*American politics have been based on a two party system since before the United States were formed.  Historians have described different eras in this two party system, and sometimes they are used to characterise different periods of American history.



Whigs and Tories

These two parties developed during the 17th and 18th centuries. 


*The Whigs opposed the expansion of the Church of England into Scotland--many began as Puritans. They opposed absolute monarchy and did not want to have a Catholic king, meaning they supported the Glorious Revolution, and thus the English Bill of Rights (1689).  They later supported the Hanoverian Settlement and were usually the major political party until 1760.  During this time they were primarily supported by the urban population.


*The Tories supported the Stuart Monarchs and opposed the Glorious Revolution (although not too vigourously).  The supported the High Church of England and some even supported Catholicism.  A few later supported the Jacobite Uprising in 1714-1715, tainting the party with treason.  When King George III came to power in 1760, he tried to assert his own power by turning to the Tories, who became the most powerful party during most of the later 1700s, although the Whigs remained powerful.  The Tories were primarily the party of the countryside.


*During the Revolution, the Tories supported the King while many Whigs supported the Revolution, most famously Edmund Burke and John Wilkes.  In America, loyalists were often known as Tories.  Later, the term Whig would be resurrected in America by people who wished to oppose too strong a president.  In Britain the Tories were later renamed the Conservatives and the Whigs became the Liberals (now Liberal-Democrats).



Federalists and Anti-Federalists

These two groups developed during the debates over the ratification of the US Constitution.


*The Federalists wished to replace the Articles of Confederation with a Constitution creating a strong central government with three separate branches ruling from a capital city creates especially for it.  This government would have the power to tax the people, create new states, judge disputes between the states and the citizens of different states.  It would also bind the states closely together.  Federalists said it was necessary to keep the country from falling into anarchy as taxes went unpaid, from splitting up into multiple countries, and from being dominated by foreign powers.  The Federalists presented their ideas to the people of New York through The Federalists Papers.  They tended to be merchants and other wealthy people who wanted to preserve society and their place in it.


*The Anti-federalists wished the preserve the articles of confederation (although many were willing to amend them) with a unicameral Congress.  They feared that making the national government too powerful would strip the people of their liberties and the states of their independence, and that the executive branch would rapidly evolve into a monarchy.  Doubtless such a government would create a standing army to oppress the people.  The Anti-federalists were powerful in many states--powerful enough to keep the states of North Carolina and Rhode Island from ratifying the Constitution for several years.  Many were farmers who did not want an urban elite running the country.


*Eventually the federalists won and the Constitution, written in 1887, was ratified by 9 states (enough to go into effect) in June 1788, and went into effect in 1789.




Federalists and Democratic-Republicans


The debates surrounding the Constitution and then around the nature of the new government created two loose political factions, not as well organised as modern political parties.  Initially the Federalists who had supported the Constitution's ratification were the dominant party, but after the Revolution of 1800, the Democratic-Republicans controlled the Presidency.


*The Federalists had supported the ratification of the Constitution and now supported the administration of George Washington, although he officially belonged to neither party.  The Federalists wanted a strong central government, leading them to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion and support the Alien and Sedition Acts.  They were generally seen as pro-British, particularly through the Jay Treaty of 1794, which normalised relations with Britain, but which many Americans saw as nearly treasonous.  They were reluctant to support westward expansion, fearing that if new states were too far from the coast to communicate easily with the traditional centres of power that they would eventually break off.  Many of them had mercantile interests and commercial ties to Britain.  They had the most influence in the Northeast, but were found in major cities along the Atlantic seaboard and were a national party.


*Thomas Jefferson led the Democratic-Republicans (sometimes just called Republicans) in opposition to the Jay Treaty, and later in opposition to a strong central government.  They tended to support the French, seeing an echo of America’s revolution in the French Revolution, although eventually the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon put an end to this.  They tended to support westward expansion.  Many Democratic-Republicans were westerners, farmers, and immigrants, and their appeal to the common man is sometimes called Jeffersonian Democracy.  They were most powerful in the West and South, but they were also found in many parts of the North, and were a national party.


*During the War of 1812, the War Hawks (and President Madison) were Democratic-Republicans.  The Federalists tended to oppose the war, and a few met in the Hartford Convention in late 1814 to discuss the possibility of New England seceding from the Union.  Unbeknownst to them, a peace treaty just had been concluded, and the entire party was tainted with treason.  They ceased to exist as a national party or even a regional one.




*Because there was no meaningful opposition to James Monroe’s elections in 1816 and 1820, and no official party competition during his administrations, the period between 1816 and 1824 is sometimes known as the Era of Good Feelings, although disagreements still existed below the surface.



Democrats and Whigs


The election of 1824 had four major contenders and was thrown into the House of Representatives, which chose John Quincy Adams over the most popular candidate, Andrew Jackson, possibly in a corrupt bargain with Henry Clay.  Andrew Jackson and his supporters would spend the next four years campaigning against Adams, and eventually those who supported Jackson would call themselves Democrats and his opponents would eventually take the name Whigs, after Britain’s opponents of an absolute monarchy. 


These parties would be much better organised than those of the First Party System, with conventions and early political machines.  The Democratic Party machine in New York was organised by Martin van Buren, and was known as the Bucktails and later the Albany Regency.  Significantly, both parties were national parties, with both northern and southern supporters.


This period is also known as the Age of Jackson, and was characterised by a widening of the franchise to include almost all white men and a few black men as well, regardless of wealth.  Most of the presidents in this period were Democrats.


*Democrats tended to favour small government, although Jackson would be the epitome of a strong president and an advocate for the supremacy of the national government over the states (threatening to hang JohnC. Calhoun, another Democrat, when he supported South Carolina’s nullification of the Tariff of Abominations).  They opposed spending federal money on internal improvements, partly because they felt that would be using the entire nation’s money to benefit only specific regions.  Democrats tended to support farmers and opposed the power of banks and industry, and tried to keep tariffs low, only charging enough to meet the minimal needs of the national government.  They favoured expansion, which led to the removal the Indians from the Southeast and eventually annexation Texas, the Mexican Cession, and Oregon.  Democrats also welcomed immigrants, including the new immigrants from Ireland and Germany, despite the fact that many of them were Catholic.  Catholics would go on to be reliably Democratic until the late 20th Century.


*The Whigs were formed by Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and other opponents of Jackson.  They favoured internal improvements, a strong banking system, and a high tariff to protect industry.  Although the internal improvements that Clay’s American System would have created could have encouraged westward expansion, the Whigs were suspicious of expansion because it could inflame the debate over slavery, which some Whigs supported and others opposed, but which no-one talked about in Congress thanks to the Gag Rule.  They opposed Indian Removal and the Mexican War, but won both their presidential victories with war heroes, William Henry Harrison (who had fought the Indians in the Northwest Territory) and Zachary Taylor (who had fought the Mexicans), both of whom died in office.


*Henry Clay managed the three great compromises of this era, the Missouri Compromise (balancing the number of slave and free states in the Union), the Compromise of 1833 (which lowered the tariff enough to mollify the South but not enough to impoverish the North), and the Compromise of 1850 (allowing California to enter the Union as a free state but protecting the South’s property rights with the Fugitive Slave Law).  However, the North’s flagrant failure to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law led to the breakdown of the Second Party System as Southerners abandoned the Whig Party for its failure to support the Law and Northerners abandoned it for its compromises.



Democrats and Republicans


The Third Party System formed during the debates over Popular Sovereignty, the Dred Scott case, and the spread of slavery in the 1850s.  The parties that would develop in the second half of the 19th century would be well-organised and often controlled by machines.  They would also be heavily affected by which side they supported in the Civil War, the crossroads of American history, so the Republicans would usually control the Presidency.


*The Republican Party was formed in 1854 out of former Northern Whigs, Free-Soilers, and Know-Nothings.  It supported western expansion by free farmers (particularly through the Homestead Act) but opposed the expansion of slavery.  Some Republicans even advocated the abolition of slavery.  Republicans tended to support business, internal improvements (such as the Transcontinental Railroad), and a powerful national government.  They also tended to oppose immigration, particularly by and Catholics, although a few supported it as a source of cheap labour for factories.  The Republicans won the Civil War, abolished slavery, and supported Radical Reconstruction of the South, ensuring that Southerners would oppose the Republican Party for a century.  Every Republican elected president from 1868 to 1900 would be a Civil War veteran, winning election by waving the bloody shirt.  In the few places where they could vote, African-Americans voted for Republicans.  The Republicans began as a radical party, but became more conservative in the East, while in the West they became even more radical, eventually leading some of them to regard themselves first and foremost as Progressives, which would help split up the Third Party System.


*The Democrats split in 1860, with a Northern and a Southern wing both losing to Abraham Lincoln.  They were regarded as sort of treasonous after the Civil War (most Confederate leaders were Democrats and a number of Northern Democrats—sometimes called Copperheads—opposed the war).  The Democrats only elected one election for certain during this period, Grover Cleveland, although Samuel Tilden should probably have defeated Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.  The Compromise of 1877 withdrew Federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction and allowing the Solid South to become Democratic again and remain so for nearly a century.  The Democrats received support from immigrants, from unions, Southerners, and farmers.  They often controlled Congress in the late 1800s, even if they rarely won the Presidency.  In the 1890s, the Democrats split.  Some wanted easy money—free silver or maybe even paper, particularly Southern Farmers’ Alliances and the Western Populists.  Conservatives, including President Garfield, wanted to maintain the Gold Standard, but the Populists eventually nominated William Jennings Bryan.  Later Democratic reformers would support the Progressives, helping split up the Third Party System. 



Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives


The late 1800s saw the rise of discontent among the farmers of America who felt that big businesses, especially the railroads, were taking advantage of them.  They also felt impoverished by falling farm prices.  To combat this, they formed the Grange, Farmer’s Alliances, and the Populist Party, who demanded regulation of railroads and other businesses as well as the free coinage of silver or possibly even the printing of paper money.


In the cities, the rising middle class felt that the poor were not being taken care of, and they wished to help them.  They also felt that their own political power was too limited by the machines.  Above all they felt that society should be run rationally and charitably—but not too charitably, lest people become weak and dependent.  These Progressives could be found in both the Republican and Democratic Parties, and eventually they founded their own party.


Working class Americans in factories and mines also demanded change, often along socialist lines, leading to the rise of radical labour unions such as the IWW and to a Socialist Party, which did quite well in many elections, particularly in 1920.


The Fourth Party System was characterised by splits between conservatives and progressives within both major parties, which weakened party both political parties' traditional machinery.  However, it was primarily dominated by Republican presidential administrations.


*Republicans tended to support a gold standard and to enjoy the support of Northern business leaders and Westerners.  They supported imperialism, including annexing the Philippines and Hawaii and taking an active role around the Caribbean--sometimes known as Big Stick diplomacy or Dollar Diplomacy.  Some of these expansionists wanted to bring American ideals to benighted foreigners, whereas others simply wanted access to wealth and power.  Some business leaders wanted to reform the cities and local government to make it more efficient; others wanted to continue the laissez-faire economics of preceding generations.  Overall, the Republicans opposed immigration, both by Asians who were seen as potentially undermining American culture and taking West Coast jobs, and, in the 1920s, by Eastern and Southern Europeans who were probably communists and either Catholic or Orthodox.  To increase democratic participation, many supported Women's Suffrage.  Most Republicans, both moral rural folk and urban businessmen supported prohibition, because drinking led to lazy factory workers and to crime.  Some westerners wanted to limit the power of the railroads and big business, and supported conservation.  This ultimately split the Republicans between a trust-busting, reforming wing and a conservative, pro-business wing.  Ultimately some reformers would split off to form the Progressives, but later return.


*By 1920, the Republicans would be dominated by the business wing and they were popular as long as the country was prosperous throughout the 1920s--they even attracted some Southern voters.  They supported high tariffs and isolationism.  When the Great Depression came, though, a traditional attitude of letting the economy correct itself without government interference led many people to condemn the Republicans for not taking care of the poor.


*The Democrats were largely under the control of their Populist wing during this period, made up of Southerners and Western farmers, although the urban working class, especially Catholics were mostly Democratic.  In 1896 they ran William Jennings Bryan on a free silver platform and again in 1900 on an anti-imperialist platform.  They tended to support reform, sometimes even in foreign countries--what Woodrow Wilson called Moral Diplomacy, although it often involved the Marine Corps, too.  Some Democrats supported Prohibition, particularly the farmers and Southerners who made up a large part of the party, while urban working-class Democrats, many of whom were Catholics descended from recent immigrants, tended to oppose Prohibition.  Both farmers and the working class opposed high tariffs.  Some Democrats supported women's suffrage, although more conservative ones did not.  The Democrats only managed to elect one president, Woodrow Wilson, largely because the split between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in 1912.


*The Progressive Party--or Bull Moose Party--was formed in 1912 when it seemed like the conservative wing of the GOP was taking control of the party when TR tried to win the Republican nomination back from Taft, but was blocked.  The Progressives wanted an active government that would reform society through regulatory powers.  Although they attracted a lot of support across the country, especially in the Midwest and West, they were not able to dominate national politics, partly because their party was too new and disorganised. 


*The desperation of the Great Depression would lead Americans to demand their government take a more active role in society, which would lead to the traditional party leadership becoming more cohesive even as voters' allegiances shifted.




Democrats and Republicans


The Fifth Party System saw a division of parties along lines of support or opposition to the New Deal, and later along lines of support of or opposition to civil rights, and later still along lines of support of or opposition to traditional moral values.  This would eventually lead to significant regional shifts in party membership.  Although Democrats dominated the early part of this period under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, for most of this time control of the White House has shifted between the two parties about every eight years.  Third parties have also frequently played a role in elections, although they have never come close to winning a presidential election.


*The Great Depression led to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who created a New Deal Coalition of working class people, unions, farmers, Southerners, liberals, Progressives, and--for the first time--African-Americans.  This was the traditional Democratic constituency with the addition of intellectual reformers who saw an opportunity to re-shape society, and African-Americans who felt that the New Deal benefitted them and that the Republicans had not done anything for them since the end of Reconstruction.  These New Deal Democrats supported an active government--indeed, a Welfare State, a low tariff, and a foreign policy that was involved in the world.


*Starting with Harry Truman right after WWII, but especially, in the 1960s under Kennedy and Johnson, the Democratic Party at the national level supported Civil Rights for African-Americans.  However, this began to alienate conservative Democrats, particularly in the South, the Democratic Party's traditional stronghold.  Support for equal rights for other groups turned conservatives against the Democrats later on, as well.  They began to lose the South to third party candidates in 1948 and afterwards (notable in 1968), and had largely lost it to the Republicans in presidential elections by 1972, and almost totally lost the South to Republicans in 1994.  On the other hand, the Democrats solidified support among African-Americans and other minority groups, partly through a renewed support for immigration beginning in the 1960s.


*The Republican Party was seen as discredited by the Great Depression, although enough Americans distrusted the growth of government during the New Deal to allow Republicans to often control at least part of Congress, and thus obstruct later parts of the New Deal and the Fair Deal, as Republicans tended to stand for small government, at least in theory.  However, Eisenhower supported building the interstate highway system, a massive public works project, and later Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush would see massive growth of the public debt due to military spending during the Cold War and the War on Terror.


*Republicans tended to support high tariffs early in this period, but supported free trade later on, as free trade boosts the economy as a whole, but particularly helps investors in the businesses that are able to trade freely.  Most Republicans still tended to oppose immigration throughout this period, although some business Republicans like them as a source of cheap labour.  Big business continued to largely support the Republicans. 


*After the turmoil of the 1960s and Nixon's successful appeal to the Silent Majority through his promise of Law and Order and his active Southern Strategy, many working class and Southern Americans began to turn away from what they saw as an increasingly liberal Democratic party. 


*The Fifth Two-Party System saw major shifts in what both parties stand for and what kind of people support them.  In some ways, each has become much less inclusive, as conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans began to move to the other party, thus making compromise much more difficult, as would become even more apparent in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. 



Democrats and Republicans

There have been significant shifts in the two-party system since the success of Nixon's Southern Strategy.  This, and subsequent developments, saw the shifting of conservative and working-class Democrats to the Republicans in 1968 and especially in 1972, again with the Reagan Revolution (which attracted many 'Reagan Democrats'), again with the Republican Revolution of 1994, and again with white working-class support for Donald Trump in 2016.  Likewise, liberal Republicans began to leave their party with the ascendency of Ronald Reagan over moderate Republicans such as Ford and George H. W. Bush.  This may suggest that a Sixth Two-Party System began around 1968, in which Republicans, or at least many Republican ideas, have been dominant (Bill Clinton's success came in part by adopting many Republican ideas), whereas the Democrats and the ideals of the New Deal clearly dominated the Fifth Two-Party System if it is considered to have ended with Nixon's election.


*New Democrats, starting with Bill Clinton, supported Free Trade, despite the fact that many working class Democrats opposed this, as it led to the loss of many manufacturing jobs through outsourcing.  During the Democratic primaries of 2016, however, both major Democratic candidates began to question, and in some cases, outright oppose major international trade deals in the name of protecting American workers.


*Clinton’s New Democrats adopted, at least after the Republican Revolution, many Republican ideas Clinton even declared that the era of Big Government was over.  However, during the presidency of Barrack Obama, the government entered into a major regulation of the health care system, suggesting that the Democrats may be moving back towards support for a bigger government.


*Democrats continued to support immigration throughout this period, and increasingly supported socially liberal causes.


*Republicans tended to support free trade later for most of this period, notably through the creation of NAFTA, as free trade boosts the economy as a whole, but particularly helps investors in the businesses that are able to trade freely.  On the other hand, starting with the Trump campaign of 2016, many Trump supporters have come to question free trade because it is seen as contributing to the trade deficit and the loss of American manufacturing jobs.  Most Republicans still tended to oppose immigration throughout this period, although some business Republicans like immigrants as a source of cheap labour.  Big business continued to largely support the Republicans.  Religious objections to Roe v. Wade and other shifts in society also brought many religious conservatives into the Republican Party, particularly with the Reagan Revolution of 1980, a process that was completed with the Republican Revolution of 1994.  On the other hand, many liberal Republicans (once known as Rockefeller Republicans) left the party. 


*The modern Republican Party has four major ideological foundations, which do not always agree:  business conservatism, libertarianism (who feel the government should intrude in people's lives as little as possible), religious conservatism, and racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice.


This page last April updated 17, 2018.
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