Zoe picZoe Smith

“This nation had a two-party system” Hamilton


The Broadway musical Hamilton likely made the first party system the most well-known. While much of the musical occurs before the first party system, it paints the key issues that colored the divide between the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. As the United States first began to organize and structure itself, these two parties were the reflection of differing opinions on foreign, federal, and economic policy. The resolution of these defining conflicts in the first party system led to a shift in political norms surrounding key issues that remain core to parties of the U.S. government.

Foreign policy is now defined by trade and immigration policy; at the time of the first party system, the French Revolution and ties with Britain were central to party divides, as Jeffrey Selinger notes in Embracing Dissent. The Federalists, led by largely by Hamilton, wanted to establish advantageous economic and diplomatic relations with Britain. The Democratic-Republicans, headed by Jefferson, wanted to support the tumultuous revolution that was taking France and distance themselves from Britain. This conflict divided the parties on foreign policy, however, the French Revolution lasted one year and with George Washington’s influence, the conflict was ended in favor of staying impartial to the French Revolution.

The issue of federal policy was heavily bound into the question of “what should our government be?” L. Steven Demaree delves into the institution as it was crafted by the early members of the American government, discussing the factors that led to new approaches to government by both parties.[1] Each was determined to step away from the monarchial system of the times and both parties wanted a clean break from the previous models of governing and political culture. Federalists, however, were far less cautious of a centralized government while the Democratic-Republicans advocated for more independent state power and freedom from federal restrictions. This tension between state authority is most infamously reflected through each parties’ views on economic policy but also demonstrates the generational political culture. Today, parties will still question how involved our federal government should be. But in modern policy, that question is not asked when considering voter discrimination, federal taxes, and basic judicial processes. The question remains, though the issues have changed over time.

Economic policy in America has seen great controversy at times, even over the national bank, which is more readily accepted now. Selinger’s research reveals that the Democratic-Republicans again wanted to take a more conservative government approach and limit federal power by leaving funds to the state. The Federalists saw a chance to alleviate state debt and raise America’s value through a consolidated effort. The Federalists won this disagreement as well, early in the party system. With each of these issues reaching their climax and conclusion early into the first party system, the conflict would not sustain for long. The Democratic-Republicans saw sweeping success after the Federalists slowly lost popularity after passing key legislation. Come 1828, the Democrats were the only truly viable party and every factor for the realignment was present.

The second party system began after a period of time known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” The Democrats had little opposition and the government had little to be divided upon. While the realignment slow and gradual, in the elections of 1824 we finally see it realized. Four Democratic-Republicans run for the presidential office; none receive the majority vote. This led to the party splitting, shifting stances on issues to cleanly break from one another and best encompass their supporters.

There are key factors, besides the resolution of the first party system issues that led to this realignment. One was the increased polarization, which was largely a regional divide caused by the divisive interest of states. It stemmed from civil rights issues, such as slavery, and the economic, moral, and democratic grounds for either side. As the Democratic-Republican Party split, the Whigs grew more into their abolitionist cause as they saw more ground support for it. The second party system Democrats were supported by Southern farmers, conservative members of society, and the like.

The electoral makeup, then, was integral to the results of the second party system. The Whigs kept a minority in office because they were supported by local constituents.  However, anyone who would support abolitionist movements or progressive policies would not find much support in voters nationally due to limited access to the vote; only property-owning men would find themselves empowered. Given this voter landscape, the Democrats held a clear advantage after the realignment. This advantage, the realignment itself, was maintained through mobilization, polarization, and strong partisan loyalty.

Andrew Jackson, president in the years of 1829-1837, was the leader of the Democrats and brought forth a new era of active partisanship. The elections of 1828 mobilized voters because of the engaging, and perhaps, new divisions after the “Era of Good Feelings.” Voter turnout jumped from 10.1% in 1820, 26.9% in 1824, and 57.3% in 1828. Furthermore, the realignment brought out sharp distinctions in the new parties which made clearer heuristics for voters. Party supporters knew what the parties stood for and could support them accordingly. Partisanship was further stimulated by a newly invigorated spoils system through the efforts of Andrew Jackson. While the undemocratic factors of party support were largely done away with, these policies and party powers characterized the second party system.

The elements of conflict in the first party system and the factors that brought about the nation’s first realignment have evolved with time, however, they are still present in contemporary politics. Economic and foreign policy are still entwined, now it is best reflected in our relations with China instead of France and Britain. The question of the extent of the Federal government is still brought into question, however, it is now on grounds of welfare and federal law.

Factors that led to the realignment are still being tapped to engage voters. While the spoils system has been done away with, mobilization through engaging campaigns, policy, and mobilization drives are still prioritized, as Marjorie Randon Hershey notes in Party Politics in America. In addition, the growth in political division as illustrated in Morris Fiorina’s Has the American Public Polarized? also foreshadows the potential of realignment due to the failure of the parties to overlap their goals with moderate constituents that make up the majority.

While the times have changed immensely since the first party system and its realignment to the second, we can still analyze and apply the common factors of focus and change in the American government. As our nation becomes more polarized, these factors may come to the forefront once more.

About the blogger: Zoe Smith is a junior Politics and International Relations major, also pursuing Chinese Studies.

[1] Demaree, L. Steven. “The Political Culture of the First Party System.” OAH Magazine of History 2, no. 2 (1986): 9-14. www.jstor.org/stable/25162515.



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