Although the two-party system that defines American government may seem solid and unquestionable, American political parties and their platforms have changed considerably throughout history. Even in this era of polarized opinions, there are nuances and details regarding U.S. political parties that are often overlooked. This American Political Parties Web Guide explores the historical and contemporary distinctions among Democrats, Republicans and other political parties of the past and present. Expand All Guide Sections
Political Party History
This section provides background information on American government, illustrating how the current system evolved from America’s early political beliefs and the parties that espoused them. The sites below highlight important political documents, trends and ideologies that have defined American political parties since the 18th century.
The first great divide in United States political history separated over the seminal question of Ratification of the new Constitution in the first place, product of the sweltering summer of 1787 Philadelphia, which replaced the unworkably weak Articles of Confederation.
Federalists naturally supported the new charter, including notably BOTH northerners like Hamilton and Virginians, represented in the famed Papers by Madison, Father of the Constitution.
The story of that initial domestic disagreement is that Ratification became so swift and so popular, such a done deal, within about a year the Anti Federalist movement, which had been real, totally dissolved.
Support for the new Document approached universal and most Anti Feds came over to work within the construction they'd opposed, mostly extreme States Rightists. A few, though, Anti Federalists like Patrick Henry and George Mason, Virginians both, dropped out of representative politics and went back to the plow and the bar.
By 1790, we're experiencing a Federalist hegemony, when the next rupture of unity occurred, that famous dispute between Hamilton, voice of federalist expansion, and Jefferson, defender of local interests, Washington's secretaries of Treasury and State.
The president largely sided with Hamilton, whose ambitious three-part American System became enacted:
1. The Bank, brilliantly conceived to vest the interests of wealth in the POLITICAL STABILITY of the federal government.
2. The Tariff, anathema to the South.
3. Internal Improvements, like the Erie Canal, program's particularly popular in the West.
The Adams administration was not popular, Adams was almost pathologically unpolitic. His Alien and Sedition Act antagonized.
Leading to the Revolution of 1800, the election of Thomas Jefferson. For the next 20 years our awakening nation would be governed by one party as unopposed as the Federalists were under Washington.
They called themselves Democratic Republicans or Republican Democrats, which is part of the reason history is so fuzzy about their record and significance.
I prefer to think of them as Jeffersonians, or States Rightists, or perhaps most apt, the Virginians.
Either way, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe's reigns, 1800-1824, saw mostly ineffective Federalist opposition disappearing, the buckled shoes of Washington's workmates becoming obsolete, their purpose filled.
The point is that once the Jeffersonians got in power they pretty much adopted the muscular centrism practiced by their predecessors.
The Louisiana Purchase of '03 and, even more, Jefferson's Embargo Act of '07, which saw the US Navy (which Jefferson opposed construction of when he was Washington's Secretary of State) chasing down mostly southern state ships seeking suddenly illegal trade with England, Napoleon's foe.
The Virginian trio of 2-term presidents, through our entrance into Europe's Napoleonic Wars in 1812, then the Era of Good Feeling, were generally quite successful and popular.
But not among the most passionate...