A Brief History of American Political Parties

American political parties have an odd and confusing history. Most Americans mistakenly believe that the two-political parties date to the founding of the nation.

In reality, America has had four different party systems since the founding of the Republic in 1787. Each of those party systems had profound differences from the others.

America’s four party systems were:

  • The First Party System (1792-1824)
  • The Second Party System (1828-1860)
  • The Third Party System (1868-1932)
  • The Fourth Party System (1932-Present)

Interestingly, our present arrangement; the Fourth Party System, is the longest-lasting of the four party systems. The Fourth Party System is now 88 years old. In contrast, the Third Party System lasted for 64 years and the Second Party system lasted for 32 years. Moreover, the First Party system lasted for 32 years.

Thus the Fourth Party System has been the most stable of the systems. However, there are indications the Fourth Party System is breaking down. Hence, America could soon see a Fifth Party System.

A good way to learn what the Fifth Party System could look like is study its predecessors.

The First Party System (1792-1824)

The strangest aspect of the First Party System was that many of its participants hated political parties. In fact, George Washington warned against political parties in his Farewell Address to the Nation.

Other leaders; including President Thomas Jefferson (R-Virginia) and President John Quincy Adams (?-Massachusetts), shared Washington’s fear of political parties. In fact, John Quincy Adams refused to join any political party even though he was a sitting member of Congress.

The Founding Fathers associated political parties with the corruption of the British parliament and the violence, terrorism, and oppression of the French Revolution. Washington tried to prevent the formation of parties by refusing to join one even though he was President and de-facto head of the Federalist Party.

However, political parties began developing in the United States as the ink dried on the Constitution. Those parties were weak, informal, and decentralized but they played an important role in politics.

One strange feature of the First Party System was a political theater in which the leaders of political parties claimed not to be part of the parties. Instead, leaders such as Washington and Jefferson claimed to be disinterested citizens.

Another odd feature of the First Party System was a lack of third parties. Instead, there were just two parties in the United States. Those parties were the Federalists and the Republicans, the group your high-school history textbook misnamed the Jeffersonian Republicans.

The Federalists wanted a strong central government, a professional military establishment, a standing army, a national bank, and strong government intervention in the economy. The Federalists also favored a pro-British foreign policy and close relations with the British Empire. Some Federalists, including Alexander Hamilton (F-New York) favored a technocratic government and aristocracy.

The Republicans wanted a weak central government, no professional military, no national bank, and no government intervention in the economy. Moreover, the Republicans sympathized with the French Revolution and favored close relations with the French Republic. Predictably, the Republicans became anti-French when Napoleon I replaced the French Republic with a monarchy.

The First Party System’s weaknesses were its elitism and its informality. The First System Parties gave members of the elite preference for office and tried to suppress the votes and rights of ordinary people.

In essence, the First Party System tried to preserve the class system of Colonial America. The Republicans preferred Southern planters and big slave owners; the Federalists were New York and Boston merchants.

The Collapse of the First Party System 

The First Party System lacked formal or organized party and party discipline. Instead, the parties were loose groups of political operatives supporting individual leaders such as Jefferson.

The lack of party organization and discipline led to disaster in 1824 when four major presidential candidates ran on the “Republican” ticket. Consequently, no candidate won enough votes to meet the constitutional requirements for victory

Moreover, the candidate who won the most votes Andrew Jackson was not part of the East Coast elite. Jackson was a wealthy slave owner and the nation’s top general, but lived in Tennessee and came from a working class background.

Jackson did not become president because two members of the Old Elite; Henry Clay (Kentucky) and John Quincy Adams (Massachusetts) made the Corrupt Bargain. Clay, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives agreed to give his votes to Adams. Adams became president enraging Jackson’s supporters. In exchange, Adams made Clay U.S. Secretary of State, an office seen as the stepping stone to the presidency.

The First Party System shows that elitism, informality, and personality cults built around powerful leaders can destroy political organizations. The original Republicans collapsed because personality cults based on four candidates fought at the ballot box.

The Second Party System (1828-1860)

The Corrupt Bargain so enraged Jackson’s working and middle-class followers, they created a new party system.

Jackson’s followers organized the Democratic Party. The Democrats were a new breed of party with a formal organization and strong discipline.

The Democrats demonstrated their success in 1828 by electing Andy Jackson in a landslide. Jackson won 178 Electoral votes and 647,286 popular votes. President John Quincy Adams (R-Massachusetts) received 83 Electoral College Votes and 508,064 popular votes.

In power, the Democrats implemented the infamous spoils system in which the party distributed government jobs and contracts to its members. For instance, Jackson fired many federal employees and replaced them with Democrats.

One reason for the spoils system was that many of Jackson’s followers were professional political operatives with no other source of income. Thus, the spoils system was an exercise in popular democracy.

The Whig Party

The Second Party System developed when all the people who hated Andy Jackson formed the Whig Party. The term Whig refers to the patriots who fought in the American Revolution and an anti-monarchist party in England. Many Whigs considered Jackson a dictator and would-be monarch, King Andrew.

The Whigs claimed to be reviving the traditional Republicanism of the First Party System. In reality however, the Whigs adopted all the Democrats’ corrupt practices. Whig leaders created their own spoils system to reward working and middle-class supporters, for instance.

Predictably, many ordinary people saw no difference between the Whigs and Democrats. Both parties were corrupt, and many of their leaders were leftovers from the First Party System. Henry Clay of Corrupt Bargain infamy was the Whigs’ leader, for example.

The similarities between the parties led to the development of Third Parties. Third Parties appealed to voters with ideological purity and anti-establishment candidates.

The Second Party System opened the door to mass democracy and populist politics.

The End of the Second Party System

The Second Party System collapsed because its leaders refused to deal with the nation’s greatest problem slavery.

Both the Whigs and the Democrats ignored slavery because they needed Southern votes and slave owners’ money. Moreover, many party leaders including Jackson, Clay, and President Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana) were slave owners.

Popular anger at slavery and the Slave Power (wealthy slave owners) drove the formation of anti-slavery third parties, including the Liberty (abolitionist) Party, the Free Soilers, and the Republicans. These parties began attracting anti-Slavery Whigs and Democrats.

Eventually, the Whigs collapsed and most of its members joined anti-slavery Democrats in forming the Republican Party. In 1856, the Republicans replaced the Whigs as America’s second largest political party.

In 1860, the Republicans’ success made Civil War inevitable, because the Party had no presence in the South. When Republicans won control of both houses of Congress and the White House in 1860, Southerners left the Union and formed the Confederacy.

The Second Party System ended in 1860 when the Democrats split into Northern and Southern parties. Southern Democrats refused to support the North’s candidate U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas (D-Illinois) so they nominated their own man Vice President John C. Breckinridge (D-Kentucky). In response, Northern Democrats held their own convention and nominated Douglas.

The Second Party System collapsed because it failed to deal with the nation’s greatest problem. Additionally, the Second Party System failed to adapt to the nation’s growing regional differences. In particular, the growing hostility to slavery and the Slave Power in the North and West.

The Third Party System (1868-1932)

The Third Party System began with the Democratic Party’s impressive but unexpected resurgence in the election of 1868. To explain, most people thought the Democrats were dead because of their association with the South, Slavery, and the Confederacy.

However, Democrat Horatio Seymour (D-New York) made an unexpectedly strong run in the presidential election. Seymour’s success was surprising because he refused the candidacy.

Furthermore, the Republicans handed the Democrats three popular and potent political issues; white supremacy, religion, and Reconstruction. Many Americans viewed the Grand Old Party (GOP) as pro-black in a nation where most white people were racists. Hence, the Democrats branded themselves as the “white man’s party.”

Moreover, many Americans viewed the Republicans as a Protestant political party. That drove growing immigrant populations, particularly the Irish, who were proud Catholics to the Democrats. Republicans’ perceived anti-Catholicism made Catholic majority cities; including New York, Boston, and Chicago, Democratic strongholds for generations.

Reconstruction, the creation of Republican governments in the South and the enforcement of laws protecting African Americans by the military, turned almost all white Southerners and many northerners against the GOP. That led to the Solid South, in which there was no effective Republican Party.

The Third Party System was long lasting because of strong institutions and rigid party discipline. One reason the Third Party System was so powerful was that incorporated powerful political machines including New York’s Tammany Hall and Democratic State machines in the South.

An interesting characteristic of the Third Party System was its reliance on violence. Northern machines used gangsters to terrorize opponents and control the polls. Southern Democrats believed they had a right to lynch African Americans and political foes, and regularly exercised that gruesome “right.”

The officially sanctioned violence bred popular violence in the form of riots, strikes, and terrorism. Radicals such as the International Workers of the World Wobblies, an extremist union whose leaders believed they had a right to kill their political opponents, flourished. Massive riots rocked the nation in 1876, the 1890s, and 1919.

The Third Party System was the first national political arrangement in which Big Business played a prominent part. For instance, Tom Scott, the robber baron who controlled the Pennsylvania Railroad, helped negotiate the infamous compromise of 1877.

The Compromise of 1877 settled the contested presidential election of 1876 by withdrawing federal troops from the South. The Compromise ended Reconstruction and launched Jim Crow by stripping Southern African Americans of all their legal rights.

Blatant corruption, particularly railroads’ influence over Congress, led to popular revolts against the Third Party System. This led to the rise of reformist Third Parties with an agenda to clean up government.

Third Parties were powerful in the Third Party System because many people felt political machines excluded them from politics. Unions, workers, intellectuals, radicals, devout Christians, and farmers in particular, gravitated to parties such as the Greenbacks, Prohibitionists, Populists, Socialists, and Progressives.

All the third parties promised to end corruption and restore traditional democracy through some program of reform. The Prohibitionists promised to end corruption by eliminating alcohol; and saloons often owned by political operatives, for instance. Meanwhile, the Socialists promised to eliminate capitalism and Big Business, while the Progressives promised to reform Big Business and Big Government.

Despite its many flaws, the Third Party System lasted until 1932. One reason the Third Party System survived was that third parties offered a safety valve. Another was the Third Party System’s surprising receptiveness to radical reforms.

Impressive Third Party System reforms include antitrust legislation, the election of US Senators, primary elections, and expansion of the vote to women. The existence of strong Third Parties explains the Third Party System’s ability to reform.

To explain, Democratic and Republican politicians knew they could their jobs to Third-Party candidates. Notably, the Third Party System’s greatest period of reform was in 1913-1920, right after Progressive Candidate Theodore Roosevelt’s (P-New York) impressive performance in the 1912 presidential election.

Teddy received more votes than Republican President William Howard Taft (R-Ohio). Plus, antiwar Socialist Eugene Debs’ (S-Indiana) strong showing in 1920 convinced both parties to abandon President Woodrow Wilson’s (D-New Jersey) childish internationalism and adopt isolationist foreign policies.

The Fourth Party System 1932-?

The Fourth Party System arose after the collapse of the Republican Party in the Great Depression. To explain, many Americans blamed Republicans for the Depression.

The Great Depression gave a death blow to a GOP already weakened by the unpopular political and social experiment known as Prohibition. Prohibition, a total ban on almost all alcohol sales, backfired and increased some problems they designed it to solve, including crime and corruption.

In 1936, Republican Presidential candidate Governor Alf Landon (R-Kansas) only carried two states. Moreover, no Republican candidate won the Presidential election for a 20-year period (1932-1952).

The Republicans made their situation worse by refusing to embrace the creation of an American welfare state. Americans were far worse off than British subjects in 1932 because the United States lacked such welfare state programs as unemployment insurance and old age pensions.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D-New York) increased Democrats’ popularity by pushing some welfare state programs including collective bargaining, legal recognition of unions, Social Security (old age pensions), and unemployment insurance through Congress. The so-called New Deal was weak but popular.

However, a rump Republican Party survived and capitalized on popular discomfort with the New Deal. In 1940, Republicans revived slightly by embracing isolationism before World War II. After World War II, anticommunism finally gave Republicans a popular issue to criticize Democrats.

A fascinating aspect of the Fourth Party System has been an anti-ideology Democratic Party and an increasingly ideological Republican Party. This situation developed because conservatives and libertarians took control of the GOP in the 1970s and 1980s.

Conversely, the Democratic Party has preserved its traditional pragmatic facade. Although recent events show there is little popular appetite for such beliefs. Instead, most Democrats appear to favor the welfare state expansion U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and other leftists promote.

The Fourth Party System’s characteristics include stability, the irrelevance of third parties, and centralized national parties. There have been high profile third-party presidential candidates in the Fourth Party era, notably George Wallace (P-Alabama) in the 1960s and Ross Perot (Texas) in the 1990s. However, none of those candidates received enough votes to effect an election’s outcome.

One defining aspect of the Fourth Party System has been the growing professionalization of politics. Professional strategists, activists, fundraisers, and marketers are replacing citizen volunteers as the dominant force in our elections.

The professionalization has led to enormous growth in the cost of elections and growing centralization. One result of professionalization has been that fundraising has become the primary activity of many politicians. Another result is that wealthy donors have become the primary leaders in the political parties.

Today, the Fourth Party System features levels of corruption unseen since the Gilded Age of the early 20th Century. Additionally, the Fourth Party System has become as unresponsive to national problems as the Second.  

For instance, neither political party has attempted to deal with growing poverty and rising income inequality in America. Moreover, America has proved incapable of dealing with either coronavirus or Global Warming.

What the Party Systems can Teach Us

The three failed American party systems of the past can teach us a great deal about the present situation.

The First Party System failed because an arrogant and technocratic elite was unresponsive to ordinary people’s needs and concerns. That situation reminds me of America’s current status quo. The First Party System bred corruption that led to the Corrupt Bargain of 1824, collapse, and the Jacksonian Revolution

The Second Party System crashed because its leaders failed to address the nation’s greatest problem slavery. American’s present political system is failing because our leaders ignore massive problems such as income inequality.

The Third Party System collapsed because many politicians refused to address the flaws with the nation’s economic problems until the Great Depression. Today, America’s leaders refuse to acknowledge massive economic problems including Income Inequality and to discuss the possibility of Technological Unemployment.

Hence, the Fourth Party System suffers from the same flaws that destroyed its predecessors. Those flaws led to crises that destroyed those party systems. Only future history will tell us if American faces such a crisis today.

However, I think America’s Fourth Party System is in collapse. I have to wonder what will replace the Fourth Party System?