ChloeChloe Dickson


(What is From the Field? Read our welcome to find out!)

Republicans and Democrats often argue that they are the party of Lincoln. However, Lincoln’s presidency came at a time when the Democratic party split and the Republicans were a new party. While Lincoln was a Republican, modern definitions do not fit the previous platform the Republican party of the 1860s held. The second party system, which begins in 1829 and ends in 1861, encompasses a time of political division, messy campaigns, and unpopular Presidents. Sound familiar?

Presidents directly affected their party and the oppositional as well because party definitions were not clear. From regional political thought to foundational beliefs regarding slavery, rights of the people, and the power of the president, the decisions each president made directly altered party identities. Their large influence came from the altogether weak profiles parties had during this transitional period. The richness of history under the second party system and the complexity of separationist thought, growth in party as organizations, and expansion of the presidential office, in general, led to an era of redefining many political standards that are still seen today.

The second party system begins as a reaction to the “corrupt bargain” of 1824 involving President John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, who became his Secretary of State. As noted by political scientist John S. Jackson, in his book The American Political Party System Continuity and Change Over Ten Presidential Elections, the controversy sparked negative attitudes in the public which resulted in Adams’ presidency to last one term. Andrew Jackson, a southern Democratic-Republican, who was beaten by Adams in 1824 ran again in 1828 and won by running as a candidate “for the people.”

Several factors contributed to realignment, the increase in influence the public had in elections being the main one. Jackson held Democratic-Republican values which favored a limited government and insisted power was best kept in the people’s hands. After losing the 1824 election to Adams due to the electoral college vote, Jackson argued and advocated for the “people’s vote,” also known as the popular vote. In his 1829 inaugural address, Jackson appealed to the people by stating that the “vital principle” of the government “is the right of the people to control its measures,” and that “the will of the people, … controls the service of the public functionaries.” By fueling the power of the people in elections, Jackson steered the United States into more of a democracy and launched a reliance on national campaigns that has only grown through each presidency.

In 1832 the first Democratic Party Convention met, Jackson notes, officially transitioning from Congress selecting presidential nominees to party organizations rallying for their own candidates(6). The creation of the Democratic Party Convention advanced the stronghold of the Democrats as the Whig party had yet to organize into a cohesive party. The Republican National Convention (RNC), and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) have met since the 19th century and support candidates through finances, publicity, and polling.

The national committees today still reflect strongly on the candidates, reflected in an increase in polling numbers for both majority candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, immediately following both the DNC and the RNC. By creating more interest in the nomination, there follows more interest in the nominees. While Van Buren (Democrat) may have benefitted in the election of 1836 by the Whigs not having a strong party organization, many more presidents have since benefitted from running against weak parties.  (For more details on historical and recent conventions, see Party Politics in America, as well as Change and Continuity in the 2016 and 2018 Elections.)

Researcher Donald Cole notes that the Democratic Party began to fracture over the economic panic of 1837 and the growing divide between north and south. In Martin van Buren and the American Political System, Cole argues that Van Buren was a great compromiser, a goal of his due to the challenge of uniting a newly formed party and a newly expanded nation (305). The struggles that Van Buren faced remained throughout the second party system and would worsen as slavery increased as an issue throughout the nation. Electing Jackson and Van Buren, two Democratic presidents, consecutively suggested positive feelings and confidence in the party. Alternating between Democrats and Whigs and other oppositional parties throughout the rest of the second party system indicated unhappiness regarding the political situation. These feelings remain solid indicators and subject of interest in the collection and study of electorate data.

Evidence from Aldrich et. al allows us to see the parallels between the second and current eras (Chapter 4).  During the election of 1828 the “vast majority of states” could select their presidential electors by popular vote for the first time. Walter Dean Burnham tracks eligible voter turnout from 1828-1916, beginning around 23% in 1828, and then spiking in 1840 around 32%.  This surge occurred in the election of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” which arguably was an election filled with retrospective voting following the economic panic of 1837. The election in 2012, which followed the recession of 2008 and had Barack Obama up for re-election saw a decrease in voter turnout by around 3%. This decrease can be explained by the increase in voter turnout that first occurred in 2008. Ultimately, it is important to recognize that voter motivations have not changed.

The growing factions within parties finally split and resulted in minor parties. As political scientist J. David Gillespie notes in Why Third Parties Matter in American Two-Party Politics, the 1860 election attracted 81 percent of eligible voters to the polls, which resulted in over 4.5 million votes being cast and spread throughout four candidates (79-82). Political factions at this point replicated the division that was taking over the country. Lincoln is known for being the president to hold the country together and end the Civil War, but he also marks a new political system. The second party system transitioned into the third party system by cementing factions that would later be grouped as Republicans and Democrats. The election of Andrew Jackson who was consistently emboldened in his actions and decisions inspired decades of men who held little regard towards political organizations and had little party loyalty.

The third party system begins with the belief that political parties and organizations are inevitable and best embraced to win favorable results. While politics appears to grow more hostile each day, ultimately it is not a new development. However, a civil war is not looming in the near future and the growth of political parties as organizations holds candidates accountable to standards. Parties are dynamic. As the people’s views and opinions change, the parties follow in response. While Republican and Democratic parties may appear strong, they ultimately are subject to the voters.

The current race to gain the Democratic nomination first appeared to be split between moderates (Biden) and progressives (Sanders), but as Biden pulls ahead one commentator calls it a divide of “practical versus ideological” (NPR). But as Biden repeatedly wins Democratic primaries, the realization that the Democratic party isn’t ready for this shift in political ideals is cemented. The 1829 election of Jackson was the result of doubling the voter turnout. While it may take just one person to dare to push against current standards to spark a re-evaluation of current politics, it only happens with a large number of votes supporting them.


Chloe Dickson is a senior studying history and politics.



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