The development of U.S. political parties went through several stages during the antebellum period of American history. During his two terms as president, George Washington managed to avoid the hazards of party politics, but his desires were not to be realized by his successors.
Hamilton vs. Jefferson
During the Washington years (1789-1797), domestic and foreign issues combined to produce the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson.
Hamilton spoke for the commercial interests of the Northeast, whereas Jefferson favored agriculture and the small free farmer of the South and West, the ideal citizen. Hamilton preferred the greatest possible centralization of power in the hands of the national government, while Jefferson championed the right of the state — “the less government the better.”
Around the views of these two men, parties took form. The Federalist reflecting Hamilton and the Democratic-Republican party mirroring Jefferson. The Federalists had their day in the 1790s, but lost control of the government in the election of 1800 with the defeat of John Adams. By 1815, the Federalists Party had disintegrated, leaving the field to the Jeffersonians.
For the next two decades, everyone claimed to be a Republican — the heir of Jefferson. The central figures of the era were John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson and Daniel Webster. With Jackson’s near miss of the presidency in 1824, the Democratic-Republican split into two rival camps. President Adams and Secretary of State Clay provided the leadership of the national Republicans, while Jackson, taking the name of the old Jeffersonians, began organizing the Democratic party.
Jackson’s election in 1828 signaled another development in the evolution of political parties, as opposition to Jackson congealed into the Whig party. These two parties dominated the political stage until the 1850s. During this period of a growing electorate, issues arising out of reformist impulses, territorial expansion and slavery stimulated the rise of various third parties such as the Anti-Masons, the Liberty Party, the Free-Soil Party, and the Know-Nothings.
The Whig party suffered most from the third parties since its major strength lay in the North, the center of anti-slavery and free soil sentiment. The Compromise of 1850 and the death of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster in 1852, weakened the Whigs. They would field a slate of candidates in 1852, lose the election, and collapse under the blow of defeat, never again strong enough to contest a national election.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) damaged the unity of both the Whigs and Democrats. By repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had made 36° 30′ the dividing line between slave and free-soil, the Kansas-Nebraska Act encouraged the extension of slavery by “popular sovereignty.”
Stephen A. Douglas and other popular sovereignty advocators could hardly have foreseen the violent reaction of many Americans to this proposal. The fires of sectional controversy that had been banked by the Compromise of 1820 and 1850 were suddenly burning brightly.
The Democratic party of the North was sharply divided over the idea of popular sovereignty. The last vestiges of the Whig party and other minor parties drifted into a new political organization gathering in Ripon, Wisconsin, and reviving the name Republican. The “Solid South” had not yet arrived, but it was on the way.
The Republicans were not an immediate success. Their popularity was damaged by association with abolitionism, the Temperance and Know-Nothing parties as well as old-line Whigs and disgruntled Democrats. Thus, the political campaigns of 1854 and 1855 were inordinately confused by numerous groups entering the fray.
But the struggles between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery elements and the ineffectiveness of two presidents, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, led to the Republican party being united by all who opposed the extension of slavery.
The mid-term election of 1858 revealed just how deep the sectional line of cleavage had become. The Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, the Sumner-Brooks Caning, anti-slavery violence, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the economic Panic of 1857 and the Lincoln-Douglas debates all contributed to a most spectacular election.
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas made a thorough canvass of Illinois in 1858. Lincoln traveled more than 4,500 miles and Douglas more than 5,000 miles, each making about 60 major speech and numerous impromptu appearances from the rear platform of trains. The speeches and the seven joint debates attracted tens of thousands of listeners and wide spread national newspaper coverage.
In between the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the election of 1860, the sectional dispute raged on with ever increasing acrimony. John Brown of Kansas-Nebraska fame emerged with an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in November of 1859, and a month later Hinton R. Helper published the book, The Impending Crisis of the South. The fading years of the 1850 decade witnessed a steady erosion of moderation on the part of Northerners and Southerners alike. The house was already divided in all but name.
The election of 1860 was a four-way scramble for the presidency of the U.S. Lincoln was the Republican party nominee, Douglas captured the Northern Democratic prize, John Breckinridge had the Southern Democratic banner, and John Bell represented the Constitutional Union party. With so many candidates in the field, it was inevitable that the popular vote should be sharply divided.
Lincoln was elected with 40% of the popular vote but a clear majority in the Electoral College, 180 to 123 for all his opponents combined. After the Civil War, two major parties — Democrat and Republican — dominated the national elections with a flirtation of a third party occasionally offering some excitement in national elections.
That’s your history!
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