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

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  • 0:01 The Final Evolution of…
  • 0:34 Emergence of Democrats…
  • 2:26 The Modern Era of the…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
The following lesson will continue to cover the history of political parties, this time, the history that occurred after the Civil War. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

The Final Evolution of the Two-Party System

In a previous lesson, we noted that life is full of choices, and that for major elections, such as president, the American public only has to choose between the candidates of two major parties. Our current two political parties, the Democratic and Republican parties, went through many changes before they became the parties that we know today. In fact, it would take two major historical events to fully shape the Democratic and Republican parties: the issue of slavery leading up to the Civil War, which helped the two parties form, and the Great Depression and subsequent New Deal of the 1930s, which helped shape the parties' ideologies.

Emergence of Democrats and Republicans

The issue of the abolition of slavery ultimately destroyed the Whig/Democrat party system. Many Northern Democrats who opposed slavery joined a new party, the Republican Party which was forming around the cause for abolition. Southern Democrats, however, supported slavery and threatened to leave the Union. The Whigs also split along regional lines. In the South, many Whigs joined the Democrats even though they disagreed with Democrats on many economic issues. In short, issues surrounding race and preserving the Union trumped economic issues.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected as the first Republican president, the South chose to rebel rather than to accept the election results. So the Southern states declared independence, or secession, and the North went to war to force them back into the Union. Party allegiances hardened in the highly emotional atmosphere of war. Many Northern workers and farmers who had Democratic sympathy saw the Democratic Party as the party of treason and rebellion. These feelings greatly weakened the Democrats in the North. Most of the Democrats' remaining support in the North came from urban political machines founded on immigrant groups.

Following the war was a short period of Reconstruction when Republicans had political power in the South because they had won the war. However, Southern whites would eventually regain control over Southern state governments, take the vote away from black Republicans, and send segregationist Democrats to Washington.

The Republican Party dominated the North and most of the new states joining the nation in the West. The result was a regional basis for the political parties with Republican domination of the national government. For several decades, resentments and anger over the Civil War dominated economic issues that might have made the two parties more competitive in all parts of the nation. In the South, the issue of race and the role that African Americans should play in politics dominated all other issues for more than a century.

The Modern Era of the Two-Party System

Following the Civil War, the Republican Party dominated the political system for a long time. However, the push for reform in all areas of society, called progressivism, changed all that. The Republican Party at this time split after Republican Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for the presidency on a third-party Progressive ticket. This allowed the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency. Despite a Democrat regaining power in the political system, Wilson's progressivism marked the beginning of a radical change in Democratic policies. Remember that traditionally, the Democratic Party had been the party of limited government. Under Wilson, the Democrats became, for the first time, at least as receptive as the Republicans to government action in the economy.

Republican prominence would resume after Wilson, but it ended with the Great Depression due to the humiliation Republican president Herbert Hoover faced for his inept handling. The Great Depression shattered the working-class belief in Republican economic competence. This opened the door for Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt to take office.

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