How The 2 Major American Political Parties Evolved

In his 1796 Farewell Address, President George Washington warned against allowing American political parties, but subsequent leaders became partisan anyway.

Dec 20, 2022By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
evolution of american political parties
An image of the mascots of the two major American political parties, via


One of the founding principles of the American republic was nonpartisanship, so how did the 2 party system evolve? In the United States Constitution and its amendments, there is no mention of political parties. Nine years after the Constitution was written, first US president George Washington used his famous Farewell Address to warn against American political parties. For better or worse, political parties sprang up just a few years later and have been a major part of the American political landscape ever since. Today, most elections above the municipal level are partisan, meaning candidates identify their political party. This article explores how the two major American political parties evolved and have come to affect national, state, and county elections.


1787-89: James Madison & Factions 

James Madison, the principal writer of the US Constitution, believed that systems needed to control the excesses of factions, via the Council on Foreign Relations


Although America became an independent nation without having fully formed political parties, such parties existed in England. Wanting to avoid the intrigue and struggle of the Whig and Tory parties, America’s Founding Fathers were largely against political parties. At the time, politically minded groups were often referred to as factions, and it was feared that aggressive factions could tear the fledgling republic apart. When the United States Constitution was written in 1787, it contained no mention of American political parties. However, the man who primarily crafted the Constitution, James Madison, acknowledged that the causes of factions could not be eliminated; humans would always have political disagreements.


After the Constitution was written, it had to be ratified by nine of the thirteen original US states. Those who supported this ratification were known as Federalists and could be considered America’s first political party. Those opposed to ratification and who wished for individual states to maintain their current powers were known as Anti-Federalists. Ironically, these two parties disagreed over the dangers of political parties, or factions. In one of the Federalist Paper editorials in support of ratifying the Constitution, James Madison argued that the Constitution would force factions to compromise with each other for a candidate acceptable to multiple factions to win an elected seat.


The Original American Political Parties: Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists

An 1862 poster showing the federal structure of the United States, via the National Endowment for the Humanities


The political dispute over ratifying the US Constitution remains pertinent today: how much power should the central government have over the states? Prior to the Constitution, the US operated under the rules of the Articles of Confederation, which gave almost all power to the individual states. After Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 nearly tore the new nation apart, the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The new Constitution gave much power to the new central government, including a powerful President who would serve as chief executive, commander-in-chief of the military, and head of state.

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Federalists supported the Constitution and its creation of a powerful central, or federal, government. Anti-Federalists disagreed and wanted most power to remain with the states, controlled by governors and state legislatures. Although the Federalists won the ratification dispute in 1789, the debate over the appropriate powers given to each layer of government–state and central–remained. The division of powers between the two layers is known as federalism and remains disputed today. To get the Constitution ratified, James Madison agreed to a Bill of Rights that included the Tenth Amendment: all powers not explicitly given to the central government, or denied to the states, belong to the states. Differing interpretations of how strictly the Tenth Amendment should be enforced lead to federalism controversies even today.


1796: First Partisan Presidential Election

An image commemorating US president George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, via the Maryland State Archives


The Federalist victory in the ratification debates led to military hero George Washington, leader of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, becoming the first US president by unanimous vote in the Electoral College. At the end of Washington’s second four-year term, he established a powerful precedent by deciding not to run for a third term. His famous 1796 Farewell Address warned against allowing American political parties and entering into foreign political alliances. Despite this admonition, later that autumn saw the first partisan presidential election: Federalist John Adams narrowly defeated Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson to win the presidency.


In 1800, Jefferson defeated Adams, who had been Washington’s vice president, to enact the first transfer of power across parties. Fortunately, this process was peaceful, and the young nation achieved a momentous milestone. Partisan disputes continued: Federalists believed in a strong central government, while Republicans (derived from Democratic-Republicans) favored more limits on the central government. In terms of foreign policy, the Federalists wanted closer ties with Britain while the Republicans supported France. Tensions over the violent French Revolution and an undeclared naval war between France and the United States led anti-France Federalists to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which punished people for speaking out against the government, leading to Republicans criticizing Federalists as opposing free speech.


1824: Democratic Party Born from Democratic-Republicans 

An 1840 poster calling Whigs and Democrats to attention, denoting the two factions split from the original Democratic-Republican Party, via the Library of Congress


The disputes between the first two formal American political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, would continue throughout the early 1800s. However, the Democratic-Republican Party quickly became dominant, and the Federalist Party faded away.  After the War of 1812, during James Monroe’s presidency, the Era of Good Feelings saw relative political unity in the United States for the first time since the Revolutionary War. When partisanship did return in the 1820s, it was within the dominant Democratic-Republican Party. Four candidates from this same party ran to replace Monroe as president in 1824, causing the large political party to split.


Those who favored states’ rights, populism, and slavery coalesced to create the Democratic Party. Their first prominent leader, Andrew Jackson, sparked the movement known as Jacksonian Democracy. He won the presidency in 1828 and was re-elected in 1832. Those Democratic-Republicans who favored stronger central government, representative democracy (power wielded by elected representatives more so than individual voters), and were less supportive of slavery eventually created the Whig Party. After the Jacksonian Era, which featured US presidents Andrew Jackson and his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, the Whigs won the election of 1840 with William Henry Harrison.


1850s: Rise of the Republican Party

A photograph of the schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin that is considered the birthplace of the Republican Party, via PBS Wisconsin Education


While the Democratic Party had begun in the mid-1820s with War of 1812 hero Andrew Jackson, the Republican Party took longer to emerge. After the Mexican-American War, the addition of new territory to the United States from the Mexican Cession intensified the debate over slavery. The Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave political victories to supporters of slavery, and the reaction by anti-slavery advocates spawned the creation of the Republican Party in 1854. The Whig Party, which had been seen as ineffective, had been reborn as a stronger, more focused political party.


In 1856, amid a background of slavery debates, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party faced off for the first time in a presidential election. It was a bitter contest, mostly over the expansion of slavery. Democrat James Buchanan won a narrow election, but in 1860 the Republican Party, which directly opposed slavery, won the presidency after Buchanan chose not to run for a second term. A split in the Democratic Party in 1860 helped Lincoln win the election, which prompted Southern states to secede from the Union in protest. These states had refused to put Lincoln on the ballot, and his victory was seen as a sign that the North could politically overwhelm the South from that point forward. The Civil War began months later.


1870s: Republican Party Becomes Pro-Business

An image of Republican US president William McKinley, proclaiming the benefits of capitalist competition, via the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)


The Union’s victory in the US Civil War began an era of Republican Party dominance in national politics. In the South, which maintained a largely rural economy and lifestyle, the Democratic Party was clung to as a repudiation of the North and its forcible abolition of slavery. The 1870s to the 1890s, an era known as the Gilded Age, featured a string of Republican presidents who favored a strong central government that supported big business. Government support for industries, which began during the Civil War, continued throughout the era of western settlement in the late 1860s and 1870s.


Support for industries was exemplified by Republican administrations in Washington giving land in the West to railroads and subsidizing the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Compromise of 1877 saw conservative Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes win the presidency in exchange for a deal to remove US troops from Southern states, which led those states to grant Hayes their votes in the Electoral College. This deal ended Reconstruction, the decade-long period whereby federal agencies politically reformed the former Confederate states. When Hayes took office in 1877, he removed federal troops from the South, and Reconstruction was ended. This largely eliminated African American equality as a primary political goal of the Republican Party.


1890s: Progressives Merge with Democrats

A photograph of William Jennings Bryan, the famous populist who was Democratic presidential nominee three times, via the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


The Gilded Age was terrific for the rich but terrible for the poor and working classes. In the South and West, farmers struggled due to low prices for their crops and discriminatory treatment by railroads, which charged them higher shipping prices than other freight. Populists, who supported policies that benefited the common worker, quickly became popular in these rural areas. In the 1890s, the Populists merged with the Democratic Party in order to be competitive in elections. Many of these Populists were progressives who believed that the government should be more involved in the markets to make economic competition fair.


Progressives in the 1890s supported increased regulations on railroads, banks, and monopolies. A popular progressive, William Jennings Bryan, became the Democratic presidential nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Bryan is often considered the first modern presidential candidate because he actively campaigned for the office, which was a rarity at the time. To support the working classes, Bryan famously urged the United States to abandon the gold standard and allow more money to be created. Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech and focus on economic issues helped change the image of the Democratic Party from solidly pro-South and pro-agriculture to pro-labor.


1912: Wilson Gives Democrats a Less Rural Feel

An image of US president Woodrow Wilson, who was elected in 1912 and oversaw American success in World War I, via the Foundation for Economic Education


The merger between Populists/Progressives and Democrats helped strengthen the Democratic Party, but not enough to overcome the Republican Party’s post-Civil War dominance. Republican administration victories in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy victories a few years later–part of the Roosevelt Corollary–helped create an image of a Republican Party that was aggressive on foreign policy. In 1912, however, the Republican Party split when “Teddy” Roosevelt, who had served two terms between 1901 and 1909, returned to challenge his successor, Robert Howard Taft. Unable to win the GOP (Grand Old Party, a nickname for the Republican Party) presidential nomination, Roosevelt created the Bull Moose Party to run for the White House.


The move split the GOP, and Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson won the presidency. Although a Democrat and a Southerner, Wilson was a political science professor whose academic nature helped make the Democratic Party appear more urban and sophisticated. Wilson continued the Progressive Era reforms of his Republican predecessors but opposed racial equality and limited the number of African Americans working in the federal government. The expansion of federal power during World War I continued the trend of the Democratic Party appearing more urban and labor-oriented rather than rural and agricultural.


1933: New Deal Liberalizes Democratic Party

A 1935 poster showing Public Works Administration (PWA) projects across the United States as part of the New Deal, via the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee


Republicans returned to power after Wilson’s second term ended in 1920. However, the Great Depression that began in late 1929 quickly soured many Americans on pro-business laissez-faire economics. The Republican administration of US President Herbert Hoover believed, as did many conservatives at the time, that the federal government should not be heavily involved in economic regulation, stimulus, or social welfare. As a result, the deep recession lingered, and voters overwhelmingly chose Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in 1932. FDR promised Americans a “New Deal” and active federal intervention to ease the recession.


Upon taking office in 1933, FDR embarked on a massive package of executive orders and legislation to get federal dollars flowing through the economy. Much of this involved infrastructure projects that were conducted by new federal agencies. Social welfare reforms were also made, including the creation of Social Security. The programs, and their economic boosts, were so popular that FDR was elected to a record four presidential terms. Between the New Deal and World War II, the federal government massively expanded, and the Democratic Party became synonymous with liberal economic policies and strong government regulations of industries.


1948: Democrats Begin to Split Over Civil Rights

A photograph of conservative Dixiecrats in Birmingham, Alabama in 1948, via the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)


The success of the New Deal gave the Democratic Party dominance over national politics, similar to what the Republican Party had enjoyed after the US Civil War. African Americans shifted from being loyal Republicans to be loyal Democrats. Economic woes, followed by World War II, kept Democrats largely united until 1948 when conservative Democrats in the South began complaining about federal overreach and the emergence of equal rights policies for African Americans.


With the Democratic Party dominant nationwide, a split erupted between Southern Democrats and mainstream, typically Northern and urban Democrats. The Dixiecrat Party, also known as the States’ Rights Democrats, put forth their own presidential candidate, US Senator Strom Thurmond from South Carolina, in 1948. Although the Dixiecrats were unsuccessful (Democratic president Harry S. Truman won a second term) and folded quickly, the split was irreversible. Southern Democrats who supported segregation became increasingly at odds with the rest of the Democratic Party, which slowly embraced Civil Rights.


1964-1968: Civil Rights “Reverses” the Parties

US President Lyndon B. Johnson addressing a joint session of Congress in November 1963, shortly after succeeding John F. Kennedy, via the National Archives


Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, actively pursued Civil Rights for minorities. When he was tragically assassinated in November 1963, his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, aggressively pursued the same goals. In 1964, Johnson helped push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. This was the most wide-ranging civil rights legislation in history and used the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution to force businesses to end discriminatory hiring practices and segregation of services. Outraged at the end of segregation, many Southern Democrats left the Democratic Party.


In 1968, former governor of Alabama George Wallace ran an independent presidential campaign focused on law-and-order policies. Civil unrest in the US due to Vietnam War protests, urban poverty, and Civil Rights struggles made many moderate voters agree with some of Wallace’s positions. Although Wallace did not win, the Republican Party adopted much of his law-and-order rhetoric. Many Southern Democrats who had left the Democratic Party after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 joined the increasingly-conservative Republican Party under Richard Nixon.


1980: Neoconservatism Finalizes GOP Evolution

An image of Republican US president Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), a tax-cutting conservative known for aggressive foreign policy, via the Council on Foreign Relations


The shift of Southern Democrats to the Republican Party during the Nixon era (1968-1974) had effectively reversed which party was “liberal” and which party was “conservative.” In 1980, former California governor Ronald Reagan won the Republican presidential nomination. He criticized the excessive growth of the federal government during the 1960s, high taxes, and alleged weakness in American foreign policy. He led the neoconservative (or neocon) movement that called for stronger national defense and combined it with the New Right, a conservative religious coalition return to “traditional American values,” to the forefront.


Between 2008 and 2012, the two major parties became increasingly polarized along “party lines.” The Democrats nominated the first nonwhite candidate, US Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, for president in 2008, solidifying its support for marginalized groups in American society. Under Obama, Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act, the biggest health care law since the creation of Medicare in 1965. This law, which placed regulations and restrictions on health insurance companies, provoked a conservative backlash known as the Tea Party Movement. In 2010 and 2012, several ultraconservative “Tea Party” Republicans were elected to Congress, often vowing to reduce the power of the federal government (and specifically remove or restrict the Affordable Care Act).


Conclusion: Democrats & GOP Switched Sides on Social Issues Between 1860 & 1980

A photo of Latino voters supporting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, potentially signaling a realignment, via the American Enterprise Institute


Between 1860 and 1980, the two major American political parties largely switched sides on social issues. The Democratic Party, socially conservative and rural in 1860, evolved to become socially liberal and largely urban by 1980. Conversely, the Republican Party, socially liberal and primarily urban in 1860, became socially conservative and more rural over time. A series of realigning elections shifted major groups of voters from one party to another, helping speed the evolution of both parties. In 1932, the Great Depression caused a major realignment that brought many African American voters into the Democratic Party. Similarly, the 1964 presidential election, after the passage of major Civil Rights legislation, brought more minorities and social liberals into the Democratic Party while driving conservative whites away from it.


Economic malaise, high crime rates, and foreign policy struggles during the 1970s helped recharge the Republican Party in 1980 under presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. In 2016, the most recent realigning election, many blue-collar workers and members of labor unions supported Republican candidate Donald Trump, abandoning decades of loyalty to the Democratic Party. The latest theory is that white working-class voters feel largely abandoned by the Democratic Party, which has recently supported urban-centered, high-tech industries instead of manufacturing and energy. Political scientists are constantly studying realigning elections to determine what draws voters to abandon traditional loyalties: is it cultural characteristics or economic interest?

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.