U.S. Political Parties: History and Function

Jenna Mellentine, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Jenna Mellentine

    Jenna Mellentine is a certified teacher who has relevant experience teaching in the public school system for over 3 years. She has a bachelor's degree in Elementary Education from Western Governors University, and is currently working on a master's degree in Science Education.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Discover the different American political parties. Learn about the history of U.S. political parties, what led to their formation, and their functions. Updated: 05/12/2022

Table of Contents


What is a Political Party?

A political party is an organized group of people who support and share the same political ideological values. The purpose of a political party is to support political candidates in that party. People in a political party can help support that party's candidate by raising funding for campaigns, rallying voter support, or both. Political candidates, once elected, have the power to influence and change laws, policies, or local ordinances. There are currently four major political parties in the United States. The four major political parties are the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Green Parties. There are usually two dominant political parties at one time. Currently, the dominant parties are the Democrats and Republicans.

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History of U.S. Political Parties

The writers of the Constitution had no belief that political parties would play a role in the formal government. The United States Constitution itself does not mention political parties. However, during its ratification process is when the two-party system began. In 1787, factions, or political parties, could not agree on the ratification of the Constitution.

These first two dominant U.S. political parties were the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. They could not agree on the amount of power the federal government should have. The Federalists were led by Alexander Hamilton, who was Secretary of Treasury, and the Anti-Federalists were led by Thomas Jefferson, who was Secretary of State. The Federalists were for a strong central government centered around commercialism. The Anti-Federalists wanted states to have more power and centered their ideology around agrarian society.

Jefferson feared that the Federalist Party would grow the country into a monarchy, and he ultimately resigned from his cabinet post. He began working with James Monroe and formed an opposition party to the Federalists, the Democratic-Republican Party. This was soon shortened to either just Republicans or the Jeffersonian Republicans. In 1800, Jefferson was elected president, and Republicans were in power, making the Federalists the opposing party.

The Democratic-Republicans were initially an oppositional party to the Federalists, with similar ideals as the Anti-Federalists. The party held the ideals of states keeping the power so that the agrarian societies, especially those in the South, could maintain power over enslaved people if their states chose to do so.

In 1824, four Republicans ran for president. John Quincy Adams won the presidency by one House of Representatives vote. After this, the Republican Party split into two parties. Initially, one party called themselves by the original name "Democratic-Republicans," but it then got shortened to the Democratic Party in 1828. The other party was the National Republican Party.

In 1834, the National Republican Party helped form the Whig Party, which was the original opposing party to the Democratic Party. In the years leading to the Civil War, Whigs and Democrats both ran and won presidential elections. These two parties formed and established the two-party dominant system still in use today.

Clay and Frelinghuysen running for the president and vice president under the Whig Party in 1844

A banner advertisement for the Whig Party is advertising Clay and Frelinghuysen for political candidates.

Whigs and nonconforming Democrats formed the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln in 1854. This Republican Party was formed because anti-slavery Whigs and Democrats were against the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854. This bill dissolved the Missouri Compromise and left it up to individual states whether to be slave or free states. Since then, Democrats and Republicans have effectively run the White House and D.C., with one party always controlling the majority of power. However, Democrats and Republicans have switched platforms since this time period in history.

By the 1960s the Democratic Party had fully switched platforms with the Republicans by aligning with social justice reforms, mainly the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Democratic Party now believes in bigger government regulation, as it is there to protect citizens. The Republican Party's ideals and beliefs now align with fewer government regulations, are against amnesty for undocumented migrants, and believe in justice for the individual over group rights.

What Led to the Formation of Political Parties?

Political parties are formed to serve a political purpose at the time of their relevance to sustain the country's ideology, trade, influence, or economic viability.

The Democratic Party formed as an ideological party to oppose the centralized government and give freedom to govern to the states. This was one way to keep states able to be slave states. Keeping slaves was an ideology important to Southern states at the time, as they had many plantations and depended on the free labor of slaves to keep their agrarian societies economically profitable. It originally formed as the Democratic-Republicans, then Republicans, and finally got named Democratic Party in 1828.

The Democratic-Republicans or Jeffersonian Republicans' purpose was to oppose the Federalists when the party was first created. As they evolved into the Democratic Party, the original opposition party to the new Democratic Party was formed by members of the Whig Party. The Whig Party evolved as an ideology to favor Alexander Hamilton's vision of commercial trade and conservatism and to centralize the federal government.

The Whig Party disintegrated because of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854. Abolitionist Whigs and Democrat nonconformists were anti-slavery and wanted a federal ban. They formed the Republican Party in 1854. Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860. This led to the Civil War and later the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.

Conspectus of the History of Political Parties and the Federal Government is a historical piece of timeline art by Walter Raleigh Houghton.

A diagram showing the rise and fall of political parties through history is shown.

Types of Political Parties

Today there are different types of political parties based on their ideologies and beliefs. Today, there are so many different parties in the political system that it may be difficult to count or keep track. The four major parties in the United States are the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Green Parties. Each of these major parties has its own ideals and beliefs. A brief list of some of the ideals from each of the four major parties follows.

Democratic Party:

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Frequently Asked Questions

How many political parties are there in the United States?

There are so many political parties it can be difficult to count. There are four major parties and two dominant parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.

What are the four main political parties in the U.S.?

The four main political parties in the United States are the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Green Parties. Democrats and Republicans are the dominant parties in a two-party system.

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