Evolution of the Two-Party System

Contrary to popular belief, the two-party system is not institutionalized in the Constitution. In fact, most of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention were hostile to the idea of political parties. George Washington worried about the “baneful effects of the spirit of party” would have on the young Republic. Thomas Jefferson was more blunt in his criticism: “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”

Nonetheless, convention delegates coalesced around two general principles while writing the Constitution. The Federalists supported a strong national government, while the anti-federalists were interested in preserving the states' autonomy. As we have learned, many provisions of the Constitution resulted from compromise between the two factions.

Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans

Following the 1787 convention, the two factions battled over the ratification of the Constitution, with the Federalists — led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams — winning out. Hamilton, who was appointed treasury secretary by George Washington, had a bold vision for the country. He believed that it should be the role of the federal government to promote a robust national economy that produced a thriving manufacturing and commercial class.

In order to win passage of his programs through Congress, Hamilton cultivated and organized a group of like-minded allies to form the first political party, known as the Federalists. They recruited candidates in subsequent elections to increase their majority in Congress.

Naturally, opponents of Hamilton's policies formed their own political party. Led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as Washington's secretary of state, the Democratic-Republicans believed that the federal government lacked the constitutional authority to implement Hamilton's agenda. The Democrats, as they would eventually become known, supported an agrarian-based economy that promoted the well-being of farmers and tradesmen.

The Democratic-Republicans scored their first victory in the election of 1800, when Jefferson defeated John Adams for president. Buoyed by their success, the Democratic-Republicans began organizing at the state and local level as well, and within several years became the dominant political party. The Federalists failed to innovate or make inroads with the electorate, and in 1816 fielded their last presidential candidate, who lost in a landslide to James Monroe.

The election of 1800 represents one of the first peaceful transfers of power between opposing political parties, and certainly the first in a democracy. The victorious Democratic-Republican Party, predecessor of the modern Democratic Party, is considered to be the oldest continuous political party in the world.

Democrats and the Whigs

With the demise of the Federalists, the Democratic-Republicans came to dominate the political landscape, so much so that James Monroe's presidency would come to be known as the “era of good feeling.” During this time, eligible voter turnout dropped dramatically — from more than 40 percent in 1812 to less than 10 percent in 1820 — as voters had little reason to go to the polls.

Intraparty squabbles, however, soon led to factions within the Democratic-Republican Party, and in the presidential election of 1824 the party fielded five candidates to succeed James Monroe. Although war hero Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, he failed to receive a majority of electors. Thus, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, where runner-up John Quincy Adams emerged victorious after striking a deal with third-place finisher Henry Clay.

Jackson's supporters were outraged by the backroom deal-making, and splintered off to form the Democratic Party. Reviving the old Jeffersonian coalition of farmers and tradesmen, the Democrats effectively organized at the national, state, and local level, forming clubs and committees, holding rallies, establishing a chain of newspapers, and raising money for their candidates. Their rallying cry was the elimination of corruption in Washington.

Supporters of President Adams responded by cobbling together the remaining factions of the Democratic-Republican Party with remnants of the old Federalist Party. The Whigs, as they became known, lacked the Democrats' organization, and were soundly defeated in 1828, 1832, and 1836. They scored their only presidential victories in 1840 and 1848 with war heroes William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, respectively.

Looking to galvanize party members for the coming election, the Democrats held the first-ever national convention in 1832. Convening in Baltimore, Maryland, the convention was little more than a well-organized pep rally, but it did help smooth over differences between several factions, and rally the party behind a single candidate for president.

While the parties were consistent in their economic policy (the Whigs supported a national bank and tariffs that protected manufacturers; the Democrats opposed the bank and advocated low tariffs that helped farmers), both were badly split over the slavery issue. Although both tried to suppress slavery from becoming a national issue, this proved impossible as feelings and emotions intensified.

Democrats and Republicans

In 1854, a coalition of anti-slavery forces organized to form a third party, called the Republicans. The Republicans attracted anti-slavery members from the two major parties, and absorbed the pro-business elements of the dying Whig coalition. Their first presidential candidate, John Fremont, was defeated in 1856, but their second, Abraham Lincoln, was victorious in the following election. With that, the Republicans became the first and only third party in American history to ascend to major party status.

Since the Civil War, Republicans and Democrats have been the two major political parties. The Republicans dominated national politics from 1860 to 1932, controlling Congress for most of that time and winning all but four presidential elections. During this period, the Republicans stood for national expansion, laissez-faire (free market) capitalism, and colonialism, while the Democrats were the party of immigrants, farmers, and tradesmen.

During the 1840s and 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party competed with the Republicans to replace the Whig Party as the Democrats' major opposition. The Know-Nothings got their name because their members were sworn to secrecy, and could only reply with “I know nothing about it” when asked of their party affiliation. At one point, the Know-Nothings included six governors, five senators, and 43 House members in their ranks.

Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932 brought about a “realignment” of the political parties. With the Great Depression in full bloom, the Republicans' policies of industrialization, high tariffs, and unregulated commerce were replaced by Roosevelt's New Deal — a patchwork of federal spending programs and government regulations designed to create a social safety net for low-income Americans, particularly union workers, immigrants, minorities, and small-business owners.

Between 1932 and 1980, the Democrats won seven of 11 presidential contests, and held both chambers of Congress for all but a few years.

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