History of Political Parties

Pottstown Historical Society

March 20, 2017 Program

“History of Political Parties in the U.S.”

Speaker:  Patricia Norred Derr, PhD ; Associate Professor of History at Kutztown University.

Patti is a highly regarded instructor in courses on American colonial history, religion, American popular culture, African-American history, and historical methodology.

Patti is a transplanted Texan, who received her BA from the University of Texas at Austin, her MA in European History from the University of North Texas, and her PhD in American History from the University of Missouri-Columbia.  She was the recipient of a Fulbright Research Award, and has participated in numerous public panels and programs.

Patti is the newest member of the Board of Directors of the Pottstown Historical Society, and also serves on the Pottstown Historical Architectural Review Board (HARB).


The following are the notes from Patti’s presentation:

Political Parties in American History:  What’s in a Name?

  1. Political parties and constitutionality
  2. Roots in English Parliament— Consider: the robinarchy; patronage and quid pro quo; the Tories and the Whigs;  Ideology of the opposition Radical Whigs influenced colonists, American fear of corruption
  3. Madison; Federalist 10, and factions

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

  1.  The First Political Party System: The Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans
  2. Originated with Hamilton’s financial plans, in 1791-1795.
  3. Beliefs—both believed they were saving the Republic from the other group.

Federalist:  strong federal government; Broad support for business; goal to make citizens’ first allegiance to the national government, not states; government should have broad power to enforce and define “virtue”.

Democratic-Republicans:  limited national government; support for farmers; virtue comes from the people, not the government.Democratic-Republicans’s win election of 1800 wining both the Presidency and the house of Congress; only the judiciary remained Federalist.  Thomas Jefferson thought his victory marked the end of political parties, stating, “We are all Federalists, We are all Republicans.”

Democratic-Republicans’s win election of 1800 wining both the Presidency and the house of Congress; only the judiciary remained Federalist.  Thomas Jefferson thought his victory marked the end of political parties, stating, “We are all Federalists, We are all Republicans.”

12th Amendment:  Separate votes in Electoral College for president and vice-president.

III.  Federalist party ends in 1815

Opposition to War of 1812 led to consideration of secession. Once the plan was discovered, Federalists were completely discredited.  From 1815-1824, essentially one party “National Republicans.”

  1. Beginnings of “2nd Political Party System.”
  2. Importance of Panic of 1819
  3. John Quincy Adams vs. Andrew Jackson: the establishment vs. the new voice from the West.   AJ said to represent “the common man.”  Didn’t win—AJ claimed “corrupt bargain.”
  4. Election of 1828:  Jackson wins in a landslide.  Calls himself a Democrat;  begins taking on symbols of the Eastern establishment—prime target:  The Second Bank of the United States  (Nicholas Biddle)—housed in Philadelphia.  Jackson supported state banks


By the way, Jackson first used the donkey to symbolize the Democrats (stubborn, strong-willed and determined).  One of his political opponents called him a “jackass,” and Jackson decided to take that as a compliment.

  • Creation of the Whig Party: why the name?

The Party created as the opposition party to “King Andrew I”: Whigs were the opposition party in Parliament to royal power.

  • Development of Third Parties

One historian has called the 19th-century “freedom’s ferment.”  The establishment is challenged by forces within and without the major political parties:  abolitionism, women’s rights, anti-immigrant, Anti-secret societies,  expansion without slavery.

Antebellum America saw its share of third parties.

  1. Anti-masonic party—1832; opposed to secret societies; convinced that the Masons were going to take over the country. Not as farfetched as we would think.  Masons in Europe and America exercised tremendous power, and its secrets were seen as dangerous, particularly in a republic.
  2. Liberty Party: 1848—the abolitionist party. Ran William Lloyd Garrison as president. He wanted an immediate end to slavery.
  3. The Know-Nothing or the American Party—1840-54: Anti-immigration, particularly Irish immigration.  Also opposed to slavery, but wanted blacks to stay in the south.  (Know-nothings were responsible for the Kensington Riots in Philadelphia in 1844.)
  4. The Free Soil Party (1848)—Slogan: Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Men–wanted to keep western territories free from slavery and blacks.

Mid-19th century known as the “Age of the Common Man”.  It is immaterial whether or not the name was accurate because people believed it to be true.  Between 1800 and 1850, literacy increased because public schools became a reality for most of the nation; property requirements for voting were either lowered or eliminated making large numbers of white men eligible to vote.  Most importantly, political parties became legitimate.  Party loyalty was rewarded.  Very high voter turn-out.  In 1840, the largest percentage of white men voting was larger than ever before—somewhere around 80%.  The Democrats did not win, however.  The Whig, William Henry Harrison, did.  Harrison did have a vice-president, John Tyler, who was a Democrat.  Tyler served most of Harrison’s term since Harrison caught a cold during his inauguration.  It turned into pneumonia, and Harrison died after 44 days in office.

  • The Third Party System

The Creation of the Republican Party

The build-up to the Civil War was devastating to many aspects of life, including political parties.  The Whigs split into northern and southern sections in 1854 after they could not agree on opposing or supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the residents of western territories to decide whether or not to allow slavery in their territory.  This bill effectively overturned the Missouri Compromise which had prohibited slavery from any future state north of Missouri’s southern border, except Missouri.

The Republican party developed in 1854 as a purely regional, and coalition party.  It gathered together northern Whigs, Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, and abolitionists under one banner with one plank in their party platform:  slavery cannot expand into the western territories.  (That was the only thing they could agree on.)  There were no Republicans south of Maryland.

It was during the Civil War that the elephant was first used to symbolize the GOP.  The political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, brought the elephant into broad use for the GOP.  (soldiers used the phrase, “seeing the elephant” as a metaphor for combat).

In 1860, the Democratic Party split into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery.  The Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglass.  The Republicans, meeting in New York, nominated Abraham Lincoln, who was seen as a “safe choice.”  Not only did Southern Democrats nominate a second Democrat for president, but southerners who were not Democrats nominated someone else.  Their names were Breckenridge and Bell (if anyone cares!).

The Copperheads: These were northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War.  They believed that compromise with the South was possible.  They did not believe that the Union should be split over slavery.  Some Copperheads were tried for treason (some had advocated the violent overthrow of the government) in 1864.  They were convicted and sentenced to death.  The Supreme Court overruled the convictions and the sentences because they should have been tried in a civilian, not a military, court.  Copperheads were prominent in Ohio, but significant numbers in southern PA.

After the Civil War, the Democrats, both north and south, have a common enemy—the Republicans.  The Radical Republicans pushed through a harsher plan of action toward the Confederacy than Lincoln might have wanted.  Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was a southerner, but not elite, and wanted southern elites to be beholden to him.

VII.  The End of Reconstruction and the Rise of the Bourbon Democrats

By 1876, the North was tired of trying to police the South.  The country was in a major depression, and Northern politicians wanted to focus elsewhere.  Bourbon democrats in both north and south favored laissez-faire capitalism and leaving the south alone to deal with the issue of the former slaves.  Southern Bourbons (also known as the Redeemers) were interested in returning to the class and racial system of the antebellum South, with one exception.  In place of a plantation society, the Bourbons wanted the South to industrialize.  One key industry—lumber.  The Bourbons in the South wanted to join in the industrial development that occurred in the north after the war, but they were too late.  To paraphrase C Vann Woodward—the South arrived ready to party while the rest of the country was nursing a hangover.

In the election of 1876, neither Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican, nor Samuel B. Tilden, the Democrat, had the necessary number of electoral college votes.  In dispute were votes in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida.  Depending on which electors were seated, the states would swing Republican or Democrat.

Because the electoral college vote had to be ratified by both Houses of Congress, the country had a problem.  Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, and the Senate by Republicans.  Set the stage for the Compromise of 1876.  Congress created an independent commission:  7 Dems, 7 Reps, and 1 Independent.  (entirely unconstitutional) To decide the election.  Then the wheeling and dealing began.  The Republicans wanted to be competitive in the South, so they advocated the removal of federal troops from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, effectively ending what remained of Reconstruction.  Hayes famously said that the South would best handle the situation of the freedmen.  Hayes agreed to select one Southern Democrat for his cabinet.  Chose a man named David Keys as postmaster general.  Hayes also agreed to push more economic development in the south by supporting railroad construction, which he never really did.  The Dems also agreed to support James A. Garfield for Speaker of the House.

However, reconstruction was over, and the country turned its attention to the creation of industry.  From this time forward, the two major parties are the Republicans and the Democrats. The names stayed the same, but the policies and constituencies changed.

VIII.  The Gilded Age

During the second half of the 19th century, the transcontinental railroad was finished, oil was discovered and the steel industry flourished.  Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan made millions, and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe flooded into New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

The Bourbon Democrats continued to favor laissez-faire liberal policies and adherence to the gold standard.   The Republicans, still largely a northern party, favored more protectionist schemes.  Favorite name of political faction:  the Mugwumps—Republicans who supported Democrat, Grover Cleveland over James G. Blaine for president. They thought Blaine was corrupt.

The gold standard and the elimination of greenbacks:  Greenbacks had been issued during Civil War to pay the troops and suppliers.  Greenbacks continued to be popular with farmers and the working class.  Wealthier classes favored the gold standard.    Mining interests also supported the use of silver.

The growth of the cities with the influx of new immigrants overwhelmed existing city governments and institutions.  Led to the development of political machines.  Tammany Hall, with its leader, William “Boss” Tweed is just the most famous example.  These political machines amassed immigrant, particularly Irish, votes for factions of the Democratic party.  These factions, together with farmers in the Midwest, will become the Populist Party, still a faction of the Democratic partyThe populists opposed the gold standard and banks, railroads, and mining interests.  Their great champion was the “Boy Orator of the Platte,” William Jennings Bryan, Democratic candidate for President in 1896 and 1900.  Bryan railed against the Gold standard, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Sparked by the horror of burgeoning squalor in the cities, lack of effective regulation of business, and desire to curb the power of the political bosses, the Progressives attracted both Republicans and Democrats from the 1890s- 1920s.

William McKinley was the candidate of choice for big business in 1896 and 1900, but his assassination in 1901 propelled Teddy Roosevelt, a progressive, into the presidency.  TR takes on the monopolies, like Standard Oil, but GOP frustrated at their lack of gains in the South, rebrand themselves as the “lily-white” Republicans.  TR formed the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party, not because he believed that Taft had not been decisive enough in breaking up monopolies, helping the Democrats.  The South, however, is still solidly Democratic.

The Presidency of FDR:   

 During the 1920’s, with the Republicans in charge, “the business of America was business.”  When the stock market crashed in 1929, Republican Herbert Hoover, resisted interfering in the economy.  When the economy got worse, and the US entered the Great Depression, Hoover’s remedies were too little, too late.  FDR won the election of 1932 in a landslide.  His New Deal policies cemented the Democrat identity as the champion of the working class.  Eleanor Roosevelt was able to expand that coalition to include African-Americans, and once World War II began, FDR issued an executive order saying that federal contractors could not discriminate against blacks. The Republicans thought that FDR was a traitor to his class.

The Roosevelt coalition largely held until the late 1960s, in spite of the breakaway of southern Democrats in 1948 as the Dixiecrat Party.  They opposed Truman’s commitment to civil rights, specifically desegregating the military.  LBJ was put on the ticket in 1960 to reassure the south about JFK (the two men could not stand each other.)  Until 1968, the South is still solidly Democratic.

Beginning in 1968, the GOP began a focused campaign in the South.  Nixon’s “southern strategy” focused on southern whites who felt alienated by the Democrats’ support for Civil Rights.  When Truman ran for president in 1948 (after integrating the US military), Strom Thurmond ran against him in the South on the “Dixiecrat” ticket. Southern whites were economically conservative as well.  They favored a smaller national government, and the Democrats between 1932 and 1968 had dramatically increased the size of government.  This marked the beginning of the southern changeover from solidly Democrat to solidly Republican, in spite of 3rd party challenge by George Wallace.

The two parties by 1980 had essentially switched sides.  The Democrats focused more and more on marginalized groups and sought to limit the power of big business.  The GOP, the party of emancipation and the trust-busters, now championed big business and the working class.


© 2017 Patti Norred Derr


The Pottstown Historical Society would like to thank Patti for her presentation to the Society and for sharing her notes with us.