A History of the Two-Party System: Part 1 (Colonial Era through the Civil War)
Starting with the foundations, the American political system, like its social order and economic structure, began as a New World variation of that in Britain. The United States constituted a republic of sorts, though the representative features of its government remained inherently weak, allowing coequal status to deliberately unrepresentative and unelected branches of government.
Almost immediately, a party system appeared, promising to deepen these representative features by offering voters input into the decision-making processes in giving them options at the polls. These parties would accomplish much of what they hoped, until the people cast ballots for serious and radical change, precipitating the fatal crisis of the 1860s.
Despite a tumultuous 17th century, the British made arrangements that permitted their rise to global prominence. With the monarchy restored but strictly limited in its function, the two chambers of the Parliament (Commons and Lords) had effective rule of the country. The day-to-day functions of the government hardly concerned the average English subject on either side of the Atlantic, since the Parliament did not district itself to represent changes in the population and, more importantly, because suffrage remained restricted to the propertied. As a result, the Parliament remained preoccupied with balancing the concerns of the landed gentry with the needs of urban commerce. Their predispositions created distinct caucuses in the Parliament, and these “caucus parties”--the Whigs and Tories--represented the most important model for what became the U.S. party system.
The American colonists incorporated these essential features of 18th century British politics into their own system. They adopted a two-chambered legislative body, a distinct court system, and almost everywhere served alongside the Crown-appointed royal governors. There are some historians who also argue for embryonic caucuses emerging within the colonial assemblies, reflecting tensions between the more commercial coastal towns and more parochial agricultural interests.
Despite periodic friction at having the ultimate governing power overseas, these general political structures worked because those who used them had no intention of representing any social or economic interest broader than those represented in the British parliamentary system. The system was of the owners and rulers, by the owners and rulers, and for the owners and rulers.
The colonial resistance to British authorities necessarily mobilized the people, particularly in the cities. These frequently hinted at a political course not only independent from Britain but from their own home-grown masters and bosses. At times, they even tried to shape the political order that would come out of the revolution. In the end, though, the American Revolution remained what Karl Marx and others would later describe as a bourgeois revolution. The propertied elite managed to prevail.
The Continental Congress always based its claim of legitimacy not on the popular movements but on those older colonial structures. With few exceptions, those bodies--from the Virginia House of Burgesses to the colonial assemblies of New England--pressed for independence and established what became a common government of the United States on their authority.
Despite some promising movements for something more, the governments after independence remained no less committed than before to maintaining an idea of rights rooted first and foremost on ownership. They maintained upper houses of the legislative bodies expressly intended not to be representative of population, sometimes by means of higher property requirements and, nationally, by vesting the authority of the upper house on the state legislatures and according each state two senators, regardless of the state’s population. (U.S Senators were not elected by popular vote until 1914, after ratification of the 17th Amendment.)
The principal property these governments strove to protect were African slaves. Despite the importance of property in land or in the means of commerce, such as shipping, slaves remained essential to the plantation production of tobacco. This became the new nation’s most important asset, even as half the former colonies took measures to eliminate the “peculiar institution,” while the other discovered the Transatlantic importance of cotton to the Industrial Revolution.
The national government reflected this imperative. For 32 of the first 36 years of the United States, Virginia slaveholders occupied the presidency. While George Washington had clear concerns about slavery and took measures to manumit his own slaves, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe did nothing on the subject. In hindsight we might see slavery or the extermination of native peoples as key questions, but neither actually made a dent on the preoccupations of the national party system which began to emerge.
The “First” Party System
From the earliest days of the new republic, the Founders cautioned against the formations of “factions” and parties that would constitute interests capable of short-circuiting their carefully planned constitutional systems of checks and balances. Almost immediately, though, they went about the process of developing parties along British lines. Thus caucuses tended to take shape within legislatures and quickly began to function like permanent parties.
Distinctive and often conflicting interests divided the sectional elites as well as different economic and social concerns within those sectional elites. Quickly, though, they began grouping into two factions: one around Alexander Hamilton, urging the use of Federal policies to foster commerce and industry; and a broad, complex opposition by those who suspected that such Federalist policies would cause even more problems. In foreign affairs, they strove for reconciliation with Britain, and disassociated their American Revolution from the 1789 revolution that had broken out in France, America’s old ally in attaining independence.
Although aloof from these tensions, the consummate nationalist George Washington sympathized with the Federalists. His vice president and successor to the presidency, John Adams, overtly embraced the new Federalist Party. And only a few years after adopting the Bill of Rights, the Federalists secured passage of legislation criminalizing dissent as “sedition,” initiating a series of prosecutions against critics of the government.
Thomas Jefferson became the dominant figure in the opposition, winning the election over John Adams in “the Revolution of 1800.” Although only a small portion of the population could vote, the decision is often cited as an example of how voters can have an impact and peacefully replace the administration in power. In this account, the voters in 1800 picked between the more agrarian and egalitarian, if exclusively white and patriarchal, republican future envisioned by Jefferson, and the Hamiltonian future of commerce, industries, and cities. If what voters wanted really shaped policy, we’d presumably now be living virtuously on our small farms.
The rivalry of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, the party associated with Jeffersonian ideas, lacked many features of the two-party system that evolved later. The government over which it contended remained largely confined to the gentlemen of the eastern seaboard, and the suffrage remained everywhere confined to property owners. However, the system did represent the earliest clash in the United States between institutionalized parties, and established many of its key features. Just as the Founders warned against parties, they embraced a constitutional order that had no provision for expanding the country. Jefferson, the “strict constructionist,” is particularly remembered for the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of U.S. territory.
Jefferson’s successor James Madison presided over the first, ill-considered attempt of the government to directly subjugate not just native peoples but its neighbors of European background by seizing Canada (the War of 1812) while Britain remained preoccupied with the Napoleonic Wars. However, the invasion backfired and the winding down of the European Wars freed thousands of British veterans to handle America. The United States barely survived, but the Federalists who had opposed the war virtually disappeared outside of New England, while the party that took the country into the maelstrom rode a tide of patriotism to become not only the dominant party but really the only national party.
Jefferson, for his part, had declared in his inaugural address, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” By 1813, the triumphant advocate of an agrarian future for the United States. declared that America could only secure its independence through Hamilton’s course and foster manufacturing capitalism. While the Democratic-Republicans tended to differ from the Federalists on the rationale for the distant French Revolution, both agreed about the mortal danger of the slave revolt it helped to trigger in Santo Domingo.
Early on, then, there seemed to be enough reason to question the whole idea that citizens can express their interests by choosing between two alternatives preselected for them.
The “Second Party System”
A new party system emerged in the wake of the War of 1812. In those years, the United States reestablished its vital economic ties with Britain and began to exploit more thoroughly the potential of the cotton gin, particularly in the lower Mississippi Valley. The new industries in Britain needed cotton, giving rise to the first great American fortunes, based upon a plantation system that imposed a more rigorous and brutal kind of African slavery.
The end of the legal Transatlantic slave trade radically increased the value of these owned workers, and created closer ties between the Deep South that produced cotton on a massive scale and the Upper South and Border slave states in the lucrative business of supplying new slaves. Although entrepreneurial and exploitive in the most modern sense, the plantation economy clothed itself in the guise of traditional paternalism.
Alongside this, the states during these years began revisiting the property requirement for voting. Starting with Connecticut and New York, the states began lifting these, though usually revising their constitutions to specify white males only, eliminating the rare instances of voting by propertied women or men of color. The process came easily in places, though it sparked a brief civil war in Rhode Island and certainly proceeded much slower in the slave South.
The involvement of more Americans in the electoral process provided the owners and rulers of the nation a government they could still master easily enough while generally assuring that it would not become dangerously unpopular. This arrangement required reaching beyond the limited East Coast and propertied electorates to masses of ordinary white voters across much of the country. The new challenge required governing and stabilizing a national political order for the elites while creating ongoing mechanisms to win popular mandate. Newspapers expanded and proliferated, and the steam presses got the “penny press” into the hands of voters. Older popular political associations evolved into societies capable of building and sustaining modern city political machines.
In the 1820s, a new Democratic Party rose against the remnants of the older party of Jefferson, the National Republicans, who adopted the name Whigs in the 1830s. The Democrats rose from a variety of local oppositional currents, with the growing interests of the cotton plantations increasingly dominant. After losing the 1824 election, Democratic leader Andrew Jackson gained two terms in the White House and set the tone for what remained the dominant national party for the next 30 years.
The first president from west of the Appalachians, Jackson embodied the Democratic convergence of the interests of the South and the West. Personally involved in the schemes of Aaron Burr, Jackson had also had a heavy hand in the U.S. acquisition of West Florida and Florida, then belonging to Spain, and laying the foundations for the Anglo colonization of Texas, then an independent Mexico. In part, the plantations’ rapid depletion of the soil provided a particular imperative for western expansion.
Democrats also spoke in Northern accents, thanks to proponents of expansion in the newly settled Midwest with various immigrant-based new political machines in the northeastern cities. Indeed, three of the other four Democratic presidents elected in this period--Martin Van Buren, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan--came from the North. However, they owed their national prominence to the South. The fate of the first, Van Buren (defeated for reelection in 1840), demonstrated what would happen if they did not march lock step with the desire of the Southern states.
Democrats appealed to dominant cultural concerns and ideological assumptions of most white voters. Democratic hostility to chartered monopolies--rhetorical and rarely real--appealed to faith that the mythical “free market” provided the best way to ensure individual opportunity, fair play, and mobility among the economic players. Newly expanded newspapers, educational institutions, and the dominant currents of revived Christianity embraced the innate virtue of wealth, business success, and hard work.
During this period, the Whigs offered the respectable opposition to the Democrats. They advocated energetic government action to foster “internal improvement” through the vigorous imposition of tariffs on imports. Their principal proponent Henry Clay described this as “the American system.” In the end, though, what the parties nationally presented as deep differences often boiled down to fighting over specific measures. That is, the differences largely revolved around the extent to which the government would impose tariffs or foster internal improvements.
The Whigs won national elections twice, only when Democratic unity faltered, and the Southern Democrats managed to triumph even then. In 1840, William Henry Harrison won election over Van Buren but died almost immediately, leaving the office to John Tyler, a Virginia Democrat added to the ticket to lure enough Democratic voters. In 1848 Zachary Taylor, the hero of the Mexican War, also died in office, leaving Millard Fillmore to concede to Southern demands in the last series of compromises before the crisis of the war.
This two-party rivalry defined a focus of national politics on the means by which government could aid capitalist development--and by which capitalists would reap the greatest benefit. It kept the focus off issues like slavery, on which the prosperity of the country rested, and, to a large extent, expansion. In fact, the system did whatever it could, wherever it could to keep slavery quiet. It nationally barred abolitionist literature from the mail, and Northern Democrats invented the color bar at the local level and, as early as the mid-1830s, actually instigated race riots to keep Northern whites hostile to people of color.
The other Democratic president elected in these years, James Knox Polk--another Tennessee slaveholder--consciously followed in the footsteps of Jackson as an expansionist proponent of what came to be called “Manifest Destiny.” He engineered the 1846 War with Mexico, an explicit war of conquest which acquired roughly as much land as had the Louisiana Purchase 43 years earlier, attaining all the Southwest and West.
The original goal of the administration had been the conquest of the entirety of Mexico as far as the Isthmus of Panama, but the outbreak of a Mayan revolt in the Yucatan made the cotton South reluctant to annex a raging race war in which they would be in a clear minority. Nevertheless, nearly a dozen serious entrepreneurial expeditions sought to revisit the question, with the backhanded support of the most militant “Southern Rights” faction of the Democrats. Over a thousand U.S. veterans went into the Yucatan, some half dozen private campaigns sought to acquire still more Mexican territory, several groups tried to “free” Cuba, and William Walker--once a neighbor and admirer of Jackson and Polk--led his famous forays into Nicaragua and Central America. By 1853, American mercenaries fought as far away as Ecuador. All this produced cadres that would see some use later in Kansas.
Early Workers’ Parties
The prospect of allowing the property-less majority a voice in government had always raised fears in the Anglo-American world that they might somehow find their own voice, their own leaders, and actually take the government. Indeed, starting in the late 1820s, a wave of local “workingmen’s parties” appeared. While often no more than a fanciful vote-catching label, those in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston did represent the political efforts of locally important labor organizations. Veterans of these early efforts soon turned to organizing local, city, and national trade union bodies.
In New York City, former “Workies” tried to reshape the Democratic Party, the top of which was much closer to the ordinary voter in those days. They formulated the practice of non-partisan politics, by which any and all candidates would be questioned and those giving written pledges to support desired measures would win an endorsement. Democratic legislative candidates readily gave their pledges not to charter any more monopolies, and, once they were in office, did exactly what they pledged not to do. The working-class land reform movement revived the anti-monopoly idea in the 1840s with much the same result.
After 1846, the land reformers and the abolitionist Liberty Party began running independent “Free Soil” tickets in New York and Massachusetts. By the early 1850s, they participated in the Free Democratic Party and later the Republicans. Measured by its actual results, non-partisan politics tends to lead toward independent political action.
More importantly, generations of ordinary Americans had begun to address slavery in a practical sense, by assisting the escape of runaways. By defying the Federal law mandating the return of runaway slaves, those citizens forced their neighbors generally to make decisions whether to turn them in to the authorities, and by the 1850s public resistance to this law became widespread across the non-slaveholding states. At the insistence of the Southern politicians--who later chose to advocate “states rights”--the central government passed ever more stringent laws on the question, but citizens had already began to make and implement their own choices.
Northern Democrats had to find a solution that both satisfied the cotton South and left them with enough voters at home to keep their offices. With their 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act enabling the organization of Kansas as a new state permitting slavery, they faced open revolts in that frontier region. The responses of the government collapsed the Democratic Party north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and the Whigs had already fractured along sectional lines.
Labor and Liberty
At the former socialist community of Ceresco, land reformers, abolitionists, and others held a series of meetings calling for a new third party, the Republicans, which would advocate free soil, free speech, and free labor. The idea swept across the region and, in six years, the Democrats split along sectional lines, the remnants of the Whigs ran their own candidate, and the third party elected Abraham Lincoln president.
This remarkable victory happened even though voting for Lincoln had not been an option in ten Southern states. In 1860, the sovereign free-born “voting kings” of America expressed their concerns by using their ballots to pick preselected items from an electoral menu. They elected Abraham Lincoln president of the United States, bypassing the traditional two-party rivalry of Democrats and Whigs in favor of a new third party, the Republicans. The new party raised issues, such as slavery, previously not discussed by the two parties. The largest number of participating citizens expressed what they wanted, and those who had dominated national government for a generation decided to destroy the United States rather than cede power.
The Southern rulers refused to accept the outcome of the election and began to declare their states “seceded” from the United States. The Civil War and Reconstruction that followed ended legal slavery in the States and began to restructure much about American life. These represented the most extensive political changes since the American Revolution itself. Yet getting to choose between two parties had nothing to do with it. As far as that goes, voting in the ritual electoral sense achieved nothing in and of itself.
The historical structuring of the two-party system--particularly the Democratic Party--made it as much an artifact of slavery as the shackles and chains. While that party as with other artifacts might be used for other things, it would rarely be as effective as for the purposes for which it was formed. And it would all depend on who actually controlled the key.
Mark Lause is a Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati. His most recent book, A Secret Society History of the Civil War, was published in 2011. The second part of this essay, which is forthcoming in another issue of Against the Current, will discuss the two-party system from Reconstruction through the beginning of the Great Depression.