Major Political Parties in America: A Concise History
Political parties play an important role in American society beyond simply supporting candidates for office. They make life simpler for many voters by narrowing the number of choices they have to make on election day. They also promote ideas, issues (such as war, the role of government, and economic inequality), and an overall platform that many people would not think about were it not for unified political campaigns.
The authors of the Constitution did not like the idea of political parties. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist, No. 10, “. . . The public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival factions, and measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” Even as the future president penned these words, however, a party system was developing in the United States.
Come 2022, the United States is dominated and has been for some 150 years, by two major political parties: Democrats and Republicans. Currently, only two of 100 members of the senate are registered as independents, though they still caucus as Democrats, proving just how hard it is to really fall outside of the two-party system. Let's look at how major political parties have changed over the years, and think about the ways we got to where we are today.
Federalists vs. Jeffersonian Republicans (1788–1820)
The writers of the Constitution thought that political parties divided Americans into conflicting factions. Instead of a unified people and government striving to work for the good of all citizens, parties meant that no such thing as the “national interest,” something or policy that worked for the benefit of all, did not exist. Plus, political parties meant that Americans would lose their freedom to think for themselves; instead, they would vote for a group that may or not have supported everything that the voter satisfied his welfare.
Despite criticism, parties did emerge after it was discovered more than one way existed to provide for the welfare of all citizens. There didn't need to be only one idea or policy that fulfilled the national interest; there could be alternate ways of meeting that goal, and a different way of doing things, and criticism from the people did not mean disloyalty.
Once it was shown that it would be possible to transfer power from one group (or party) to another without a violent revolt or bloodshed (as happened first in 1800), party government became possible. As long as the losers accepted their loss in the election and instead of shooting their way back into power (or canceling the election due to “voter fraud” or something like that) realized that losing control of the government this time would not destroy the nation. Instead, the way to regain power was to win the next election.
From the very beginning of the United States, two parties have fought to win the next election. And through the years, one party has usually endorsed giving more power to the national (federal) government, while the other party calls for more power to the state governments.
The Federalist Party
The Federalist Party emerged during the debate over ratifying the Constitution. It would be the party of national power. In the first two elections, Federalists did not face any opposition since everyone knew that George Washington would and should be the first president. Two Federalists served as president, George Washington (1789–1797) and his successor, John Adams (1797–1801).
Federalists believed firmly in two key principles: government should be in the hands of an educated, wealthy elite (because average people could not be trusted to run a government; they were ignorant and uninterested in politics) and that the constitution up open to interpretation.
The party's economic program, as expressed by Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary, seemed quite modern. It called for an important role for the national government in developing the economy: government subsidies to help businesses get started and expand (to create more jobs), the creation of national debt, aid in expanding international trade and public education, and the supremacy of the national government and Constitution over that of the states.
He argued that a national debt would help tie wealthy investors (owning most of the debt in the form of government bonds) to the success of their country. If the nation prospered, so would they, and the money they made would then be reinvested in expanding businesses and thus creating even more jobs.
The Antifederalists or Jeffersonian Republicans
The Antifederalists, soon to be the Democratic-Republicans (also known as the Jeffersonian Republicans), had opposed ratification of the Constitution. Patrick Henry represented the views of this party when he spoke against ratification in the Virginia Convention, unsuccessfully arguing that the proposed Constitution should be rejected because it would destroy a state’s control over its own affairs, increase the power of the wealthy banking and business class, and endanger individual freedom.
Only the addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791 satisfied the Antifederalist's call for protection from the power of a strong central government. After 1795, they became identified with the newly organized Democratic-Republicans founded and headed by Thomas Jefferson.
Federalists vs. Democratic-Republicans (1795–1820)
In 1796, the United States held its first contested election as Federalists faced Democratic-Republican opposition. The new party’s ideas reflected those held by the authors of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson had not been at the Constitutional Convention because he served as the Confederation's ambassador to France.
Washington appointed Jefferson as his first Secretary of State in 1789, but he resigned from that position after his first term. He fought with Hamilton over almost every issue discussed by the cabinet. Washington tended to take his Treasury Secretary's advice on most issues so a frustrated Jefferson decided to go home to Virginia.
Jeffersonian Thought and a Presidental Win
In his political philosophy, Jefferson called for limits on the power of the national government and staunchly opposed Hamilton’s economic program because it favored the rich and neglected the needs of small farmers. Jefferson did not fear the “common man,” believing that with some education and good newspapers the people could rule themselves, though their elected representatives, and even create a perfect society based on agriculture.
If every person owned his own farm, he or she could become totally self-sufficient, relying on no one for his or her existence, Though he lost the 1796 election to Federalist John Adams, Jefferson's party dominated the political scene for more than 20 years beginning with Adam's eventual defeat in 1800. Presidents Jefferson (1801–1809), James Madison (1809–1817), and James Monroe (1817–1825) served in the White House under the party label.
The War of 1812 and Federalist Opposition
The Jeffersonian victory and an acknowledgment of defeat by the Federalists in 1800 marked the first time in American history that power changed hands peacefully between two opposing political parties. The Federalists did not disappear quickly, though they never won another presidential election after 1796. By 1820, the party label was gone, generally due to Federalist opposition to the War of 1812. Party leaders in New England hated this second war with Great Britain so much that they threatened to break-up (secede) the Union in 1814.
The Treaty of Ghent (a city in Belgium where peace talks were held at the invitation of Czar Alexander of Russia) ended the fighting on Christmas Eve of that year, and the Democratic-Republicans began accusing the Federalists of treason because of their opposition to the conflict.
The strategy worked; in 1816 James Monroe easily defeated his Federalist opponent, Rufus King of New York, and in 1820 Monroe ran unopposed. Despite no opposition, he failed to receive a unanimous vote in the Electoral College because one elector cast a ballot for John Quincy Adams, preferring to leave Washington the honor of a unanimous win. The Federalist Party disappeared because of its opposition to a war its members thought was unnecessary, unjust, and wrong.
The National Republicans vs. the Democratic Party (1824–1836)
With the collapse of the Federalists, only one party remained in the United States—the Democratic-Republicans. This situation did not last for long. Jefferson's party began to break apart into factions as early as 1824, largely over the question of who was the real Jeffersonian. In this campaign five candidates, each claiming to be the true successor of Thomas Jefferson fought for the White House.
John Quincy Adams, the Secretary of State, represented the Federalist idea while Secretary of War John C. Calhoun represented the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Republicans. Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, born in Virginia, had the support of party leaders, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky spoke for the west. The fifth candidate, Andrew Jackson who had resigned from the senate to seek the presidency seemed to be the only candidate to have support from all areas of the country.
The House of Representatives Votes
Jackson captured the popular vote and came in first in the Electoral College count, but he did not receive the majority required by the Constitution. The election then went to the House of Representatives. White (who had suffered a stroke during the campaign that paralyzed him) and Clay were no longer on the ballot, having come in fourth and fifth in the Electoral College. Clay, who as a member of the Kentucky delegation and had a vote in the House, disliked General Jackson so much that he convinced in the House his fellow Kentuckians to give the state's vote to Adams.
One vote per state was mandated by the Constitution, and ultimately, the House chose John Quincy Adams, former President John Adams' son. Shortly after the House vote, Adams appointed Clay as his Secretary of State. Charges of a “corrupt bargain” quickly followed and Jackson's Congressional supporters announced they would work to defeat every important bill favored by Adams. The defeat angered Jackson so much that he organized a new political party to challenge Adams in the next election, a short four years away.
The Democratic Party vs. Whigs (1836–1852)
The modern Democratic Party traces its history to the presidency of Andrew Jackson. “Old Hickory,” along with his vice president Representative Martin Van Buren of New York, organized the party and dedicated it to their vision of Jeffersonian principles. Thus, the party called for cutting spending, reducing taxes, lowering the tariff, balancing the budget, and leaving most other matters of government, except for foreign policy, to the states.
While president, however, Jackson enraged so many of his opponents with his actions that they organized a party of their own, the Whigs in 1834. Jackson served two terms (1829–1837) and chose his successor Martin Van Buren who triumphed in the election of 1836, though only served one term.
The Whig Party and Short-Lived Presidencies
The Whig party got its name from a British political party that opposed the power of the King. In the United States, Andrew Jackson alienated many supporters of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. The party supported an ambitious economic development program called “the American System.” It echoed the views of Alexander Hamilton by calling for federal spending on scientific research, road- and canal-building projects to promote trade, education, and continuing support for a national bank, all to be paid for by a higher tariff. Bitter relations between Whigs and Democrats kept most of this program bottled up in Congress.
The Whigs tried a novel strategy for winning the White House by running three candidates for the presidency against Van Buren. They hoped this would split the electoral vote so much that the election would be thrown into the House, as had happened in 1824 but that strategy failed; Van Buren managed to carry enough states to win a majority in the Electoral College.
After Van Buren's single term, voters elected two Whigs—both military heroes—to the presidency, though not back to back. William Henry Harrison defeated Van Buren in 1840, though he died from pneumonia less than a month after making his inaugural address. His vice president, John Tyler (1841–1845), filled out the remainder of his term.
Then, Democrat James K. Polk defeated Henry Clay in 1844 who lost for the third time. Polk served from 1845–1849. In 1848, Zachary Taylor won the election but failed to complete his term dying from food poisoning in the summer of 1850. Millard Fillmore (1850–1853) then took over as president, serving as the final president of the Whig party. In 1854, Whigs put another former Army general at the top of his ticket, Winfield Scott, but he lost and shortly afterward, the Whig party disappeared.
The Republican Party vs. The Democratic Party (1856–present)
The modern Republican Party traces its origins to 1854 when it replaced the Whigs as the chief opponent of the Democrats. The party opposed both the expansion of slavery in the United States and an economic program modeled after the “American System” favored by the Whigs. Its first candidate for the presidency, John C. Fremont, the famous explorer and army commander, lost the election of 1856.
Abraham Lincoln (who was president from 1861 to 1865) defeated three opponents in the 1860 election, running on a platform supporting a strong union and opposition to the expansion of slavery. Shortly after winning re-election in 1864, he was assassinated, making Andrew John the president from 1865 to 1869. He was the first president to face impeachment, though he survived by a one-vote margin in the Senate and completed the remainder of his only term.
Red Against Blue From Here on Out
Since the birth of the Republican Party, the same two parties—Democrats and Republicans—have dominated the political arena. From the start, however, both parties have faced divisions within. Almost from its beginning, regional differences divided the Democrats, chiefly a split between a northern wing and a southern one. Southern Democrats represented small farmers and became the “white man’s” party in that region, while Democrats in the north got much of their support from immigrant workers, small farmers, and laborers.
The white southern voters became more heavily Democratic after the Civil War (1861–1865) as the party bitterly opposed the policies of Lincoln and President Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877).
For the next one hundred years, the party of Jackson became the white man’s party in the south, the area essentially becoming single-party. The Republican Party almost disappeared in the states of the Old Confederacy because its major supporters, African Americans, could not vote until 1870. In 1896, the Democrats adopted most of the agenda of the Populist (People’s) party, one of the major third parties to emerge in American history. Despite being a major third party, it never came close to having the influence of the Republican or Democratic parties.
Between 1860 and 1912, only one Democrat won the presidency, Grover Cleveland. He served two terms, though they were split, 1885–1889 and 1893–1897. Most of the elections were very close—three times the margin of victory in the popular vote was less than one percent—and in 1888, Benjamin Harrison actually lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College.
Republicans received most of their support from Civil War veterans, supporters of high tariffs, and Protestants. Religion became a major dividing line between the two parties during this era with Catholics usually voting Democratic. The parties were also split over the prohibition of alcohol—should drinking be illegal—with Democrats voting “wet” (against a ban on intoxicating beverages) and Republicans “dry.”
After President Grant, a series of Republicans, Rutherford B. Hayes (1877–1881), James Garfield (1881) who was another victim of assassination, Chester Arthur (1881–1885) who replaced Garfield, and Benjamin Harrison (1889–1893), served single terms in office.
The Republican Party won a major victory, however, with William McKinley (1897–1901) leading their ticket. During this campaign, big businesses provided most of the money used by the Grand Old Party (now commonly referred to by just the acronym GOP), as the Republicans started calling themselves. Corporate interests have continued to characterize a large segment of the party.
McKinley became the third victim of an assassin’s bullet less than a year after winning a second term in 1900. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909) succeeded him. A different kind of Republican, Roosevelt called for a more active role for the federal government and supported reducing the power of big business by breaking-up monopolies and regulating unsafe and unhealthy business practices.
Roosevelt also wanted to make the United States more active in world affairs. His successor, William Howard Taft (1909–1913), returned the party to its more traditional roots, advocating higher tariffs and a reduced role for the federal government in economic affairs.
From 1913 to 1921, Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats controlled both the presidency and Congress most of the time. Wilson’s international policies, including involvement in the First World War and membership in the League of Nations, upset voters who then kept the party out of power from 1921 to 1933.
The three Republican presidents during that period, Warren G. Harding (1921–1923), Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929), who entered the Oval Office after Harding died from a heart attack, and Herbert Hoover (1929–1933), all supported balanced budgets, lower taxes for business and the wealthy, and restraint in international affairs.
The Great Depression Hits
The shock of the Great Depression, the worst economic collapse in the nation’s history, forced major changes to the two-party system. Jackson’s party, the party of state's rights, small government, and balanced budgets reversed its position and became involved in major social and economic welfare programs, and a much larger role for the national government in the lives of citizens.
It also became the largest party in the United States by 1936 under the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt (1933–1945). His “New Deal” put millions of unemployed people to work, saved the banking system, and helped restore a severely damaged economy. He also steered the nation through World War II. Voters showed their gratitude by electing FDR for three more terms. Roosevelt’s death from heart failure in 1945 made Harry Truman (1945–1953) president.
Race, Watergate, and Reagan
The Democrats split apart in 1948 over the controversial issues of race and equal rights. Harry Truman offered a civil rights agenda at the party’s convention, as part of his “Fair Deal.” Southern Democrats, led by Strom Thurmond walked out. They organized the States’ Rights Party (or Dixiecrat) with Thurmond as their presidential choice. The party denounced “big government” and held its rallies whiled prominently displaying the Confederate flag.
In 1952, the Republicans returned to power under the leadership of the great hero of World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961). In the 1960s, the Democrats became the party of Civil Rights and government activism. Both President John F. Kennedy (1961–1963), the fourth victim of an assassination, and President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–1969) supported legislation promoting equal rights in education and employment for African Americans and a War on Poverty; this drove many white southerners towards the Republican party, which became the new “white persons” party after 1968 and has generally remained so.
The Republican Party took back the White House in 1968 when Richard Nixon (1969–1974) narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey. Nixon, the first president to resign from office under the threat of impeachment, helped expand the party’s power in the south by opposing any civil rights reforms and ending the expanded role of government called for by the War on Poverty.
His re-election by a wide margin in 1972 was followed just 18 months later by his resignation because of his involvement in the Watergate Affair. He resigned rather than face impeachment for illegal acts (such as authorizing the payment of bribes) committed during the 1972 campaign.
Gerald R. Ford (1974–1977) took over the presidency and chose Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president. The recently ratified 25th Amendment in 1967 changed the Constitution by allowing a President to fill the Vice Presidency, with the consent of Congress, if that office became vacant.
Ford himself was vice president in 1973 after the resignation of Spiro T. Agnew, who gave up the job after being charged with taking bribes while serving as the governor of Maryland. Therefore, for the only time in its history, two non-elected individuals filled the two highest offices in the land. Ford then lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976 who served a single term.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan (1981–1989) out-polled Carter and pledged a recommitment to the traditional Republican Party values of smaller government, lower taxes, and balanced budgets. His vice president, George H. W. Bush later defeated Michael Dukakis on a similar platform in 1988 but only served one term from 1989 to 1993.
Into the 21st Century
President Bush lost to Bill Clinton (1993–2001) and third-party candidate Ross Perot in 1992. Clinton, a Southern Democrat, turned his party to fiscal conservatism by advocating and achieving balanced budgets three times in the 1990s. On social issues, he kept the Democrats in their traditional role as supporters of civil rights for minorities and government activism in protecting citizens from problems of hunger, malnutrition, and homelessness.
He also survived impeachment charges brought against him by a Republican-controlled Congress in 1998. Clinton’s Vice President, Al Gore, won the popular vote in the 2000 election but lost the electoral vote to President Bush's son in one of the most controversial elections in the history of the United States. It was the only presidential election decided by the United States Supreme Court. After the ruling on the vote count in Florida, President George W. Bush entered the White House. During his campaign, he advocated cutting taxes, balancing the budget, and reducing the power of the federal government.
Today's Political Landscape
In 2008, President Barack Obama won the presidency becoming both the first Black candidate to be elected as the presidential nominee of a major American political party and in turn, the first Black person to hold the office of the presidency. He beat the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, receiving just under 70 million votes—a record at the time.
The 2016 election was marked by firsts for both the Democratic and Republican parties. Former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton became the first female nominee for president by a major political party and Donald Trump—who would ultimately win the Electoral College and assume the presidency despite receiving almost three million votes less than Clinton—was the first person without prior political or military experience to hold office.
President Trump lost re-election in 2020 against Democratic challenger Joe Biden who assumed office in January 2021. Former President Trump has refused to publicly acknowledge Biden's win and has continued to speak out against what he considers a stolen election despite essentially no evidence to support his claim.
As of 2022
As of 2022, 38.78% of Americans are registered as Democrats, while 29.42% are registered as Republicans. About 3.25% of Americans are registered with third parties, while 28.55% of voters are not affiliated with any party. These numbers refer to the percentages of registered voters within each party and do not account for eligible voters that are unregistered.
Being a member of any party is relatively easy; if you choose a Democratic ballot in a primary, you are a Democrat. If you choose a Republican ballot, you are considered a Republican, at least until the next primary, when you can change your party affiliation by taking a ballot from the other party. In other words, there are no dues, and no membership forms to fill out, and you do not have to be consistent. You may have to be registered with a party to participate in primary elections, but that depends on the state you are voting in.
If you wish, you could change from one party to the next in each primary and then change back again. In the United States, political party membership is strictly a matter of feelings or attitudes at a particular time; it is a state of mind.
- Presidential Elections
- Creating the United States: Formation of Political Parties
- When did Democrats and Republicans switch platforms?
- The Founding Fathers
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.