American politics has seen a variety of eras and massive changes happen throughout its 200+ year history. Here's a general summary of the six party systems that have existed so far.
Also known as the Founding era, Era of Good Feelings,
Main Parties: The Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans (now known as the Democratic-Republicans; in their time they were only known as the Republicans).
Minor but notable third parties: None
Issues of the era: Hamiltonian Banking plan, Support/Opposition to the French Revolution, the Alien and Sedition Acts, foreign problems over trade with Britain and France, Westward expansion.
Existing from 1792 to 1824 and was characterized by political conflict between the first official political parties in U.S. history, the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans (now known as the Democratic-Republicans). Though in comparison to modern day they more resembled large factions than centralized organized parties, nominating candidates through caucuses not conventions.
Both parties were organized under the Presidency of George Washington by two of his cabinet officials. The Federalists by Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. Much to the dismay of Washington, who detested parties and factions, going so far as to warn against them in his Farewell Address.
There were some significant differences between the two factions. Federalists primarily favored a strong central government, a national banking system, generally pro-Britain, were based primarily in the northern states such as New England, as well as having a more aristocratic feel to it. The Jeffersonian Republicans in contrast were a rural/farmer based party that favored strong state governments (usually to defend slavery), based in primarily southern and emerging western states.
Federalists were in power for the first years of the era with Washington (considered a de facto federalist) and second President of the U.S., John Adams. However they would be brought down and eventually destroyed by a variety of factors. The first being their support and creation of the Alien and Sedition Acts which made it illegal to criticize the government as well as allow the U.S. to detain or deport any immigrants deemed dangerous to the government. This was used by the Jeffersonian Republicans as a sticking point against the Federalists,especially after the crisis with France died down, during the 1800 election with the Jeffersonians winning (despite some attempted shenanigans in the Congress by the Federalists). In addition the Federalists were hindered by their own leader, Alexander Hamilton, undermining them at the election due to his personal rivalry with John Adams.The Federalists would never see such high office again after their loss in 1800, not helped when Hamilton was shot and killed in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr. But the real death blow would come during the War of 1812 with the Hartford Convention.
The War of 1812 and Jeffersonian Republicans weren't popular in New England, primarily due to it's trade ties with Great Britain, and the remaining Federalists in New England gathered at Hartford, Connecticut to discuss a variety of issues concerning the issues of the day (in which many extremists advocated secession from the Union). After the war ended and the victorious Battle of New Orleans, the Federalists became tarnished as traitors to the country in the midst of a war. Virtually wiped out, so bad that James Monroe (the last President of this defined era) faced no significant challenger in either of his elections.
Monroe's presidency would come to be known as the “Era of Good Feelings” as the partisan fights that defined it came to die down and as post-war patriotism spread throughout the country. The Federalists died off as a national party, but kept up in some states as local vehicles. It would all come to end with the 1824 election as the Jeffersonian Republicans began to break down into factions.
One notable event near the end of the era however would the Missouri Compromise, where on a deal the newly petitioned territory of Missouri would be let in but only if the free-state of Maine was let in to balance out the Senate in terms of states that supported slavery and state's that didn't. It would be only turn out to be a temporary solution.
Also known as the Age of Jackson, Antebellum era,
Main Parties: The Democratic Party and the Whig Party (originally the Whigs were known as the National Republican Party before it merged with several other anti-Jacksonian forces like the Anti-Masons, and even some disgruntled Jackson supporters in the South)
Minor but notable parties: The Anti-Masonic Party, the Nullifier Party, the American Party (better known as the Know-Nothings), the Liberty Party, and the Free-Soil Party
Issues of the era: Voting expansion (to all white men, not just property holders), immigration, slavery, Jackson's Bank War, the Nullification Crisis, the South's peculiar institution, internal improvements, domestic affairs, Texas and Western annexation, abolitionism alongside free speech, Mexican-American War, did I mention slavery?
The First Party System came to an end with the election of 1824 that saw the once-dominant Jeffersonian Republicans divided between four different people vying for the Presidency; John Q. Adams (son of John Adams), Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. This split was due to the various groups with different beliefs now under the Republican banner as it was the only relevant national political organization around.
Neither candidate gained the required majority in the Electoral College and so it went to the House to be decided. Adams was declared President despite not having a plurality of the vote in either the popular or electoral college. It is believed this is due to Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, giving his support to Adams in exchange for the Secretary of State position (a stepping stone the White House during those days). Jackson and his supporters were infuriated by this and made life rather miserable for the second Adams presidency, blocking almost everything he wanted to get passed in Congress and essentially running a four year Presidential campaign against him. Eventually all culminating in an electoral victory for Jackson in 1828. It is here that we begin seeing the formation of the Democratic Party, a lot of it being behind the scenes work done by future President Martin Van Buren, with it's main base of support being in the southern states and the (at that point) western states.
It is also here that the opposition to Jackson began to form (usually united almost solely by their dislike of Jackson), which eventually became to known as the Whig Party. The name Whig was derived from a common term that Patriots used to refer to themselves during the American Revolution. It indicated hostility to the British King during the Revolutionary War, and the American Whig Party used it as a sign they opposed “King Andrew” like their forefathers opposed King George.
Originally the pro-Adams and pro-Clay men were the National Republican Party, obviously taking their name from the recently broken Republican Party. They lost the 1828 and 1832 election before merging with a few factions, such as the Anti-Masonic Party (whose views on protectionism and internal improvements closely mirrored the National Republicans) and some disgruntled Southern Jacksonian's (who disliked Jackson's use of the executive office, his choice of successor Martin Van Buren, and Jackson's take on state rights).
The only two men the Whigs ever elected were career soldiers, William Henry Harrison in 1840, and Zachary Taylor in 1848. Both also died (1841 and 1850 respectively). The Whigs never were really a united party, and continued losses on the bank, expansionist, and the sectional issue of slavery broke the party by the mid-1850's. Some migrated to the Know-Nothings, before a minor party that wanted to exclude certain (Roman Catholic) immigrants, but by 1854 (after a massive influx of poor Irish Catholic immigrants) it jumped from 0 to 54 seats held the balance of power in the House of Representatives.
The third parties of this era were eclectic to say the least. The Anti-Masons were a group dedicated to finding the scourge of Masonry they felt was destroying American Republicanism. Ironically their sole Presidential nominee (Attorney General William Wirt) was a former Freemason and argued on their behalf, saying they were mostly good Americans who would never place their beliefs over the country. He became the first member of a third party to win a state in a Presidential election (Vermont). The Anti-Masons were so similar to the National Republicans that they merged with them into the Whig Party.
The other third party of the late-1820's and 1830's was the Nullifier Party. They held that state's could nullify federal law (or refuse to follow it in their borders). They were centered mainly in South Carolina, but they did have little bits of support elsewhere in the Deep South, including a Representative from Alabama. They mostly joined the Jacksonians as they became the Democrats, although some joined the Whigs due to Jackson's opposition on states rights and his role in the Nullification Crisis.
In the 1840's the Liberty Party started, a minor abolitionist party who's only claim to fame was possible swinging the 1844 election. Nominee James Birney might have spoiled the results in New York and less significantly Michigan. If all of his votes went to Whig nominee Henry Clay, the election would have swung to him and the resulting decades would have played out very differently.
1848 would see the formation of the Free-Soil Party from anti-slavery Northern Democrats, Northern Whigs, and the Liberty Party during the debate over whether slavery should be allowed in the newly won western territories from the Mexican-American War. While opposed to slavery, it was not entirely an abolitionist party but more worried on free men being unable to economically compete with slaves if they were allowed in the western territories. Nominated former Democratic President, Martin Van Buren, for the head of the ticket in 1848 where they got almost 10% of the vote. Also sent nine Representatives and two Senators to the Congress for the 1849 - 1851 term. It would eventually merge with the Republican Party in 1854 to broaden the chances of opposition to slavery and the Democrats. Many former Free-Soilers would go on to be important figures in the early years of the Republican Party such as John Fremont (the first nominee of the Republican Party), Salmom Chase (Treasury Secretary in the Lincoln Administration and a Chief Justice), Charles Sumner (a Radical Republican Senator from Massachusetts).
Also known as the Civil War era, Gilded Age,
Main Parties: The Democratic Party and the Republican Party (National Union Party)
Minor but notable parties: The American Party (better known as the Know-Nothings), the Constitutional Unionists, the Liberal Republican Party, the Greenback Party, the Prohibition Party and the Populist Party
Issues of the era: The Civil War, emancipation and right's for freed slaves, Reconstruction, civil service reform, protective tariffs, Civil War pensions, incorporating the Western states, monetary policy, immigration.
With the sudden shock death of the Whig Party, and the inflammation of slavery as the overriding issue
The later half of the 1850's proved an important time for the slavery, as anti-slavery forces slowly converged into the Republican Party (named after the Jeffersonian Republicans). It was a merger of northern Know-Nothings, anti-slavery Democrats, anti-slavery Whigs, and the remnants of the abolitionist forces who vacillated between parties. In the South they were split between secessionist and unionist forces, as Fire-Eaters (radical pro-slavery forces) demanded immediate secession so no one could interfere with their right to slavery.
1856 was the first election the Republicans, now a mostly united party, contested. While losing the Presidency, they managed to cement themselves as the main opposition to the Democrats in the House and Senate. The Democrats lost voters in the North as the various opposition factions united against them, in some cases longtime Democrats quit the party and fought alongside former Whig enemies.
The Know-Nothings bled themselves pretty hard, losing 2/3rds of their House caucus to the Republicans. They won over 20% of the popular vote in the Presidential election of 1856 and won Maryland's electoral votes. Know-Nothing support came mainly in the South as the anti-slavery Republicans were anathema to the ruling Southern elite, and Northern voters wanted a party with a definite position on slavery instead of waffling on the issue. The Know-Nothings acted as a way for former Whigs and unionist forces in the South to oppose the all-powerful Democratic machine, and even though the Know-Nothings were gone by 1860, many of their forces would make up the bone of the Constitutional Unionists.
Come the 1858 elections the Republicans won a plurality in the House, and held the Governors office in most of the Northern states. Come 1860 they managed to win the Presidency without a single vote in the Deep South. Their nominee was former Whig Representative of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln beat Stephen Douglas, a long time Democratic nemesis in Illinois; John C. Breckinridge, the incumbent Vice-President and the nominee of the walk-out Southern Democrats; and finally John Bell, a Tennessee Whig who ran with the Constitutional Unionists in the border states, pledging an indifference to slavery and for avoiding an upcoming war.
The war was the come, as between the casting of the ballots in November, and Lincoln's inauguration in March of next year, 11 of the 15 slave-holding states seceded and proclaimed a new government, the Confederate States of America. Only Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee stayed with the Union (as the United States became known). The Appalachian western regions of Virginia had no love for slavery or for the rule of the eastern elites, and they counter-seceded, proclaiming themselves the true Government of Virginia and giving themselves permission to form a new state, which Congress allowed.
Throughout the next four years the United States battled not only the Confederacy, which they maintained was not a “government” but a collection of rebelling states, but also internal enemies. Plenty of people had reasons to oppose the war, including Copperheads in the West (men who argued for peace at any cost, and who were accused of treason and sabotage of the war effort by Republican leaders), Irish immigrants who held no love for Lincoln or the slaves (and considered them to be economic rivals in the future), and general peace activists.
When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, many were outraged at turning the war from reuniting the states to freeing what many thought an inferior and servile race. Draft riots abounded in the cities, and military troops had to be brought in to crush them. To bring on War Democrats, the Republican Party dumped their Vice-President and picked Andrew Johnson, the sole Senator from the South not to defect to the Confederacy, as a replacement. The National Union Party (a temporary merger of the Republicans and War Democrats) won the 1864 election.
Eventually the war was won, three amendments were passed barring slavery in the United States, giving blacks citizenship, and giving black men the right to vote. Unfortunately Abarham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, mere days after the end of the War.
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Also known as the Progressive Era.
Main Parties: The Democratic Party and the Republican Party
Minor but notable parties: The Progressive Party (1912), the Socialist Party, the Progressive Party (1924).
Issues of the era: Gold standard or bimetallism, Spanish-American War and imperialism, Progressive Age reforms (federal income tax, direct election of senators, etc), Panama Canal, the suffragist movement, neutrality and WW1, the first Red Scare, Treaty of Versailles, Teapot Dome scandal, the second incarnation of the Klu Klux Klan and racial strife, anti-Catholicism.
Main Parties: The Democratic Party and the Republican Party
Minor but notable parties: The Dixiecrat Party, the Progressive Party (1948), and the American Independent Party.
Issues of the era: The Great Depression, the New Deal, Isolationism and WW2, Red Scare, the Cold War and Soviet expansion, the Korean War, the Civil Right's movement, the Vietnam War.