Friday, August 21, 2020

When and Why the Democratic and Republican Parties Switched Platforms. President Lincoln's Philosophies were Actually Democratic.

The Democratic-Republican Party was the earliest political party in the United States.
The title of "Democrat" has its beginnings in the South, going back to the founding of the Democratic-Republican Party in 1791 by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It held to small-government principles and distrusted the national government, and foreign policy was a major issue.
Democratic-Republican Party
After being the dominant party in U.S. politics from 1800 to 1828, the Democratic-Republicans split into two factions in 1828: the Federalist National Republicans and the Jacksonians Democrats. Jacksonianism appears as a political impulse tied to slavery, the subjugation of Indians, and the celebration of white supremacy—so much so that scholars have dismissed the phrase "Jacksonian Democracy" as a contradiction in terms.

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 had 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.
The Democrats and Whigs were evenly balanced in the 1830s and 1840s; however, by 1854, the Whig party disbanded. Other opposition parties emerged, but the Democrats were dominant.

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. Still, 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.


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, and War Democrats.
After 1865, Republicans, who dominated northern states, orchestrated an ambitious expansion of federal power, helping to fund the transcontinental railroad, the state university system, and the settlement of the West by homesteaders, and instating a national currency and protective tariff. Democrats, who dominated the South, opposed these measures. After the Civil War, Republicans passed laws that granted protections for Negroes and advanced social justice; again, Democrats largely opposed these expansions of power.

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.
The transition to the parties' flipping may be contributed to the turn of the 20th century when a highly influential Democrat named William Jennings Bryan blurred party lines by emphasizing the government's role in ensuring social justice through expansions of federal power — traditionally, a Republican stance.

Republicans didn't immediately adopt the opposite position of favoring limited government. Instead, for a couple of decades, both parties have promised 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 was 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 vied 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 generated by promising the little guy some of the federal largesse that had already gone to the business sector. From then 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 companies 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.
In conclusion, President Abraham Lincoln's political philosophy today would actually be democratic, not republican.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. This is something I have pondered over. Thank you for taking a complex issue and breaking it down to be easily understood. I am thankful for all the research and time you give to this forum, I am also thankful for your straight forward writing as well as your ability to write truthfully without offering your own agenda/opinion. THis is truly becoming a rare talent. THANK YOU!!!!!!

  2. Dr Neil Gale Ph.D. I too would like to thank you for this. At the age of 61 and an educational on construction management (lacking political science) have struggled with understanding the evolution of the two parties. I have done considerable reading of our two party system. With all that information I have never, until now understood the larger picture. Ironically it has helped me better understand and appreciate my own political views. Thank you!

    1. Thank you Denny for your kind words. I'm glad my article was able to put this complicated subject into terms one can easily understand.


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