The new national government established by the Constitution in 1789 was first led by the politics of the Federalist Party . Policies implemented under President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) reflected that party’s belief in a strong central government. Led by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), the Federalists used the government to cultivate a national economy dominated by commerce.
By 1792, opposition to the policies of the Federalist Party was growing. Led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), critics of the Federalists banded together to form the Republican Party . They were also called Democratic-Republicans or Jeffersonian Republicans.
The Democratic-Republican Party stood for states’ rights in opposition to the powerful central government the Federalists were building. As such, its members believed in strict interpretation of the Constitution, limited central government, and a small national military. Democratic-Republican Party policies represented the interests of common free men, particularly U.S. farmers, craftsmen, and laborers. Its economic policies reflected the needs of small businesses and individuals rather than of wealthy merchants and large commercial ventures. It also was the party of the plantation economy in the South.
The Democratic-Republican Party grew quickly through the use of pamphlets, newspaper articles, and organized political clubs. The party’s leader, Thomas Jefferson, was elected president in 1800. The Democratic-Republican Party dominated national politics for the next twenty-five years.
When the Federalist Party declined after the War of 1812 , no opposition party arose in its place. Instead, political differences of opinion started to cause internal divisions within the Democratic-Republican Party. The divisions concerned issues such as tariffs (taxes on imports), powers of the second Bank of the United States (the first Bank of the United States, the first federally chartered bank in the country, lapsed in 1811), and internal improvements.
The election of War of 1812 general and former U.S. senator Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37) of Tennessee in 1828 caused the party to split into two parties, the National Republicans and the Democratic-Republicans. Within a few years, the National Republicans became known as the Whig Party , and the Democratic-Republicans were simply called Democrats. The Whigs eventually dissolved, and the Democratic Party survives today.
Democratic-Republican Party, Founded 1791, Dissolved 1825
In the 20 years after 1808 the party existed less as a united political group than as a loose coalition of personal and sectional factions. The fissures in the party were fully exposed by the election of 1824, when the leaders of the two major factions, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, were both nominated for president. Meanwhile, William H. Crawford was nominated by the party’s congressional caucus, and Henry Clay, another Democratic-Republican, was nominated by the Kentucky and Tennessee legislatures. Jackson carried the popular vote and a plurality in the electoral college, but because no candidate received a majority of the electoral vote, the presidency was decided by the House of Representatives. Clay, the speaker of the House of Representatives, finished fourth and was thus ineligible for consideration; he subsequently threw his support to Adams, who was elected president and promptly appointed Clay secretary of state. Following the election, the Democratic-Republicans split into two groups: the National Republicans, who became the nucleus of the Whig Party in the 1830s, were led by Adams and Clay, while the Democratic-Republicans were organized by Martin Van Buren, the future eighth president (1837–41), and led by Jackson. The Democratic-Republicans comprised diverse elements that emphasized local and humanitarian concerns, states’ rights, agrarian interests, and democratic procedures. During Jackson’s presidency (1829–37) they dropped the Republican label and called themselves simply Democrats or Jacksonian Democrats. The name Democratic Party was formally adopted in 1844.
In Ripon, Wisconsin, former members of the Whig Party meet to establish a new party to oppose the spread of slavery into the western territories. The Whig Party, which was formed in 1834 to oppose the “tyranny” of President Andrew Jackson, had shown itself incapable of coping with the national crisis over slavery.
With the successful introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854, an act that dissolved the terms of the Missouri Compromise and allowed slave or free status to be decided in the territories by popular sovereignty, the Whigs disintegrated. By February 1854, anti-slavery Whigs had begun meeting in the upper midwestern states to discuss the formation of a new party. One such meeting, in Wisconsin on March 20, 1854, is generally remembered as the founding meeting of the Republican Party.
The Republicans rapidly gained supporters in the North, and in 1856 their first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, won 11 of the 16 Northern states. By 1860, the majority of the Southern slave states were publicly threatening secession if the Republicans won the presidency. In November 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president over a divided Democratic Party, and six weeks later South Carolina formally seceded from the Union. Within six more weeks, five other Southern states had followed South Carolina’s lead, and in April 1861 the Civil War began when Confederate shore batteries under General P.G.T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Bay.
The Civil War firmly identified the Whig Party as the party of the victorious North, and after the war the Republican-dominated Congress forced a “Radical Reconstruction” policy on the South, which saw the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution and the granting of equal rights to all Southern citizens. By 1876, the Republican Party had lost control of the South, but it continued to dominate the presidency until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.
In his farewell address, George Washington encouraged citizens to examine their loyalty to the United States, rather than to individual political parties, believing that the divisive nature of political parties would bring more harm than good to the union. He even warned against a general spirit of innovation which he felt could weaken the foundation set forth in the Constitution.
There has always been turmoil in the land we call America. But the times we are about to see will be the worst of times and the death of a nation!