Weekly Feature

Alexander Hamilton

Facets of the U.S. Presidential Election: Parties Past

January 14, 2008
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, as it hosts the innovative parties of our founding fathers, including the Whigs, the Federalists, and the seeds of the GOP and the Democrats. Today’s section looks back at these precursors.

The Election of 1800

“Nasty political mud-slinging. Campaign attacks and counterattacks. Personal insults. Outrageous newspaper invective.” These familiar features, says 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?

Key Players: The Federalists

The Federalists were formed in 1787 and pioneered by charismatic founding father Alexander Hamilton. The party was made up of men who believed in the new Constitution along with a strong central government. As PBS explains on their American Experience Web site, Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote 85 essays outlining their beliefs in "The Federalist Papers."
The Federalists’ arguments were countered by the Antifederalists, Thomas Jefferson among them. They were convinced that decentralization was key to giving individuals and states more agency. The Federalists were eventually defeated by Jefferson’s popularity, and after Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr and subsequent death, the party was no more. But 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 sheds light on the influence of the Antifederalists in forming our national government. These proto-Republicans were one of the most “heterogeneous” groups in the country. The Antifederalist movement attracted “localists” far and wide, and 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.”

Key Players: the Whigs

The Whig party, known for championing a U.S.-and-Congress-centered economic policy called the “American System,” endured for only 22 years. According to Robert Webb of The Washington Post, who wrote a piece in 1996 called, “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 principals 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, Democrat) platform, and also the first president to be impeached. The short-lived Whig party was recently documented in Holt’s 750-page book, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War.

More Parties than You Knew

Ron Gunzburger’s Politics1 has introductions to the leaders, beliefs, and major events surrounding 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.

What Happened Next?

The Democrats
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.
The Republicans
In the first half of the 19th century, the Republicans were gaining strength, and became the preeminent 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.
If you’re curious about election results throughout U.S. history, head to PresidentElect.org.

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