History of political parties in America

Written by:
March 14, 2019
Updated on March 17, 2019
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History of political parties in America

Americans are deeply divided when it comes to politics. In 2016—for the first time in two decades—more than half of each party said they viewed the other side in “deeply unfavorable terms.” Slightly fewer than half thought the other side was a “threat to the nation's well-being.” A recent survey found that about 42% of people think members of the other party are “downright evil.” While some suggest the nation hasn't seen such division since the Civil War, the country has a history of disparate political views since the signing of the Constitution.

President George Washington was an independent, but our nation's second leader, John Adams, was a Federalist—a party spawned from the ideals of Alexander Hamilton, who wanted a strong central government. Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson, who opposed Hamilton and helped form the Democratic-Republicans—now the modern Democratic Party.

America's creators didn't mention political parties in any of the founding documents, and Washington championed moderation. In his 1796 farewell address, the nation's first president cautioned the new country's citizens against the destructive nature of divided factions. He once said: “We must drive far away the demon of party spirit and local reproach.”

Despite Washington's warnings, political parties popped up after he left office. Since 1852, either a Democrat or Republican has occupied the White House. Only once did a third-party candidate come in second: when Teddy Roosevelt ran for president on the Bull Moose Party ticket in 1912.

Early Republicans favored big government and fought for civil rights, while Democrats wanted to keep slavery and limit federal involvement. The political priorities of each party have changed—some might even say switched—over the past 150 years.

Though we have a Republican president, only a little more than a quarter of registered voters identify with the party. In 2017, 33% said they were Democrats and 37% identified as independents. In the 2016 election, members of the Green and Libertarian parties were also on the ballot, but third parties have yet to get close to winning the presidency. Voters tend to go with a candidate who has a better shot at winning, which has kept the two-party system in place.

Stacker consulted the Library of Congress, political party websites, and news reports to compile a list of 30 years in the history of political parties in America. Click through to find out how factions have changed since the Constitution was signed.

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1787: Alexander Hamilton inspires the Federalist Party

In 1787—as Lin Manuel Miranda sings on Broadway—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers in support of the Constitution, which was adopted a year later. The Federalist Party was established by 1795 and gave the U.S. a strong central government, tax infrastructure, and a national bank. President John Adams, the first and only Federalist president, took office in 1797.

1796: Thomas Jefferson helps form the Democratic-Republican Party

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican Party—sometimes referred to as the Republican Party, but not the one that exists today—in opposition to the Federalists. The election of 1796 was the first with candidates from two parties. Jeffersonian-Republicans were actually the creators of the modern Democratic Party. At the time, they believed in small government: a major component of today's Republican Party.

1814: Federalist party starts to dissolve

After the Federalists opposed the War of 1812 against the British, their party started to lose favor. They were never able to get another president elected after John Adams, and eventually dissolved in the 1820s.

1817: The Era of Good Feelings

From 1817 through 1825, when the Federalist Party ceased to be, President James Monroe presided over the country during a period known as the Era of Good Feelings—although his presidency came during an economic depression and controversy surrounding slavery.

1827: Anti-Masonic Party forms

The Anti-Masonic Party, the first third party, formed in 1827 and was nationally recognized a year later. Its members opposed the Freemasons, a fraternity they felt was opposed to American ideals. The party introduced the concept of conventions to nominate candidates, along with the idea of developing a party platform. They eventually dissolved a decade or so later.

1836: Whig Party forms

When the Anti-Masonic Party fizzled out, some of its members helped set up the Whig Party. The Whigs opposed President Andrew Jackson, who they felt acted more like the monarch they had fled. The group split over slavery and dissolved when the Republican Party officially formed.

1840: Liberty Party forms

The Liberty Party's sole mission was to abolish slavery. Members felt the government had the power to end slavery, and the current political parties weren't doing enough on the issue. Members of the party later ended up as part of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party, which was absorbed into the Republican Party.

1854: Republican Party forms

On July 6, 1854, the newly formed Republican Party held an anti-slavery convention in Jackson, Mich. The Grand Old Party (GOP) was against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have allowed slavery in new territories as the U.S. expanded westward. The U.S. has been dominated by either the Republicans or Democrats ever since.

1860: First Republican president elected

With only 40% of the popular vote, President Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president in 1860. Lincoln benefited from a divided Democratic Party. By the time he took office a year later, seven states had seceded to form the Confederate States of America. In 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the first major step toward ending slavery.

1872: Victoria Woodhull represents the Equal Rights Party

About 50 years before women gained the right to vote, Victoria Woodhull ran for president on a ticket for the Equal Rights Party. Civil rights leader Frederick Douglass was nominated as her vice president, though he never publicly accepted the role. Woodhull wasn't officially on the ballot and was in fact vilified for her views on women's rights, which included having a choice in who they would marry and the unobstructed freedom to divorce.

1883: Pendleton Act passes

With the passage of the Pendleton Act, government officials could no longer simply fill positions with their friends or those who had supported their political party. Federal jobs would be issued based on merit. The act also prohibited seeking campaign funds on federal government property.

1892: Populist Party forms

Unhappy with the expansion of railroads on their land, farmers organized the People's Party (or Populist Party) in 1892. They wanted the government to issue them credit through a “postal savings bank,” and give them a better transportation deal by taking control of the railroads. The Populist Party candidate for president received one million votes in 1896, but the party never made it to mainstream politics.

1901: Socialist Party forms

In 1901, Eugene Debs founded the Socialist Party of America, with the goal of giving more control to the people. In 1912, nearly a million people voted for Debs for president. The creation of the Socialist Party ended up making Democratic and Republican parties more progressive, forcing them to pay more attention to women's suffrage, fair pay, and the end of child labor. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent running for president in 2020, pushed his socialist ideas to the mainstream of the Democratic Party after his 2016 presidential bid.

1912: Progressive Bull Moose Party forms

On June 22, 1912, former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt proposed the creation of a more progressive party. The group nominated him as its presidential candidate. When Roosevelt told reporters he felt strong as a “bull moose,” the party garnered the nickname Bull Moose Party. His efforts only split the Republican vote — he ran against President William Howard Taft—and Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson became president. The Progressive Bull Moose Party is still active.

1933: New Deal Era begins

When Republican President Herbert Hoover decided not to use government money to provide unemployment relief during the Great Depression, voters looked to the Democratic Party. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, ushering in the New Deal Era. Roosevelt and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins gave the country Social Security, the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, and benefits to the unemployed.

1971: Federal Election Campaign Act passes

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 put limits on how money was spent or raised by candidates and political parties in a federal election. The act, which also required more transparent disclosure about donations, was designed to prevent the misuse of campaign financing.

1972: Libertarian Party holds first convention

The Libertarian Party formed in 1971, and held their first national convention a year later. Libertarians propose small government in every aspect; they don't want interference in a citizen's personal life or business dealings. They would prefer that the government's only role be “protecting people from force and fraud.” In 2016, Gary Johnson won about 4% of the popular vote when he ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket.

1974: Federal Election Campaign Act amended

President Richard M. Nixon—the only president to resign—signed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) into law in 1972, but the Watergate scandal uncovered a litany of campaign finance abuses within his administration. Congress then amended FECA, including further restrictions on the amount an individual could contribute to a political party.

1975: Federal Election Commission forms

Congress continued to regulate campaign finance in 1975, forming the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce FECA. The president appoints commissioners to the FEC, but only three people can represent the same political party. The FEC also decides which new political parties can be recognized as a national committee. If a party is only operating at the state level, it doesn't need to register with the FEC.

1976: Supreme Court considers money speech

In Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court held that many of the limitations imposed by FECA were unconstitutional. They decided that limiting how much a candidate or their family could spend on a political election was a violation of the First Amendment. Money raised for political parties was considered protected speech.

1980: President Ronald Reagan unites Republicans

While Democrats didn't approve of a former actor running for the nation's highest office, Ronald Reagan managed to unite Republicans and win the 1980 presidential election. It wasn't until the 2016 presidential election that voters felt as negatively about each party's candidate.

1984: Green Party forms

Formed in 1984, the Green Party focuses on “ecological politics and social justice, peace, and non-violence. Ralph Nader ran for president on the Green Party ticket in 2000 and received nearly three million votes. Some say Nader cost Al Gore the election. After the 2016 presidential election, Green Party candidate Jill Stein expressed her dismay with both the Democratic and Republican parties, saying the election "...lifted the curtain on what an incredibly toxic and predatory political system the U.S. has."

1991: Constitution Party forms

Conservative Howard Phillips started the U.S. Taxpayers' Party in 1991, now the fifth-largest political party. It was officially recognized as a national party four years later. In 1999, the party changed its name to the Constitution Party in order to “better reflect the party's primary focus of returning government to the U.S. Constitution's provisions and limitations.”

1992: Ross Perot runs for president as an independent

In 1992, Ross Perot entered, withdrew, then re-entered the presidential race against incumbent President George H.W. Bush and soon-to-be President Bill Clinton. He won almost 19% of the popular vote—one of the largest ever for a candidate not attached to a political party—but failed to win any electoral votes.

1995: Ross Perot forms Reform Party

Following his 1992 presidential bid, Ross Perot formed the Reform Party — which has a “moderate, centrist, and populist” platform — and ran as the party's presidential candidate in 1996. Perot received 8% of the popular vote.

2000: California Democratic Party v. Jones

In 1996, California adopted a proposition that allowed open primaries. A closed primary would mean Californians registered as Democrats could only vote in the Democratic primary, and vice-versa. The law was challenged by California's Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom parties. Since someone who doesn't agree with the party could vote in the primary, the Supreme Court ruled California's proposition was a violation of a political party's First Amendment right of association to choose their own leaders.

2002: Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act passes

Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold helped pass the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), better known as the McCain-Feingold Act. It was designed to make the money funding campaigns and their ads more transparent by limiting the influence of “soft money” coming from special interest groups and national political parties. After the BCRA, candidates also had to include a “Stand By Your Ad” line, disclosing their support for a political ad.

2008: First black president elected

In 2008, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, defeated Republican John McCain. After Obama's election, Democratic voters became more diverse, better-educated, and identified as less-religious at a faster rate than the rest of the country. Conversely, Republicans became older than the U.S. at large.

2010: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Following the legal framework set by Buckley v. Valeo—establishing that money is speech—the Supreme Court struck down the provision of the BCRA pertaining to corporations and unions. The majority held that those groups retain the right to spend as much as they want on political advertising, as long as they don't coordinate directly with a candidate or campaign. The decision seems to have benefited Republicans more than Democrats. President Barack Obama condemned the decision in his 2010 State of the Union address, and Democrats remain opposed to the decision.

2016: Political parties become more polarized

In 2016, Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton — the first woman to run for president on a major party ticket. During and after the election, politics in the U.S. seemed to become more polarized, with more than half of Democrats and Republicans saying they viewed the other political party “in deeply negative terms.” In 2019, the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats grew even wider, especially on issues like health care, climate change, and aid to the poor.

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