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History of Political Parties in the United States (Pre-Civil War)

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  • 0:01 The Evolution of the…
  • 1:11 The Creation of Two Parties
  • 2:27 The Emergence of Whigs…
  • 3:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
The following lesson will discuss the history and evolution of the two-party system in the United States. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

The Evolution of the Two-Party System Timeline

Life is full of choices. Some choices are harder to make than others, like the choice between buying two types of cars or deciding what to major in in college. Another choice that people often have a hard time making is who to vote for in an election. Luckily, for major elections, such as president, the American public only has to choose between the candidates of two parties. Other countries, however, often have democratic parties with three, four, or even ten-party systems. Imagine how hard those choices would be!

The United States has a two-party system in which only two parties have a reasonable chance of winning. The function and character of the two-party system has much to do with the unique historical forces that started with the country's founding. Generally, we can divide the evolution of our nation's political parties into four broad periods. The first two periods will be covered in this lesson and the following two periods will be covered in a subsequent lesson.

  1. The first is the creation of parties from 1789 to 1816.
  2. The second is the emergence of Democrats and Whigs from Andrew Jackson's presidency to just before the Civil War (1828 - 1860).
  3. The third is the New Deal period.
  4. The fourth is the modern period, from approximately 1968 to the present.

The Creation of Two Parties

Can you imagine if our country never had parties that put forth candidates to vote for in elections? In other words, not having any choice of who to vote for president? Well, former president George Washington wanted just that.

He viewed parties as a threat to both national unity and the concept of popular government, and so things stayed that way for a while. However, that situation did not last for long. During the first Washington administration, two sides within the administration began to emerge - those favoring strengthening the national government and having it promote commerce and those preferring a weaker national government and favoring the interests of small farmers who wanted most matters left to the states. Thus, began the emergence of what we consider today to be the two-party system.

On one side, there were the federalists, who favored a strong and active national government and were led by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and supported by Vice President John Adams. On the other side were the Republicans, who believed in a smaller, limited government in favor of more states' rights and were also sometimes referred to as Democratic-Republicans. They were led by Thomas Jefferson, Washington's Secretary of State, and James Madison, who was a leader in the House of Representatives.

The Emergence of Whigs and Democrats

Following the emergence of the two-party system, the country saw an extended period of dominance by the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalist party became less and less relevant. In essence, it seemed that the country only had one party again. But again, the situation did not last for long. The Democratic-Republicans split over the personalities and ambitions of presidential contenders Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. In terms of group support, the split was along familiar lines. Adams had the support of the commercial and banking interests while Jackson was the candidate of small farmers and Western settlers.

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