The Weird Beginnings of America’s Party System

The party system that shaped American politics had some very weird beginnings. Today’s parties mirror the party system’s bizarre origins in uncanny ways.

Strangely, the Founding Fathers hated the whole idea of political parties. In fact, the first president; George Washington (Virginia), refused to join any party.

However, two popular political parties soon developed. For instance, Washington’s followers formed the Federalists. The Federalists wanted a strong centralized federal government with a powerful professional military.

In reaction to the Federalists, followers of Thomas Jefferson (R-Virginia) formed the Republicans or National Republicans. The Republicans; the party your high-school history textbook calls the Jeffersonian Republicans wanted a weak, decentralized federal government, and no organized military.

Unlike our modern political parties, the Federalists and the first Republicans were informal and loosely organized coalitions of people with similar views. There were no formal party organizations, and leaders such as Jefferson and Washington were figureheads.

The Strange Second Party System

The First Party System broke down as more states joined the Union and mass voting began.

To explain, the First Parties were incapable of organizing or waging national electoral campaigns in an electorate with millions of voters. Additionally, the Federalists died out because their elitist technocratic party had no popular appeal.

Consequently, new parties with formal structures, strong leaderships, and organizations appeared. Those parties formed the Second Party System and serve as the roots of America’s modern political parties.

Consequently, new parties with formal structures, strong leaderships, and organizations appeared. Those parties formed the Second Party System and serve as the roots of America’s modern political parties.

Interestingly, the strangest of the early party system parties was the most important and influential. That party was the unusual Anti-Masonic Party.

The Bizarre Anti-Masonic Party

The Anti-Masonic Party began as a movement of ordinary people who feared Freemasonry.

To explain, Freemasonry was a controversial movement in the 19th Century. In fact, many churches; including the Roman Catholic, condemned the Masons as pagan, secularist, and anti-Christian.

Others feared the Masons because they were secretive and elitist. Notably, many popular political leaders; including Washington, and wealthy businessmen were masons. Finally, many people associated Freemasonry with the Democratic Party, because its leader; the controversial President Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee), was a Mason.

Thus the Anti-Masonic Party soon became a regular political party by taking stands on issues such as slavery and national improvements. Consequently, many professional politicians who did not care about Freemasonry began joining the Anti-Masonic Party.

In the 1832 Presidential election, the Anti-Masons won 7.2% of the national vote and carried the state of Vermont. Some important political figures; including Thurlow Weed, America’s most powerful political boss in the mid to late 19th Century, got their start as Anti-Masons.

The Anti-Masons were important because they provided the template for all the American political parties that followed. That template included a national organization, a presidential nominating convention, and centralized national campaigns.

Hating Andy Jackson, the Whigs

Strangely, they organized the second major American political party with a national organization; The Whigs around the hatred of one man.

That man was President Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee) who inspired the popular hatred directed President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) receives today. The President’s opponents organized the Whig Party as an alternative to Jackson’s Democrats.

The Whigs took their name from the British Whig Party which opposed absolute monarchy. Notably, many supporters of the American Revolution called themselves Whigs. Whigs charged that Jackson was behaving like an absolute monarch rather than a president.

The Whigs absorbed the Anti-Masonic Party and the remains of the Federalist Party. Oddly, the Whigs’ official name was the National Republicans, an attempt to establish their Jeffersonian credentials.

The Whigs were important because they offered alternatives to Jacksonian policies of decentralized banking, expansion of slavery, White Supremacy, militarism, and mindless national expansion. Important Whigs included Henry Clay (W-Kentucky), Abraham Lincoln (W-Illinois), Thurlow Weed (R-New York), General Winfield Scott (W-Virginia), President Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana), U.S. Senator William H. Seward (W-New York), and President William Henry Harrison (W-Indiana).

The Whigs’ main contribution to American politics was the belief that a strong second party is necessary as a check on the power of political parties. The Whigs feared Jackson was too powerful and wanted an alternative.

The Liberty Party

The Liberty Party was the first and most influential of many single-issue parties in American history. The Liberty Party was the first multiracial American political party because it had black members.

The Liberty Party’s platform was simple; slavery was wrong and violated the Constitution. Therefore, the Constitution banned slavery. The Liberty Party was important because it injected slavery into national politics. Additionally, the Liberty Party politicized abolitionism and slavery which led to the Civil War.

Prominent Liberty Party supporters included Frederick Douglass, the first African American political figure to attract a national following. In fact, Douglass voted for Liberty Party nominee Gerrit Smith (L-New York) for President in 1860.

The Liberty Party succeeded ultimately at a high cost. America abolished slavery after a Civil War that cost one million deaths. The Civil War broke out because Southerners feared Northerners were about to enact the Liberty Party’s agenda and abolish slavery.

The Free Soil Party

The Free Soil Party was a classic single-issue political party. The Free Soilers’ only issue was opposition to the expansion of slavery to new free territories.

The roots of the Free Soil Party lie in the Democratic Party Convention of 1844 in Baltimore. At that gathering expansionists led by Lewis Cass (D-Michigan) challenged the party leadership of former President Martin Van Buren (D-New York).

Van Buren opposed the annexation of Texas and the expansion of slavery to the West. Van Buren feared Texas annexation could lead to war with Mexico and a conflict with European powers that had interests in Mexico.

Cass and the expansionists wanted immediate annexation of Texas. Additionally, many of them wanted war with Mexico to seize New Mexico and California.

The Free Soilers opposed war with Mexico because it could expand slavery to the Pacific. The Western territory was free because the Mexican Constitution banned slavery. Northerners wanted the new lands left free, while Southerners wanted to expand slavery.

The expansionists outmaneuvered the Free Soilers in Baltimore by nominating “dark horse” candidate James K. Polk (D-Tennessee). Polk won the election, become President, annex Texas, and go to war with Mexico.

During the Mexican War, Free Soil became a major national issue with the Wilmot Proviso controversy. To explain, U.S. Representative David Wilmot (D-Pennsylvania) added a strange amendment to a war appropriations bill. The Wilmot Proviso banned slavery in all territories, American armies captured from Mexico.

Ironically, Wilmot copied language from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 in his Proviso. Strangely, slave-holding Founding Father; and White Supremacist, Thomas Jefferson (R-Virginia) wrote the Northwest Ordinance as a plan of government for the modern Midwest.

To Polk’s horror, every Northern Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives voted for the Wilmot Proviso. Polk’s allies in the U.S. Senate killed the Wilmot Proviso, but it drew the battle lines.

When the Democratic National Convention nominated Wilmot Proviso opponent Lewis Cass for President in 1848, Free Soilers walked out. The Free Soilers or Barnburners led by John Van Buren; Martin’s son organized their own convention and party.

When the Whigs nominated slave-owning war hero General Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana) for President, antislavery Whigs joined the Free Soilers. Significantly, some members of the Liberty Party also joined the Free Soil movement.

The Free Soilers changed American politics by winning 10.1% of the vote in the 1848 presidential election. Consequently, slavery became the only issue in American politics for the next two decades.

Ironically, the Free Soil Party helped elected President Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana) by splitting the Democratic vote. Bizarrely, Taylor a slave owner, was a staunch Free Soiler who brought California into the Union as a Free State.

Thus, the Free Soilers succeeded in their goal of preventing Slavery’s expansion to the Pacific in a weird way. That sparked the Civil War because Southerners soon realized slavery’s expansion was impossible.

The Free Soilers were important because they formed a new coalition of abolitionists, Free-Soil Democrats, and anti-slavery Whigs. The same coalition came together again eight years as the Republicans. In 1860, the Republicans won the presidential election triggering Southern Succession and the Civil War.

Prominent Free Soilers included Charles Sumner and Salmon P. Chase; future members of President Abraham’s  Lincoln (R-Illinois) cabinet, and Charles Francis Adams. Adams was the son of former President John Quincy Adams (R-Massachusetts) and the grandson of Founding Father and President John Adams (F-Massachusetts).

The Free Soil Party marked the beginning of the end of the Second Party System. The Free Soilers were significant because they were the first protest party designed to challenge the policies of a major U.S. political party.

The Know Nothings

A strange early American political party was the Know-Nothings, officially called the Native American Party. To explain, in the 1850s, the term Native American referred to White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs) rather than American Indians.

The Know Nothings were an organized anti-immigrant and Anti-Catholic movement. The Know-Nothings’ bigotry had strong political overtones because Catholic Irish immigrants were strong supporters of the Democratic Party.

The Know Nothings’ main issue of immigration was an attempt to distract voters from the growing conflict over slavery. The Know Nothings failed in the effort to downplay slavery. However, the Know Nothings managed to nominate former President Millard Fillmore (W-New York) for President in 1856, he lost.

By 1860, slavery had became the only issue in American politics and the Know Nothing party disappeared. However, their nativist agenda has reappeared several times since. Notably in the Second Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the Birther Movement of the 2010s that gave rise to Donald J. Trump (R-Florida).

The Know Nothings could be important because they were the first Nativist political party in the United States. The Know Nothings were also the last of the single-issue parties to achieve a national following.

The Second Party System collapsed in the Presidential election of 1860 when four candidates split the vote. The result was a President; Abraham Lincoln (R-New York, whose authority many Americans refused to acknowledge. That led to Civil War and created a very different America.