Parts I through III of “How Our Parties Switched” was all about context. I unpacked the historical meanings of “liberal” and “conservative.” We took a look at the political tendencies of the British-American colonists up through the American Revolution and Articles of Confederation period, each a victory for liberals who wanted to change traditional systems of government by giving power to individual states, with voters having power over those states.
I left off with the drafting of the Constitution in 1787, which attempted a conservative course-correction by re-centralizing authority into a federal government while limiting the people’s power over that government. However, not all Americans trusted this turn toward the right, so a debate emerged across the 13 states: to ratify or not to ratify?
It is in this debate where we see the emergence of two political factions that become the progenitors of our two major parties. It’s best to first familiarize ourselves with these two factions if we want to understand How Our Parties Switched.
My analysis from Part I said that we don’t actually have a liberal major party and we don’t have a conservative major party — at least not if we use the classical definitions of those terms. The modern Democratic Party is generally liberal on social issues by promoting more choice in areas like abortion, marriage, drugs, gender, and more. On economic issues, however, they push for less choice and a stronger federal presence by being in favor of more government taxing and regulation to fund programs and keep people safe. In the US, of course, we call all of that “liberal,” but historically it doesn’t quite work, nor does it work in other countries. (In Australia, for example, the Liberal Party is center-right, or what we would call conservative. Confusing, I know. That’s what you have me for.)
Meanwhile, our Republican Party is certainly conservative on those same social issues from above, as it favors traditional approaches and shared morality rather than having too much change too quickly. Yet, on economic issues, they are actually classically liberal (like the Australian Liberal Party). Republicans want the government out of our wallets and economic choices, instead favoring low taxes and less regulation. They also promote more local and state control over programs rather than a centralized government telling states, towns, and people what to do, which is another historically liberal position. And yet, in America today, that stance is called, quite ahistorically, “conservative.”
The entire reason I did Part I and so carefully defined our terms both there and here is because back at the outset of independence and our Constitution during the late 1700s, the first US citizens would have used classical conservative and liberal terminology, not the terminology we mistakenly use in modern politics. Therefore, if we attempt to compare our modern parties to theirs by using words like “liberal” and “conservative,” it simply won’t work, because those words meant something different back then. Also clouding the comparison between our political parties and theirs is that their first parties, like ours today, were also “liberal” on some issues and “conservative” on others.
So to resolve this confusion and put us on firm footing moving forward, I wanted to formulate descriptions of our two parties that actually do hold true across all of American history, and these descriptions cannot be calling one party “liberal” and the other “conservative.”
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. One party has popularity in northern, urban, and coastal areas. It wants national political and economic policy, but it’s usually more socially liberal.
2. One party has popularity in southern, rural, and inland areas. It wants a decentralized government with power to states to make their own decisions for local matters, but it’s usually more socially conservative.
With that in mind, we’re finally ready to look at our first two major political factions.
Part IV: Our first two factions become our first two parties
In the debate over whether to ratify the Constitution, a group of Americans in favor of the new document became known as the federalists. I don’t think we should get capitalize the group’s name, as they weren’t a proper political party yet; there was little leadership or money-raising associated with them, nor did any lawmaker have the word officially attached to their name. Instead, it was a group of Americans bound by an idea: we should have a strong, centralized, federal government, and this new Constitution would do that. Solidifying the label, three drafters and champions of the new document — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay — promoted its ratification through the hallowed Federalist papers, a series of 85 essays published in newspapers that aimed to persuade the swing state of New York toward ratification.
Clearly these federalists were politically conservative. They feared the unruly mob intimidating government, as reflected by Shays’s Rebellion. They didn’t want the people to have too much power over the government, as state constitutions had granted them. These fears motivated them to replace the weak, decentralized national government created by the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution, the latter creating a strong government limiting the people’s power over it by removing voters from directly electing most of the federal government. (Only the House of Representatives, remember, was directly elected. The Senate, president, and judiciary was not.) The federalists saw these as corrections to the flaws of a government crafted by overeager liberals.
But in the wake of the American Revolution, what type of American would actually support this new document that limited voters’ power? There were actually many. Here is where we see demographic and geographic patterns emerge.
Generally supportive of the Constitution were affluent Americans — bankers, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, merchants, and anyone holding government debt (that is, anyone owed money by the government as a result of prior bonds and other loans). These citizens, typically educated, not only saw the benefits of a more cohesive government and economy — the lack of which had put the country in financial straits during the Articles period — but they stood to personally benefit in two key ways.
First, they were often the holders of government debt. Although poorer patriotic Americans did indeed loan money to the government during the revolution, or perhaps they worked as soldiers in exchange for IOUs, they often sold these debts to wealthier speculators during a time where it was uncertain they would ever be paid back. Let’s say, for example, that the government owed a common American $100 in three years. This struggling American during a recession may agree to sell their bond or IOU to a speculator for just $50, which would be some payment now, rather a hopeful full payment later. Many affluent Americans had bought up this debt, and they saw a stronger government as a means to ensure they’d be paid back in full and make a sizable profit.
Second, richer Americans, the framers of the Constitution included, saw the danger in an overly democratic government. Democracy suggests that 60% of the poorest Americans could force legislatures to seize the property and wealth of the richer 40% Americans. Democracy says that’s okay. The 40%, and freedom itself, would not. (Here we could keep in mind the perhaps apocryphal Benjamin Franklin quote: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”) For these reasons, middle-to-upper class Americans were typically federalists and in favor of the new stabilizing document.
Now for the geographic connection. Where do affluent people live? Back then, as often today, they lived in pricier, more developed coastal areas and in the cities, where trade was conducted. Bankers, lawyers, businessmen, and doctors found living in densely populated areas crucial to their livelihood; living in spread out rural areas would make it exceedingly difficult to see enough clients. As a result, this urban professional class stuck to cities and coasts, and so cities and coasts favored the new Constitution.
This living pattern also does much to explain why northern Americans were generally more in favor of this stronger federal government. The north was more densely populated, as it had been throughout colonial history. The Puritan New England base encouraged tightly knit towns, where a community was within walking distance of their local Congregationalist church. Near New England, the populated cities of New York and Philadelphia also greatly favored the Constitution, as did largely coastal New Jersey and Delaware.
Down south, however, the region was much more spread out. The warmer climate and more fertile soil of the southern region attracted planters in large numbers. The plantation economy of the colonial south deterred densely populated regions, making the urban professional class much rarer in the south than in the north.
Instead, the south was dominated by farmers, from wealthy plantation owners to those with small plots that nurtured a cash crap or two. Naturally bigger properties, unlike the compact north, quickly drove new populations inland. These inland farmers lived far from the political and economic elites on the coast. As a result, they didn’t know those elites well and harbored a deep distrust of greedy bankers, educated lawyers, and corrupt politicians. They feared the kind of power and taxation that would come with a strong federal government based in Philadelphia or New York, and they instead preferred keeping elected state governments as the primary political mechanisms.
This group became known as the antifederalists. They opposed the new federal government and preferred to stick with the Articles of Confederation with all its faults. They particularly feared the Constitution’s executive branch, which did not exist in the Articles of Confederation, thinking a strong, one-person chief executive would ultimately devolve into a monarch.
The fault lines had formed, and we’re still feeling the aftershocks today. On the primary political question of the time, northern and coastal Americans, particularly the affluent, were the conservative group, hoping to turn back the clock and centralize government authority, while the rural type favored a liberal system with a weak government that stayed out of people’s pockets.
And yet, on the primary social and moral question of the time — slavery — the southern states, who claimed a reliance on the institution, were infamously conservative on the issue, resisting change and the liberty that change would provide. Northern states, meanwhile, were decidedly the more liberal region on this question. In fact, northern legislatures had already begun abolishing slavery in their states. Soon, we know northerners will look to extend abolition across the country.
At the Constitutional Convention and ratification process, these two groups had their share of wins and losses. Some antifederalists finally switched once the federalists promised a bill of rights would be added as a series of amendments to the Constitution if enough antifederalists agreed to ratify. However, the document, with framers not wanting to lose southern support, did not abolish slavery, a hesitance later lamented by abolitionists who recognized the perishability of revolutionary time.
With this support, enough states approved of the document by the summer of 1788, and the Constitution successfully centralized the government.
After ratification, the two factions retreated back to their normal lives, but not for long. In 1788 and 1789, the First Congress and the first President were elected. Soon, during President Washington’s first term, his own cabinet resurrected these two factions and gave birth to our first official political parties.
Part V: The Federalists and Democratic-Republicans (and the Whigs!)
Doris Kearns Goodwin memorialized Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet in her book “Team of Rivals,” but Lincoln was not the first president to attempt teamwork between dissenting voices. When George Washington assembled the first cabinet, he brought in Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. (Those two positions, of course, are prominently placed in the presidential line of succession, the subject of my prior post.) While ambassador to France, Jefferson only warily approved of the Constitution, although he’d spend the next ten years working to ensure that the document was not elastically used by the likes of Hamilton, whose vociferous support of an energetic, centralized government stood in deep contrast to Jefferson’s vision for the nation.
On the question of government, Hamilton was the strong government conservative (although, as the co-founder of the New York Manumission Society that advanced abolition and civil rights, a social liberal), while Jefferson was the states’ rights liberal (and prominent owner of 600 enslaved Africans across his life). Hamilton’s work inside Washington’s cabinet successfully pushed for the assumption of state debts into the federal government (much to the delight of speculators and much to the chagrin of the common Americans who had sold that debt), the enacting of an excise tax on various goods (most notably whiskey), the implementation of various tariffs to protect American businesses, and the creation of a national Bank of the United States.
Each of these initiatives increased the power of the new federal government, often in ways not expressly permitted by the Constitution. Hamilton argued that the Constitution contained certain “implied powers,” most notably with Article I, Section 9’s “Necessary and Proper” Clause, which allowed Congress to do anything necessary and proper to execute its other powers. These were big steps for big government.
Those that favored these big steps were the urban professionals and others who wanted the US economy geared around commercial prospects. They rallied around Hamilton as the leader of a congealing political party. This is the birth of the Federalist Party, which looked a lot like the federalists who supported the new document in the first place.
Jefferson fought Hamilton all along the way, first within the cabinet and then after President Washington sided with Hamilton a few too many times, a pattern that forced Jefferson’s resignation. Jefferson felt that these Hamiltonian policies went beyond the Constitution’s scope. Many agreed with him, including Hamilton’s former political ally, James Madison, who concurred that Hamilton was going beyond the vision of the document he helped write.
These two Virginians found common cause with other southern and rural small-government political liberals who felt their initial fears — that the Constitution made a tyrannical government possible — were manifesting in the person of Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson and Madison reassembled most of the old antifederalists and organized an official political party of their own. Preferring a more patriotic and less disloyal sounding name than “anti”-federalists, they called themselves Republicans, as they stood for republicanism, and in some cases the “Democratic-Republican” Party (the label I’ll use moving forward so as to avoid confusion with the unrelated Republican Party of later history). With the support of the large agrarian class, this party went toe-to-toe with the Federalists for the next two decades.
The first decade after the Constitution favored the Hamiltonian Federalists. Our first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, favored the strong federal government approach, the latter even openly identifying as a Federalist. This party controlled Congress as well, with Hamilton serving as a de facto prime minister behind the scenes.
However, by 1800, after the Federalist Party bifurcated between Adams and Hamilton, momentum swung to the Democratic-Republicans, and it never swung back. The War of 1812 then doomed the Federalists after New England discussed seceding from the country to sign a separate peace treaty with the British, right before war ended and General Andrew Jackson triumphed at the Battle of New Orleans. A bad look for Federalists, the party quickly collapsed. From 1800 to 1824, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe each won two consecutive terms, a quarter-century stretch of Democratic-Republican, Virginian presidents. By the 1820s, no Federalists were even considered for president.
With the death of the Federalist Party, what’s sometimes called America’s First Party System (1792-1824) ended. In 1824, four Americans calling themselves Democratic-Republicans competed against each other. The one with the most Federalist ties, John Quincy Adams (son of the only Federalist president), emerged triumphant, perhaps a result of a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and House Speaker Henry Clay, who allied with Adams to deny Andrew Jackson the presidency before later being tabbed by Adams to be Secretary of State.
When an incensed Jackson, with the support of common Americans who distrusted the Adams name, won the rematch four years later, his divisive leadership fragmented the Democratic-Republican electorate and returned us to a two-party system. His three elections and two terms were known for appealing to the common man, particularly farmers, and these Jacksonians worked to extend democracy beyond the political control of the landed class. (These changes included dropping landowning requirements for voting and tying a state’s electoral votes to the state’s popular will.) By the end of Jackson’s presidency and the Election of 1836, supporters of Jackson and this new political approach simply called themselves Democrats. They were most popular where the old antifederalists and Democratic-Republicans had been — in rural areas, particularly in the south and inland. This Democratic Party has been around ever since, but for reasons I promise I’ll eventually get to, they look a lot different today.
The landed class didn’t appreciate getting neutered by democratic Democrats, nor did they care for Jackson’s leadership, particularly his penchant of acting unconstitutionally and without the guidance of Congress and the Supreme Court, so they looked to form an opposition by reassembling the old northern Federalists under a less toxic party banner. They chose the old “Whig” label from Parliament and the colonial period, as standing up to “King Andrew” became the central part of their platform. By the 1840s, the Whig Party was winning elections, including a couple presidential ones, mostly due to support from the north and commercial class along the coast. (Since both elected Whig presidents — William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor — died in office, their ascending vice presidents — John Tyler and Millard Fillmore — give us four total Whig presidents.)
The Whig Party, like its Federalist antecedent, should look familiar to us. Like the Hamiltonians, the Whigs worked for a protective tariff to protect American business, and they promoted a National Bank. They also advocated for federal spending to unify the country through infrastructure. Whigs favored rule of law over the tyranny of the majority, a threat feared by the federalists who pushed for the Constitution and now the Whigs who distrusted the democratic uprising from commoners. This new party had the support of the urban middle class while having much less support from farmers and other unskilled laborers who wanted to protect their new political clout.
In other words, the evolution continued…
Unfortunately for the Whigs, they were short-lived, as was this Second Party System (1828-1852). By the 1850s, one issue in the United States dwarfed all others — slavery. The southern-based Democrats were obviously in support of keeping it. They also worked to spread it, as more pro-slavery western states meant more pro-slavery Congresspersons in the House and Senate. The new Whigs, hoping to win elections with broad coalitions, tried to pave a more moderate road. Rather than hammering a hardline abolition stance into their platform, they appeared open to states with slavery keeping slavery while new states would get to decide it for themselves.
For the increasing number of northern abolitionists, the Whigs’ timidity just wouldn’t do. Sensing this political vacuum, in 1854 a new party formed in the north. It was popular in urban areas, it wanted to legislate and enforce a national policy against slavery, and therefore it had nearly all African American support. It pulled from the Whigs, anti-slavery Democrats, and a few other small parties to create a new, powerful coalition.
They called themselves the Republican Party.
Part VI: The Democrats and Republicans
By the late 1850s, the Whig Party was dead, and the Republican Party replaced it. We finally have our two modern parties, which began our Third Party System (1856-1892). (Note: the Third Party System has nothing to do with third parties. I wish.) From 1856 until today, every presidential election, and nearly every Congressional election, will be won by one of these two parties.
Of course, these two parties look extremely different today compared to then. Heading into the Civil War, the Democrats, as noted above, were the southern slavery party. Conservative on the issue of slavery, they’ll fight to preserve their way of life.
Heading into the Election of 1860, however, the party couldn’t decide on a candidate. This division allowed the northern Republican Abraham Lincoln to win despite having only 39.8% of the popular vote while not carrying a single southern state.
The struggle became one over slavery and sovereignty. Southern Democrats adopted a states’ rights posture, fearing the victorious Republican Party would force their abolitionist platform on southern states. They returned to their antifederalist roots and wanted the national government totally out of their business. Therefore, similar to the Articles of Confederation, they created their own Confederate States of America, or the Confederacy, where states’ rights would take precedence. Almost paradoxically, they preferred this liberal-style government in order to refuse liberty to their enslaved African Americans, a liberal means to a conservative end.
Meanwhile, Lincoln and the north prosecuted a war to preserve the union and the federal government’s control over southern states, a conservative approach to government. And yet, the war was animated by the liberal desire to abolish slavery, particularly after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1865, the north won, the Confederacy lost, and the Union was preserved under northern Republican leadership. After the war, Republican-led Reconstruction tried to mend the country and weave freed slaves, or freemen, into the American social and economic fabric. Congress and the states passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, which abolished slavery, guaranteed equal rights, and granted suffrage to African Americans (although women of all races didn’t yet have the franchise). The Republican-controlled Congress passed other legislation, like the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and Freedman’s Bureau bill, to help African Americans.
These initiatives were resisted by southerners. Some were even vetoed by new president Andrew Johnson, a southern Democrat who, in the spirit of unity, had been paired with Lincoln for his second election before becoming president upon Lincoln’s assassination just one month into the term. The Republican Congress regularly overrode Johnson’s vetoes. (In fact, the 15 overrides of a single president remains the record despite Johnson not even serving a full term, to say nothing of a second.)
Meanwhile, Democrats re-elected pre-Civil War leaders and even brought back Black Codes. After Reconstruction, when the army was pulled from southern states, we saw a rise in Jim Crow laws, the KKK, statues glorifying Confederate leadership, and a culture that emphasizes segregation and a ruling white class. (To be fair, northern states were not without their share of Jim Crow laws and white supremacy.) These states’ rights-minded Democrats applauded the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed states to write segregation into their local laws.
These patterns continued into the twentieth century. The Republican-controlled north continued to push national policies, as they did with civil rights. As late as Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, the GOP should be seen as the big government, progressive party. Indeed, Roosevelt himself was known for pushing progressive causes like trustbusting, the regulation of railroads, and his “Square Deal” that worked for conservation, consumer protection, and limiting the power of corporations.
When Roosevelt declined to run for a third term in 1908, his friend and War Secretary William Howard Taft ran in his place and easily defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Taft did it by carrying the north while Democrats’ popularity, even as last century began, remained in their “Solid South.”
And yet, at the same time, American politics had begun feeling the winds of change. The Fourth Party System was already underway.
We are now, after 8000 words, ready for…
Part VII: How Our Parties Switched (finally!)
In my next post, we’ll get to the seventh and final part of this series, when I really will talk about How Our Parties Switched.
I hope to see you then.
Language has been edited to reflect that “Democratic-Republican” was not the most common contemporaneous term for the party name. PPFA thanks a reader who pressed for the clarification.