The political opposition between Democrats and Republicans are as apparent now than ever before as we observe the political standoff in Congress. Has the two-party system that structures our Congress always been so defined, divisive and irreconcilable? Let’s look to the history of our political parties for answers.
Here’s a quick synopsis.
During the era under the Articles of Confederation (roughly 1777 to 1788), loose coalitions called the Federalists and Anti-federalists in some way mark the beginning of the bipartisan sentiment of our United States’ governance. The politics that separate the Democrat and Republican Party today are lodged in the same the principles that have caused dissidence historically; these include the role of the central federal government, the role of the states, the extent of individual responsibility and rights, the extent of social and civic responsibility, and economic strategy.
In 1788, under George Washington's presidency, the Constitution was established after its ratification in nine states. There were still no real political parties, rather factions, or loose coalitions of allied politicians. While this era did not have as a dramatic and static rift between political stances as we see today, it laid the groundwork for the first major political parties to surface.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the first Republican Party in 1791 to organize against the Federalist faction. The Republican Party supported state sovereignty whereas the Federalists preferred greater power in the central government. Under the administration of John Adams who was elected in 1797, the Republican and the Federalist groups became the first two major political parties in the 5th national Congress. In order to distinguish from modern day Republicans, the first Republican Party is referred to as the “Democratic-Republican Party” or the “Jeffersonian Republicans”. Actually, both the Democrats and the Republicans of today have historical connections that can be traced back to the Jeffersonian Republicans.
It was the controversial and highly polarized presidential elections of 1824 and 1828, of John Quincy Adams and of Andrew Jackson, respectively, which caused the original Republican Party to split into two new major parties. The National Republicans supported Adams and the Democratic Republicans supported Jackson. These elections commenced the unrelenting partisan tradition of polarized presidential support. Before 1824, the President rallied support according to his representation of policy, not of party; however the sentiments of anti-Jackson/pro-Adams and anti-Adams/pro-Jackson in 1824 and 1828 cultivated the emergence of the new parties, and illustrates how Congress became more oriented by picking sides, or parties, than by only focusing on policies.
During Jackson’s presidency, the National Republicans aimed to minimize the impact of his administration by fighting against the Democratic Republicans in Congress. At this time, the division between the two groups prevented either Party from attaining an excess of power or influence in the federal government. The opinion on slavery and on the role and reach of the central government were the key factors that drew the line between the two Parties.
The National Republicans became known as the Whigs, and the Democratic Republicans, the Democrats. This Democrat Party still exists today. The Whigs dissipated after many banded together with a group called the “free soilers” in opposition to slavery. This coming together of Whigs and “free soilers” formed the Republican Party. The Republican Party had their first national convention in Philadelphia at Musical Fund Hall in 1856. The Democrats and Republicans have survived since the first half of the nineteenth century and evolved into the Parties we have today.
Familiarize yourself, peers and your students with America’s two-party system. See the additional links provided for further readings, videos, and outlines that help provide a greater understanding of American politics.