, voting the Federalists out of power in 1800. Things would only get worse for the Federalists as the years went on. They staunchly opposed the War of 1812, causing many Americans to see them as pro-British traitors. They never recovered from this political blow, and by 1820, they didn’t even have enough support to nominate a candidate for president. They slowly faded out of politics over the succeeding decade.

The Democratic-Republican Party

Existed 1792-1824

First of all, this political party wasn’t called “Democratic-Republican” at the time. When it was first formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, it had been called the “Anti-Administration Party” as its members opposed the policies of the Federalists in George Washington’s administration. Very quickly, however, they decided to change the party’s name to the Republican Party, in honor of the fact that it espoused “republican virtues”. It was this name that the party used throughout its existence. Much as historians now call that part of the Roman Empire that survived after Rome itself fell “The Byzantine Empire”, so too do historians call Jefferson’s political party “The Democratic-Republican Party” as a way to avoid confusion with today’s Republicans, who named themselves after it.

Jefferson and Madison based their party around the simple idea that the Constitution should be interpreted as strictly as possible and the federal government should only be as large as necessary. To them, it had been the states that won their independence from Britain, and the states should now be free to do as they pleased. They wanted America to support the French Revolution, seeing it as an extension of their own revolution against monarchy and tyranny. They were most popular among farmers, liberals, and the southern states. They were the first political party to form a highly-organized, modern “get-out-the-vote” campaign, passing out leaflets, conducting polls, and helping potential voters register.

These tactics paid off in 1800, when Jefferson won the presidency (though he first had to contend with his own running mate, Aaron Burr, a story I’ve covered on this blog before). As the Federalists slowly collapsed, the party came to dominate American politics, getting three presidents elected in a row: Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe. They also maintained control of Congress from 1802 onward. By 1820, America had basically become a one-party state, with Monroe running for president unopposed. America was under the party’s complete control.

Then, apparently, they all got drunk and decided it would be a good idea to run four candidates for president against each other.

In 1824, the party nominated Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay. The “logic” behind this decision was that each was popular in a particular region of the country. As a result, nobody won an outright majority of the vote. However, Jackson was cleary the most popular of the four, winning the largest share of the popular vote as well as the largest number of electors in the Electoral College.

Still, with nobody earning a majority, it was up to Congress to make the final call. Rather than just going ahead and ratifying Jackson’s election, however, Congress picked Adams to be the new president. This infuriated Jackson, who claimed that the election had been stolen from him by a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay. He spent the next four years going on a nationwide tirade against the Washington elites, and having his supporters stubbornly push back against the Adams administration at every turn. This divide permanently cleaved the party in two, with Jackson’s supporters forming a new political party: the Democratic Party. Yes, that one.

The Whig Party

Existed 1834-1854

Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams ran against each other once again in 1828. This time, Jackson won, hands-down, no question about it, becoming America’s seventh president. Jackson proved to be an extremely controversial president, and made quite a few enemies. Eventually, these enemies all joined forces to form a new political party: The Whig Party.

That’s Whig party, not “wig party”. The name is British in origin, referring to those who supported a constitutional monarchy rather than an absolute one. In the early years of the American Revolution, before the idea of independence had set in, Americans who resisted the British authorities often called themselves “Whigs”. The American Whig Party adopted this name in reference to the idea that they were resisting what they saw as a tyrannical president.

The interesting thing about the Whigs is that they brought together anyone who hated Jackson and his policies, be they liberal, moderate, or conservative. The party’s membership often disagreed on many issues, and sometimes had little in common with each other. This was probably why in their first presidential election in 1836, they nominated four candidates that ran against each other. Because that worked so well last time.

By 1840, however, they got their act together and united behind war hero William Henry Harrison, who became the first Whig president. Then promptly died after one month in office. This made John Tyler the first vice-president to take over as president in U.S. history.

Now that Andrew Jackson was no longer in the picture, the Whigs had to actually come up with something else they could all agree on to keep their diverse party together. They settled on a mentality of political pragmatism: if it works, they were for it. They supported the construction and expansion of the national infrastructure, from roads to schools. They supported tariffs on imported goods in order to raise tax revenue for the government while supporting American businesses. They also believed the United States was large enough, and didn’t need to expand any further west.

Except Tyler really liked the idea of expanding further to the west. In particular, he hoped to annex Texas, which enraged his own party. Eventually, the Whigs kicked Tyler out of their party, while he was still in office. Yikes!

The real crisis for the Whigs, however, came in the next few years. In 1844, Democrat James K. Polk succeeded to the White House and promptly expanded the nation all the way to the Pacific, annexing the Oregon territory and defeating Mexico in a war of conquest. Acquiring these new lands meant that a decision had to be made over whether slavery should be allowed there. Southerners said yes, northerners said no. Once again, the Whigs rallied behind a war hero, Zachary Taylor, and once again, he became president only to die in office and leave a controversial vice-president in charge. This time, the new president was Millard Fillmore, who managed to work out the Compromise of 1850, one of those compromises-that-makes-everyone-even-angrier. It angered the southerners for not allowing enough of the new territories to practice slavery, and it angered the northerners for letting any of these new lands practice slavery at all.

This, finally, split the party for good. The Whig Party simply couldn’t withstand the divide among its own members over the slavery question. Over the next few years, the Whigs disintegrated.

The Know-Nothings

Existed 1849-1856

The collapse of the Whigs left the political scene wide open for any would-be political movement that wanted to challenge the Democrats, and as a result, we get the weirdest political party in U.S. history, which had a brief bit of success for a hot minute before vanishing.

In the 1840s, large numbers of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy began to arrive in America, and this freaked some Protestants out. Fearing that these Catholics would seize power in the Pope’s name, they formed a secret society called the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner”. Because it was a secret society, its members would deny its existence by saying they “knew nothing”. Hence, the nickname they have been given by historians.

In the 1850s, as the Whigs collapsed, many Know-Nothings ran for office under the banner of the “American Party”, which campaigned on an anti-Catholic ticket and won a handful of elections. However, after their brief moment in the sunshine, they declined just as quickly as they arose. Turns out people just weren’t that interested in anti-Catholic conspiracy theories. They were more concerned about slavery.

The Free Soil Party

Existed 1848-1854

Another short-lived political party, the Free Soil Party was formed for one purpose, and one purpose only: to oppose the expansion of slavery in the west. Formed by Democrats who wanted to ban slavery in the newly-won territories, the Free-Soilers attracted anti-slavery Whigs and other abolitionist groups to their cause, and even managed to get former president Martin Van Buren as their nominee in their first election in 1848. The Free-Soilers declared that they would accept no compromise on this issue. There were enough slave states! No more!

Unfortunately, that attitude backfired when the Compromise of 1850 was passed. The Free Soil Party rejected the compromise, of course, but this made them look like stubborn and unreasonable jerks. Their stance on this issue cost them support, and by 1852, they recieved half the votes they had just four years earlier. By 1854, the party had collapsed, but slavery was still a contentious issue. That was the year that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, infuriating abolitionists across America. In this climate, the founders of the Free Soil Party decided to try again, and founded a new political party: the Republican Party. Yes, that one.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers. That’s how we got to the two main political parties America has today. Now I need to go study the candidates and ballot propositions in my hometown so I can be prepared when I vote. I hope to see you all at the polls as well!