|The Democratic-Republican Party is the earliest political party in the United States.|
The Whig Party was a political party formed in 1834 by opponents of President Andrew Jackson and his Jacksonian Democrats, launching the ‘two-party system.' Led by Henry Clay, the name “Whigs” was derived from the English antimonarchist party and was an attempt to portray President Jackson as "King Andrew." Whigs tended to be wealthy and have an aristocratic background. Most Whigs were based in New England and in New York. While Jacksonian Democrats painted the Whigs as the party of the aristocracy, they managed to win support from diverse economic groups and elect two presidents: William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. The other two Whig presidents, John Tyler, and Millard Fillmore gained office as Vice Presidents next in the line of succession.
|Early Whig Party Campaign Poster.|
Northern Democrats were in serious opposition to Southern Democrats on the issue of slavery. Northern Democrats, led by Stephen Douglas, believed in Popular Sovereignty—letting the people of the territories vote on slavery. The Southern Democrats (known as "Dixiecrats"), reflecting the views of the late John C. Calhoun, insisted slavery was national.
The Democrats controlled the national government from 1852 until 1860, and Presidents Pierce and Buchanan were friendly to Southern interests. In the North, the newly formed anti-slavery Republican Party came to power and dominated the electoral college. In the 1860 presidential election, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, but the divide among Democrats led to the nomination of two candidates: John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky represented Southern Democrats, and Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois represented Northern Democrats. Nevertheless, the Republicans had a majority of the electoral vote regardless of how the opposition split or joined together, and Abraham Lincoln was elected.WHY THE DEMOCRATIC AND REPUBLICAN PARTIES SWITCHED PHILOSOPHIES
The National Union Party (1864–1865), the temporary name used by the Republican Party, was created by the merger of the Republican Party, Unionist Party, War Democrats.
Fast forward to 1936. Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt won reelection that year on the strength of the New Deal, a set of Depression-remedying reforms including regulation of financial institutions, the founding of welfare and pension programs, infrastructure development, and more. Roosevelt won in a landslide against Republican Alf Landon, who opposed these exercises of federal power.
So, sometime between the late 1860s and 1936, the Democratic party of small government became the party of big government, and the Republican party of big government became rhetorically committed to curbing federal power. How did this switch happen?
|William Jennings Bryan Legendary "Octopus Poster" from the 1900 Campaign.|
Republicans didn't immediately adopt the opposite position of favoring limited government. Instead, for a couple of decades, both parties are promising an augmented federal government devoted in various ways to the cause of social justice. Only gradually did Republican rhetoric drift to the counterarguments. The party's small-government platform cemented in the 1930s with its heated opposition to the New Deal.
But why did William Jennings Bryan and other turn-of-the-century Democrats start advocating for big government? Democrats, like Republicans, were trying to win the West. The admission of new western states to the union in the post-Civil War era created a new voting bloc, and both parties were vying for its attention.
Democrats seized upon a way of ingratiating themselves to western voters: Republican federal expansions in the 1860s and 1870s had turned out favorable to big businesses based in the northeast, such as banks, railroads, and manufacturers, while small-time farmers like those who had gone west received very little. Both parties tried to exploit the discontent this generated, by promising the little guy some of the federal largesse that had already gone to the business sector. From this point on, Democrats stuck with this stance — favoring federally funded social programs and benefits — while Republicans were gradually driven to the counterposition of hands-off government.
From a business perspective, the loyalties of the parties did not really switch. Although the rhetoric and to a degree the policies of the parties do switch places, their core supporters don't — which is to say, the Republicans remain, throughout, the party of bigger businesses; it's just that in the earlier era bigger businesses want bigger government and in the later era they don't.
In other words, earlier on, businesses needed things that only a bigger government could provide, such as infrastructure development, a currency, and tariffs. Once these things were in place, a small, hands-off government became better for business.
|Abraham Lincoln, photograph by Gardner, 1865.|
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.