** historical background political parties

United States History: Political Parties

Figure 1.--

There was no provision for political parties in the American Constitution. President Washington was oposed to the factionalism that parties represented. Politocal parties, however, are a key element in the American political system. They began to formeven before Washington left office. The Federalists won the first contested election (1796). They were soon defeated ny the Democratic-Republicans, the forerunner of the Democratic Party--the oldest political party in the world. The initial political contest was beteen Hamilton's Federalists representing the northern elite and Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans representing agrarian and backwoods interests. The Federalists soon lost out in their attempt to restrict the sufferage. In the first half of the 19th century, political contests were between the Whigs and the Democrats who won most of the elections. At the time farming and Western interests wanted nothing more than being left along by Government. Beginning with Jeffrson in 1800, this is just what the Democrats provided. The Republican Party was founded in 1856 out of the collapsing Whig Party and the growing northern sentiment for the abolition of slavery. The election of the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860 meant Civil War. Since the Civil war, the Dmocrats nd Republicans have remained the major American political parties, although there has been a startling reversal in the principles of the two parties.

Party Role

There was no provision for political parties in the American Constitution. President Washington was oposed to the factionalism that parties represented. Politocal parties, however, are a key element in the American political system. They began to form even before Washington left office.

Individual Parties

America since the earliest days of the Republic has had a two-party system. Only during the Washington presidency were political parties largely supressed because of Washington's abhorance if them. They did, however, develop during his presidency and the election of 1896 was contested by the Federalists and anti-Federalists. Since then American politics have resolved around two political parties. This is relatively unusual around the world as most democratic countries are goverened through a multi-party system. The only third party to succeed in becoming a major force has been the Republican Party, primarily because the Whig Partu empolded. Other political parties have failed to become permanent fixtures in Americam politics. They have however popularized a variety od=f issues which the major political parties have adopted. They have also affected the outcome of presidential elections.

American Elections

The American Constitution contained no mention of political parties. They played no role in the first election of 1789. President Washington did not approve of them. They began to form during the consideration of the Federal Cobstitution (1797-89) and gradually coalesed during his first term of office. They played a minor role in the 1792 election, but by 1796 were well estanloshed and played a major role. Except for the Era of Good Feelings during President Monroe's presideny (1816-20), political parties have played a major role. In fact part politics returned with a vengence in the next election beyween John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Matin Van Buren to advance Jackson's candicacy engineeered the first mass political party--the Democratic Party which both elected Jackson and greatly expanded the white male sufferage. The new Republican Party a generation later would expand the sufferage to all males regardless of race, although it would take another 100 years to fully realize that ideal. Women would be granted the vote in the aftermath of World War I. Normally elections have been contests between two major parties, but third parties have played important roles in several important elections. The most important elections have been the presidential elections held every 4 years. Congressional elections are held every 2 years. Some of these mid-term elections have had major impacts on American history. Interestingly American political pundits complain constantly complain that American politics are dirtier and mote partisan than ever before. In recent years pundits have complained that preparations for elections are beginning earlier and earlier. None of these observations seem accurate when viewing the long history of American elections.

Great Debates

Political parties are of two kinds. The first kind of political parties are those formed to win elections and obtain politica power. A second kind is organized around key issues and philosophy and fir those parties winning elections is secondary, although nececessary in order to convert ideas into power. American political parties have varied. For some like the Federalists their ideas were more important than power and they disappeared. For other parties political power was the primary goal. The Democrats formed by Jackson and Van Buren to achieve power spent several decades avoiding the central issue in American politics--slavery. Over times parties have shifted back and forth, focusing on ideas or power. At times the dichotomy is very clear. At other times less so. As axresult, the great debates in American politics have both been conducted between nd within the parties. There have been several such debaztes. Some have spanned decades. Other have dominated decades or some times an even shorter period. The longest and most signoficant was surely over slavery which morphed into discussions over race. There have been other crucial debates in American politics. Some have been definitively resolved. Others continue to this day. Some of these debates, especially that of isolationism, have a way of recurring in the political discourse of the nation.


Gould, Lewis L. Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans (Random House, 2003), 597p.

Witcover, Jules. Party of the People: A History of the Democrats (Random House, 2003), 826p.


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Created: September 14, 2003
Last updated: 4:43 PM 5/25/2007