Major American Political Parties of the 19th Century

Abraham Lincoln statue

Considering how deeply synonymous the two-party system and American politics have become, it’s almost impossible to imagine having alternatives at the voting booth. However, American voters weren’t always limited to the Republican and Democratic parties; in the 19th Century, the American political system was comprised of multiple parties that encompassed a wide range of beliefs and ideologies and enjoyed various levels of success and notoriety. This wealth of options inspired feelings of patriotism and civic duty in Americans and contributed to the rich political tapestry of the time.

Some parties—such as the Federalist Party—were able to put presidents in power; others, like the Anti-Masonic Party, accumulated supporters by embarking on social and moral crusades; and some parties splintered off or faded into obscurity after brief stints of relevance. Many antiquated parties formed the basis for current political movements in the United States; to wit, the Democratic-Republican and Whig parties are considered the predecessors of today’s Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Therefore, it is important for students of history to understand these parties, their leaders and their unique ideological positions in order to gain a deeper comprehension of the underpinnings of modern American democracy.

The Federalist Party

Widely considered to be the first American political party, the Federalist Party was founded by Alexander Hamilton and gave rise to the first president to be elected under partisan conditions, John Adams. Other notable Federalists include James Madison and George Washington, although the latter ran for president without strict affiliation. The party was known for backing a strong centralized federal government which limited the power of state governments. Federalists favored the development of manufacturing and industry over agriculture, which won them as many supporters in the American Northeast as it did detractors in the agriculturally-reliant South. Despite the United States having won its independence from British rule, the Federalists pushed to re-establish strong diplomatic and economic relations with Great Britain, whose monarchical system of government was more in keeping with the positions of the Federalists.

Regardless of its reputation as an elitist, vaguely anti-democratic entity, the Federalist Party can be credited with major developments in the American legal and judicial systems, as well as U.S. fiscal and foreign policy. In 1787, the Federalists played a major role in crafting the new U.S. Constitution as part of the Philadelphia Convention. The Federalists were known for their opposition to the inclusion of the Bill of Rights, as they argued that the Constitution applied only to the government and not states or people. Thus, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay penned the Federalist Papers, which defended the party’s push for a stronger national government that would unite all of the states. The Federalists eventually conceded to including the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

As stated above, the Federalist Party held more aristocratic viewpoints of governance and had a perceived disdain for democratic principles, which may have limited the party’s long-term success. A number of Federalist positions did significant damage to the party’s viability; Federalist opposition to the French Revolution, the passing of the Alien and Sedition Act (aimed at curbing French political activity in the U.S.) and domestic protests led to the party losing the 1800 election to a pro-French candidate, Thomas Jefferson. The party finally dissolved after Federalists chose to support the 1814 Hartford Convention, which proposed the secession of New England from the rest of the United States. After the party’s dissolution, Federalists joined either the Democratic-Republican Party, or the Whig Party.

The Democratic-Republican Party

The Democratic-Republican Party, also known as the Jeffersonian Republican Party, was formed by Thomas Jefferson and others in direct opposition to the Federalist Party and backed a decentralized government that gave power to states. Members of this party favored a strict interpretation of the Constitution and believed that a strong national government was a threat to individual freedoms and state sovereignty. The party was a strong advocate of agrarian policies and also differed from the Federalists in that its members favored stronger relations with France than Britain, mainly because Democratic-Republicans revered personal civil liberties, better embodied by the French’s anti-monarchist views.

Beginning with the Democratic-Republicans impacted the political process by introducing new techniques to rally voters and help sway public opinion. For example, they focused their efforts on local and county-level grassroots movements to rally voters. They encouraged average citizens to take part in their political movement and helped broaden the appeal of Jeffersonian Democracy by promoting the notion that the party best represented the common man. The Jeffersonians also exploited various communication outlets to spread propaganda despite the Federalists having a net numerical advantage in terms of the number of pro-Federalist newspapers in circulation. In counties in New Jersey, for example, it was found that the success of the party was closely correlated with the presence of local newspapers. It can be argued that these techniques were born out of necessity, as Jeffersonians faced a strong Federalist Party and had to find innovative ways to stay competitive; this included an early version of the “get-out-the-vote” strategy so pervasive in modern American politics and campaigning.

Thomas Jefferson and his party favored strict and narrow interpretations of the Constitution. When France’s Napoleon, undergoing war and needing to raise funds, offered to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States, Jefferson was hesitant. As a strict constructionist, he often criticized what he viewed as the Federalist loose interpretation of the Constitution, and he did not believe the Constitution had a provision which allowed presidents to make such purchases. On the other hand, the new land would double the size of the United States, as the Louisiana territory equaled 828,000 square miles at the time. He eventually allowed the Louisiana purchase by applying the Elastic Clause in the Constitution which allows the government to undertake necessary actions in the application of their duties and powers. Strict constructionism remains integral to the modern Republican Party, with leaders such as Richard Nixon and George W. Bush openly expressing a preference for strict constructionism in their administrations’ judicial philosophy.

Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans vehemently opposed the national debt accumulated under Alexander Hamilton, believing it to be a great evil used by the government to extend its monetary and fiscal influence over states. For this reason, Jeffersonians did not back the establishment of the National Bank, which would grant centralized financial power to a federal body and was perceived to be unfairly biased in favor of Northern interests. Jefferson, who was Secretary of State at the time, also argued that the National Bank was unconstitutional as it impinged on private property laws. Despite upholding these popular positions and having enjoyed considerable political success, the party split into two factions in 1824; the National Republicans, led by John Quincy Adams, and the Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson.

The Whig Party

Favoring an ideological pivot towards industrialization and higher tariffs to fund infrastructural developments, the National Republican faction formed as an offshoot of the Democratic-Republican Party. The National Republicans backed President John Quincy Adams for re-election in 1828 and nominated Henry Clay in 1834—both of whom lost to the popular Andrew Jackson. Henry Clay’s defeat in particular reverberated strongly throughout the National Republican Party and ultimately led to its disintegration. Its members went on to merge with other anti-Jacksonian groups to create the Whig Party.

The Whig Party mainly focused on opposing the policies of Andrew Jackson. Modeled after the British Whigs, who opposed absolute monarchy, the Whig Party accused Jackson of executive overreach and often referred to him as “King Andrew.” To wit, Jackson exercised his presidential veto in opposition to congressional legislation more times in his eight years than all the presidents preceding him. He notably vetoed the establishment of the Second Bank of the United States, which would largely be owned by private interests and according to Jackson, would only cater to a wealthy private minority. However, the Second Bank of the United States was backed by congressional Whigs who benefited from its financial transactions; the bank’s president, Nicholas Biddle, was known to use the bank’s resources to endorse members of the National Republicans and later, the Whigs. Jackson withdrew funds from the bank and decentralized them, entrusting them to state and local banks; the result was a contraction in the supply of available money, inflation, and the era of wildcat banking—which led to one of the worst economic crises of the era, the Panic of 1837. The Whigs used the Panic to rally support and make political gains and subsequently went on to hold majorities in Congress throughout the 1840s. The party also saw two of its own elected to the office of President during this time: William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1848.

The Whig Party was important to the American political process because its members championed the tenets of the rule of law, individual liberty, representative democracy and the power of the legislative branch. They believed the government should be heavily involved in the building and maintenance of infrastructures, such as roads and schools, in order to help strengthen and unify the nation. The Whigs eventually disintegrated in the 1850s because of internal divisions over issues such as slavery, nativism and prohibition. In addition, the end of the Jackson presidency removed the Whigs’ ability to brand themselves the last vanguard against “tyranny,” especially when presidents such as James Polk were considered “compromise candidates” in the bitter partisan campaigns between Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats. Many Northern “Conscience Whigs,” who opposed slavery, left the Whigs to form the basis for the new Republican Party.

The Anti-Masonic Party

The Anti-Masonic Party was formed in the 1820s in opposition to the Freemasons, a secret organization thought to have a sizeable influence on U.S. society and American politics. While Anti-Masonry had its roots in moral and religious crusades in Western New York state, the movement quickly came to encompass political activity as well. Opponents of Freemasonry viewed the fraternal order as a threat to democratic society because of its heavily-guarded secrets and rituals, as well as its members’ perceived influence over American politics; ranking Masons were typically bankers, judges, businessmen, lawyers and others who typically gravitated towards public office.

Like the Whig Party, the Anti-Masonic Party opposed the policies of Andrew Jackson, who was himself a Mason. The Anti-Masonic Party made important contributions to the political process such as introducing the concept of parties running on platforms and advocating for various causes; in this case anti-Masonry. The Anti-Masonic party also flourished because political leaders often unscrupulously exploited anti-Masonic fears as a vehicle to further political aims; one such notable case occurred in Rhode Island, as Democrats and National Republicans used widespread anti-Masonic sentiment to rally supporters and make gains in the state, which had already passed laws to regulate Masonic activity.

The Anti-Masonic Party is also notable for having held the country’s first national political convention in 1831; a tradition still upheld by today’s parties. During the convention, the party selected William Wirt as a presidential candidate for the following year’s election. He did not win, but the Anti-Masons were able to secure several seats in local and state elections. The party lasted until approximately 1843 as it was unable to maintain sufficient electoral backing due to its narrow, single-issue platform of opposing Freemasonry; many of its members subsequently joined the Whig Party.

The Liberty Party

The Liberty Party was established with the aim of abolishing slavery and halting its spread to the newly acquired territories in the Southwest United States—though such political action meant fighting an uphill battle in the South. The party nominated attorney and abolitionist James Birney to the presidency in 1840, though he garnered merely 7,000 votes. However, in 1844, Birney managed to net 62,000 votes nationwide in an outcome that may have cost Henry Clay, the Whig candidate, New York state—and thus, the presidency—by splitting the vote (Clay’s main opponent, Democrat James Polk, won by merely 5,000 votes in New York). The Liberty Party was the first third party in the United States to provide a strong alternative to the two dominant political parties.

The Liberty Party was especially significant because it helped turn the abolitionist movement from a non-political matter to a mainstream political issue. While the abolitionist movement was initially built on religious and social arguments against slavery, the Liberty Party advocated that slavery was fundamentally unconstitutional and thus, sought its prohibition at the state and federal level. Though united in their effort to abolish slavery, members of the Liberty Party differed in their views regarding morality and the law; some, like the New York faction of the party, believed that morality and law were inextricably linked while the Western territories’ wing of the party, led by Salmon P. Chase, believed there was distinction between the two concepts. Members of the Liberty Party were some of the first U.S. politicians who advocated for a more liberal interpretation of the Constitution which, according to them, could be utilized to advocate a legal basis for abolition.

Though national support for abolition was on the rise, the Liberty Party disintegrated after two weak presidential election outcomes, with many of its members joining “Barnburner Democrats” and “Conscience Whigs” to create the Free-Soil Party, a larger organization that they believed would be more effective in fighting slavery. The Free-Soil Party would eventually provide a basis for the new Republican Party, which held the opposition to slavery as one of its foundational tenets.

The Republican Party

The Republican Party was formed in 1854 in Ripon, Wisconsin, on the foundation of a strong antislavery platform. The newly-minted party brought together members of the Whig and Free-Soil Parties, many of whom wished to abolish slavery but thought their respective parties incapable of affecting the change needed. The Republican Party quickly gained popularity in the North, with the party’s presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, winning 11 of the 16 Northern states in the 1856 election. Meanwhile, the slavery-reliant Southern states threatened secession if a Republican were to ascend to the Presidency; when Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln did just that in 1860, a number of Southern states made good on their threat to secede, setting the stage for the American Civil War. The aftermath of the war—and the North’s victory—saw the promulgation of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, defined the parameters of American citizenship and prohibited denial of the right to vote based on race, respectively.

To the confusion of some, the political positions of modern-day Republicans tend to reflect those of the Democrats in the mid-1800s, while 21st Century Democrats mainly embody the platforms and values of the Republican Party under Lincoln. Many historians and analysts point to a gradual shift in political ideology between Lincoln’s presidency and the election of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, with a three-time Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan largely considered the pivot point. Circa 1896, Jennings Bryan took a decidedly Republican stance (at the time) in advocating for the expansion of the federal government; however, the reason he aimed to increase the scope of federal influence was to force the government to provide greater social services and protections to the common man. Republicans, meanwhile, did not begin to champion limited government until the implementation of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, which Republicans criticized as being too invasive despite the program’s role in rescuing economically disenfranchised Americans from the fallout of The Great Depression. Since World War II, the Republican Party has focused on economic prosperity and business development, as well as limiting the size of the federal government and lowering taxes.

Learning about the political movements of the 19th Century can help students of American history understand the dynamics of party politics in the United States, as well as the current political climate in its proper context. Many of these political parties were interrelated or shared common roots; some shared ideological underpinnings originating from mutual opposition to the dominant political party and leaders of the time, while others found themselves united in their advocacy for a common cause, such as the abolition of slavery. Regardless of platform or core ideology, each of the third parties of the 19th Century was notable for the ways in which they established some of the most notable features of the modern American political process, such as national conventions and campaign propaganda. Ultimately, the study of these political parties allows historians to trace the development of American democracy back to its inception in order to interpret current political trends and ideally, help shape the course of future action.

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