Topics in US History: Political Parties
Hi! This is Adam, AP/IB History, English Literature and English Language & History tutor at The Edge Learning Center. Below, I’ve written a brief history of political parties in the US. The development over time of political parties is one of the most complicated yet significant topics in United States History. In his farewell address, George Washington warned the people of the perils of partisan disunity, but today America is at least in part defined by its Red State/Blue State divide. For students of history, knowing about the rise, fall, shifting, and flip-flopping of domestic political parties within the two-party system remains a pivotal skill in understanding the history of America. Plus, it won’t hurt your AP score.
1790s-1820s: The First Party System
For all intents and purposes, the first party system (and inter-party beef) in America compromised the Democratic Republicans, the party of Thomas Jefferson, and the Federalists, which was the party of George Washington’s Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton and his crew called for a strong and unified federal government, with a nationalized banking system and diplomatic ties to Britain. Contrarily, Jefferson and his supporters desired ties to France and an emphasis on states’ rights; they opposed pretty much any and all of the Federalists’ agenda.
Into the early 19th century, after Jefferson’s presidency, the Federalists lost popularity and petered out. The Democratic Republicans, the last men standing, emerged as the party to usher in “The Era of Good Feelings,” thus ending the country’s First Party System.
1820s-1850s: The Jacksonian Era and the Second Party System
By 1829, the traditional Democratic Republicans evolved into the Jacksonian Democrats, culminating in the presidency of Andrew Jackson, the divisive war hero, executive juggernaut, and Indian remover who would turn the party of Jefferson into the mighty modern Democrats. Though Jackson was loved by his supporters, his controversial policies–which many saw as abuses of power–influenced the establishment of the Whig Party in 1833. Essentially, this party existed to kick Jackson the Tyrant out of the White House, and so its problem was that it didn’t really have any common platform or ideology at its core. As the debate over slavery got hot in the early 1850s, as well as because of its practical limitations and the deaths of its influential leaders, the party was disbanded.
1850s-1890s: The Third Party System
Post-Whig Party, the political era known as the Third Party System is associated with the emergence of the anti-slavery Republican Party in 1854, culminating in the party’s candidate, Abraham Lincoln, winning the election of 1860. The Democrats, who were by now dominated by staunch pro-slavery representatives, weren’t thrilled, and it was the Southern wing of this party that led the Succession movement, bringing about the Civil War. After the war, conflicts over Reconstruction dominated inter-party politics. Former slaves, for the most part, became Republicans, while in the South, bitterness over the war ensured that the Democrats would be the party of the defeated Confederate cause.
While in the North, as the century progressed, businessmen and skilled professionals grew attracted to the Republican platform because its emphasis on modernization and industry.
1890s-1930s: Fourth and Fifth Party Systems
This system maintained the two powers, Republicans and Democrats respectively, but it saw a major shift in each parties policies and central issues. Early on, it was the Republicans and their emphasis on big business that dominated the Progressive Era. But then, in 1929, the Stock Market crashed and everything got fudged up, culminating in President Franklin Roosevelt’s ascendancy. FDR, a Northerner but a Democrat, formed the New Deal Coalition to create jobs and rebuild the economy. The one-sided results of the Election of 1932 demonstrated the shift in power from Republican to Democrat and symbolized FDR’s clear political success.
Furthermore, Roosevelt’s New Deal revolution and its promotion of civil rights programs led African Americans to change their party allegiances, which created a dramatic shift in constituencies. The Republicans, the party of Lincoln and abolition, could no longer count on the black vote.
1930s-Present: The Sixth (?) Party System and Beyond
Though some historians hold that the US remains immersed in the Fifth System, others argue that there have been major political schisms after WW2 that have helped contort and redefine the pretzel that is the modern political party framework, and thus the Fifth System has in fact made way for a Sixth. Evidence of this can be found in the results of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the emergence of the Moral Majority in the late seventies, Ronald Reagan’s success through coalition in the eighties, the Republican Revolution of 1994, anti-Bush sentiment, Obama’s support as well as the backlash against him, and whatever’s going on in the wild and wacky Election of 2016.
The Little Guys
Oops, this article’s been focusing on the major parties, and the minors haven’t been discussed. Third parties have been influential in US History, both on the state and national level, and, for better or worse, AP exams and SAT Subject tests might include some. Check them out here.
So there you have it, folks! Confused? Well, you should be. Though this article attempts to compile a discernible portrait, the true logic of America’s political parties may in fact be illogical. What’s important, however, when you’re preparing for standardized exams and various curriculum assessments, is that you’re aware of the basic chronology of the parties themselves, the major players who shaped and defined the parties, and the important shifts in the parties’ platforms and policies. Happy studying!