Election Basics: Political Parties, Past and Present
by Liz Colville
The Republicans and Democrats dominate modern political races, and our technology-laden, “now” mentality often obscures the nation’s political history. But that history is worth remembering, because the innovative parties of our founding fathers, such as the Whigs and the Federalists, were the seeds of our current political parties. FindingDulcinea looks back at these precursors.
“Nasty political mud-slinging. Campaign attacks and counterattacks. Personal insults. Outrageous newspaper invective.” These familiar components, says the journal History Now, were at the center of the election of 1800. Author Joanne B. Freeman reminds us in this article how volatile and fragile the U.S. government was 208 years ago. Not only was it new, but also some of its most important leaders, including Alexander Hamilton and Henry Lee, even questioned whether it would last. How did such passionate publications and well-defined platforms arise out of this tenuous era?
Charismatic founding father Alexander Hamilton helped to form the Federalists in 1787. The party was made up of men who believed in the new Constitution and supported a strong central government. As PBS explains on their American Experience Web site, Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote 85 essays outlining their principles in "The Federalist Papers."
The Federalists’ arguments were countered by the Antifederalists, Thomas Jefferson among them. They were in favor of a decentralized federal government, granting more power to individuals and the states. Jefferson’s popularity led to the Federalists' eventual defeat, and after Hamilton’s fatal duel with Aaron Burr, the party was no more. However, these two rivals' positions formed the essence of our Republican and Democratic parties.
In the article “The Antifederalists: The Other Founders of the American Constitutional Tradition?” History Now explores the influence of the Antifederalists on the formation of our national government. These proto-Republicans were one of the most “heterogeneous” groups in the country, attracting "localists" from a variety of backgrounds; its most radical supporters believed in the “direct voice of the people as represented by the local jury, local militia, or the actions of the crowd taking to the streets.”
The Whig party, known for championing a U.S.-and-Congress-centered economic policy called the “American System,” lasted for just 22 years. According to Robert Webb's 1996 Washington Post article, “Whither the Whigs?” the party was “united by little more than antagonism to President Andrew Jackson,” but it came to represent much more, leaning on principles that reached all the way back to Hamilton’s Federalist philosophy of the 1790s, as well as the National Republicans, the party of John Quincy Adams.
One of the Whigs’ biggest fans was Abraham Lincoln, who, as leading historian Michael Holt explains in his summary of the Whigs, was attracted to the party for its deep interest in economic issues: “Where the Democratic electorate was strongest in areas still outside the commercial, monetized market economy, Whigs throughout the nation were strongest in those areas and among those groups already in the market sector or who aspired to enter it.”
The Whigs’ downfall can be attributed to “King Andrew” himself, the inspiration for the Jacksonian (eventually, the Democrat) platform, and also the first president to be impeached.
CNN outlines the history of the Democratic party, noting that the first real moment for the party was Andrew Jackson’s election win in 1828. An anecdote in this piece notes that the donkey symbol originated with the term “jackass,” given by Jackson’s opponents. But Jackson and his cohorts saw it as an advantage, a “legendary stubborn animal” that could be used to promote the party’s defiant success.
In the first half of the 19th century, the Republicans began to gain strength, and theirs became the preeminent national platform after the defeat of the South in the Civil War, marking the beginning of the "Republican Era." This long stretch continued virtually uninterrupted until the 1930s.
Ron Gunzburger’s Politics1 has introductions to the leaders, beliefs and major events of dozens of political parties—many of which you might not have even heard of: The Third Party, anyone? How about the Light Party? Politics1 also includes URLs to the parties’ official sites where applicable, but be warned that some, particularly the “Other Parties” in the bottom section, have stances that might offend.