HOME

Early History of US Political Parties

Politics and the U S Constitution

Two areas of thinking existed in the formation of the U S government: The Federalists, advocating a strong federal government, and Anti-Federalists, who argued for more self determination for the states.

Emerging from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was a general agreement that a strong central government was needed for a fledgling nation that had to defend itself against superior military and economic powers. Two term president George Washington’s status and leadership and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's moves to establish a federal bank established confidence in the new federal government.

The varied state interests, however began to assert their individual factional interests, and some members of the government, such as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Congressman James Madison, leaned more towards states and individual rights.

By the time John Adams was elected President in 1796, distinct political opposition to the federalists emerged as what has been termed Republican, Jeffersonian Republican or Democratic-Republican. (The word "Democracy", born in the bloody French Revolution of 1789, had mixed connotations ranging from freedom to mob rule.)

1800 to Civil War

Shifts toward State interests, then back to federalism with abolitionism.

Federalist rule lost popularity with, among other things, the perception of overreaching federal power wielded by President John Adams with the Alien and Sedition Acts. The election of Thomas Jefferson in 1801 began a shift toward individual states interests, although Jefferson's constitutional authority was questioned in the Louisiana Purchase. The 1824 election of John Quincy Adams, son of former President John Adams, ushered in a virtual sweep by the Republicans. With the 1829 election of Andrew Jackson as president there began division within the Republican Party into the Democratic Republicans, who identified with the populism of Jefferson and Jackson, and the National Republicans, who were adherents of President John Adams's nationalist policies. By Andrew Jackson's second term, the Democratic Republicans came to be known as Democrats and the National Republicans as Whigs (from the British party that opposed the Stuart Monarchy and it's Tory supporters in 17th century England). This was the first test of Constitutional integrity, as the Jackson presidency was viewed as seeing itself as a monarchy.

The Civil War

Abolitionism brings a re-alignment of issues and parties.

Existing political alignments were shifted by the complexity of events surrounding the potent issue of Abolition. The Compromise of 1850 drafted by Whig Senator Henry Clay failed to pass, but a revised version shepherded through congress by Democrat Senator Stephen Douglas was soon superseded by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, forming those two states and allowing their own determination of the slavery issue. This emerged as a dividing line and forged a new Republican party from so called "Free Soilers", "Conscience Whigs", "Free Democrats" as well as the semi-secret "Know Nothings", who opposed Irish Catholic immigration. These were opposed by Southern Whigs and Democrats and state secessionists. These two groups emerged as the Republicans and Democrats that were arrayed against each other in the most serious and bloody test of Constitutional strength... The American Civil War.

Since the Civil War

Changing issues under the same names.

The names Republican and Democrat have defined political positions since the Civil War under the same lines of debate that shaped our Constitution, with the Republicans generally favoring a strong central government, more presidential power and favoring the interests of trade and commerce, and attracting adherents of specialized interests such as tax reform and World dominance. Democrats favor populist and de-centralist policies and have been the gathering place of the more varied issues such as the civil rights and anti-war movements.