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U.S. political parties have a rich and storied history | Rich Elfers' Politics in Focus
Do you know the history of our current major American political parties? Understanding their history will help you appreciate how they change with the times and often switch roles.
When the Constitution was written in 1787, there were no political parties. Parties were called “factions,” having the reputation of being subversive and akin to terrorist organizations.
George Washington in his farewell address in 1796 warned against faction because it “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another." Does that sound familiar?
Although Washington railed against these factions, it was his wise decision to have differing points of view in his first cabinet: Alexander Hamilton, secretary of treasury, really wanted a monarchy with George Washington as its king. He worked toward creating a strong central government at the expense of the states and the common people. Those who followed his view became known as Federalists.
Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state, preferred states’ rights over strong central government. Jefferson eventually would resign his position to form the first official political party in this country, the Democratic-Republicans. His base of support came from western and southern farmers. He won the presidential election of 1800 over his former and future friend, President John Adams.
The chief issue was over aliens and traitors. Adams’ Federalist Party had made it difficult for new immigrants to become citizens and therefore to vote for Jefferson, or to publicly criticize the government. Jefferson reacted by politicking against this act because it took away freedom of speech.
During the War of 1812 against the British, the more radical elements of the Federalist Party, based mainly in New England, threatened to secede in the Hartford Convention of 1814. Representing commercial interests, the Federalists had lost a great deal in profit from fighting the British from 1812-14.
Unfortunately for them and the reputation of their extremist minority, Gen. Andrew Jackson beat the British at New Orleans.
A great wave of patriotism spread across the nation with the Federalists unjustly being branded as traitors. The Federalist Party died. Eventually a new party arose called the Whigs that represented commercial interests.
Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, running as a Democrat (dropping the Republican part). He favored a strong executive over the power of Congress. Using what we would consider modern campaign techniques, appealing to emotions rather than reason, he gained the support of the “common people.”
Conservatives, shocked and angered by Jackson’s autocratic and power-grabbing tendencies, called him “King Mob.” Jackson used the threat of veto to drastically wrench power from Congress to put it in his own hands.
Jackson was the first president to create what has been called the “spoils system.” To the victors belonged the spoils of winning and rewarding friends and supporters with government jobs.
The Republican Party did not come into existence until the sectional conflict between North and South over slavery caused the end of the Whigs. Abraham Lincoln was one of its founders in 1854. Upon his election in 1860, the South seceded and the Civil War began.
Lincoln would eventually free the slaves in the South with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and then push for ending slavery with the 13 th Amendment passed by Congress in 1865. As a result of his actions, former slaves voted Republican as a bloc until Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt became President during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The Republican Party came to represent wealthy business and industrial interests with the exception of President Teddy Roosevelt and to a lesser extent President Taft. Republicans dominated the government with a few exceptions from 1865 until 1933. The Democrats by the end of the century came to represent the poor and oppressed, immigrants and minorities who joined unions.
White Southern Democrats abandoned their party to become Republicans after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965. They’ve remained there since.
Republican President Ronald Reagan attracted a lot of Democrats who were angry and upset over what they saw as a declining morality. He cut taxes by 25 percent and promoted less government regulation. He became and still is the hero of the Right.
In the 1990s, Democratic President Bill Clinton successfully favored the middle class over the poor, because statistically poor people don’t vote. His approach was called the “Third Way.”
George W. Bush added the Religious Right to the Republican base to win two terms in the 2000s.
President Obama won his elections by basically rallying the traditional Democratic base of the young, women, minorities, working classes and educated professionals.
Obama successfully followed Bill Clinton’s example of appealing to the middle class, framing the Republicans as old white guys out of touch with the real world demographics of the second decade of the 21st century.
As you can see, political parties have changed with the times and the issues. Both parties divide the nation during elections just as George Washington warned us in 1796. It’s to their advantage to do so.
Fortunately, this republic has had years of political conflict to harden itself to these divisions. The divisions we are experiencing now are nothing compared to our past.
We may fight and argue, but the union is secure.