a brief (and incomplete) history of political parties in the USA

A question came up in a Facebook discussion recently about how well split-off parties have fared in American politics.  I believe I triggered the question by stating that if Donald Trump succeeds in rending the Republican Party in two, he’ll be handing the 2016 election to the Democrats in the process.

Here, then, is a brief and very incomplete history of political parties in the USA.  Be prepared to be unsurprised at how little things change.

The modern two-party system as we know it came about as a result of a schism among the Founding Fathers.

In the beginning, there were no political parties – just American colonists raging against the British machine for representation and eventually independence.

The first thing that appeared that could be interpreted as political parties was due to an argument about the Bill of Rights. The Federalists opposed the adoption of the Bill of Rights, preferring instead that the Constitution be adopted as it was written, with no modifications or amendments.   Their opponents, labeled Anti-Federalists by the Federalists, held the opposite position, advocating for the Bill of Rights.

George Washington, as we all know, was the first president of the United States. He advocated a no-party system, but as we also know, he stepped down after just two terms. In the struggle for power that followed, the two-party system was born.

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were two of the Founding Fathers, and on some things, they agreed with each other – for instance, the idea that fractious political parties would be destructive to the fledgling USA. The two of them actually wrote essays warning of the dangers of a party system, so it’s kind of surprising that they emerged as the leaders of the first two political parties.

Hamilton led the Federalists; Madison (along with his pal Thomas Jefferson) led the Democratic-Republicans. In addition to jockeying for the office of president, the top-ranking members of these parties also published numerous essays supporting their positions (and cutting down those of the other party) in politically-charged newspapers.

President James Monroe nearly ended the two-party system by miraculously bringing the battling sides back together, but the goodwill ended with his presidency and was forever put to rest in the 1830s.

Andrew Jackson, a fractious politician if ever there was one, led a split of the Democratic-Republicans in the late 1820s. He pushed his followers to create a new party called the Jacksonian Democrats, and later just the Democrats. The remaining Democratic-Republicans started calling themselves the Whigs. The central conflict between the Democrats and the Whigs was who was more important/powerful – the president (Democrats) or Congress (Whigs).

The Whigs disappeared in the early 1850s. The blight of institutional slavery brought them down. The Whigs, frustrated with the Compromise of 1850 as well as the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), couldn’t reach a consensus position on slavery. They blew up, splitting into Conscience Whigs, who opposed slavery, and Cotton Whigs, who supported it.

While the Whigs were streaking towards irrelevance, a new party that had no argument about its opposition to slavery emerged – the Republicans. It only took a few years for the Republicans to start dominating politics in northern states, and of course we all know they ran Abraham Lincoln as their candidate in 1860, an election he won.

Race issues plagued the country both before and after the Civil War, and that affected political parties as well. With Republicans staunchly anti-slavery and Democrats just as staunchly pro-slavery, there seemed little room for any discussion or the emergence of significant minor parties.

From the first time Abraham Lincoln ran for president, American politics has been a sparring match between Democrats and Republicans – with a few exceptions, of course.

Ulysses Grant, a household name due to his leadership of the US Army during the Civil war, won the 1868 election handily, but when he ran for reelection in 1872, he found stiff competition from within his own party. A group of angry politicians split from the Republicans to create the Liberal Republican Party. They threw their support behind anybody running against Grant, which meant Horace Greeley. Most of the Liberal Republicans merged with the Democratic Party after Greeley died before the electoral college results could be finalized (he wouldn’t have won anyway). Some of the splitters returned to the Republicans, but it was a minority of those who broke away in the first place.

In 1892, James Weaver ran as the favorite of the People’s Party, also referred to as Populists. This was a party that came about organically, rising up from a movement started in Texas in 1886 and spreading throughout much of the American Midwest.

Americans toyed with progressivism in the first half of the 20th century, and that included politicians. After a successful stint as president, Theodore Roosevelt led a split away from the Republican Party after disagreeing with President Taft, who had been Roosevelt’s Secretary of War but was criticized as being “increasingly conservative.”

The dilution of Republican efforts – that is, the party split forced by Roosevelt – saw the 1912 election go straight to Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate, never really had a chance.

The Progressives made a comeback thanks to 1920s dissatisfaction with the standard Democrat-vs-Republican shtick, but Robert La Follette wasn’t the man to get the job done against Calvin Coolidge.

The next party to successfully field a candidate in a presidential election was the Dixiecrats, officially known as the States’ Rights Democratic Party. A group of southern Democrats split from the main party in 1948 with the intention of not just standardizing racial segregation, but codifying it. After a humiliating turnout for Strom Thurmond in the 1948 election, most Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic Party. Thurmond would go on to serve in Congress as South Carolina’s senator for 48 years as a Democrat until 1964, and as a Republican after that.

The American Independence Party made a brief appearance in the late 1960s, emerging out of whole cloth from Californians Bill and Eileen Shearer. While the party still exists today, it remains a marginalized, seemingly radical party that has undergone its own splits and disputes.

After his first failed run at president as an independent, Ross Perot started the Reform Party. The only success the party achieved was getting former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura elected governor of Minnesota in the late 1990s.

The Reform Party was the last minor party to mount anything resembling a solid presidential campaign. Of all the parties that split off from other parties, the only one to enjoy anything resembling success was the Liberal Republicans, and their greatest contribution to American history was the authorship of the 13th Amendment (banned slavery).


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