Role Reversal: the Origins of the Democratic and Republican Parties

By Elena Novak on October 17, 2013

People love labels, and they also love binaries. Are you white or black, male or female, straight or gay, short or tall, fat or thin? It's not surprising then that the two-party system in America has endured so long.

Most Americans choose to identify as either Democrat or Republican. According to a Gallup poll published in January 2013, 47 percent of polled Americans identified as either a Democrat or an Independent leaning left, and 42 percent identified as Republican or Republican leaning. Only 11 percent identified as strictly Independent.

George Washington

The Constitution never mentions the formation of political parties, so how did that all start? George Washington became President without an election and without a party by the Electoral College in 1789. In fact, Washington spoke out against the dangers of political factions in his famous Farewell Address delivered in 1796. Here are his words:

“Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.” - George Washington

How true do these words ring today, when citizen frustrations are high and congressional approval ratings are at an all-time low.

Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim on Flickr

Origins of the two-party system

During Washington's first term, political parties began to emerge in 1791 with Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Party and in 1792 with Thomas Jefferson's Anti-Federalist Party or Democratic-Republicans. These parties were founded upon principles of how government should be run, i.e. more government for the Federalists and less for their counterparts.

The two party system actually dates back even further. During the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, supporters of King Charles II were labelled Tories, while opponents were dubbed Whigs. These titles carried through to the American Revolution, where the colonists were divided between Whigs, supporters of the revolution, and Tories, those loyal to the King.

Even Thomas Jefferson, who was away in France during the Constitutional Convention, wrote in favor of a formal provision for a two-party system in the Constitution. “Men are naturally divided into two parties,'' he wrote, quoted in a Huffington Post article, “those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all power from them into the hands of the higher classes [and] those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise, depository of the public interests.''

Today's Republicans and Democrats would likely claim one of those descriptions to define their platform and lay the less palatable description on the other.

When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams ran against one another in the 1796 election, Jefferson represented his party and Adams represented the Federalist Party. Adams even went so far as to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts into law, making it a federal crime to denounce the president or his policies and spelling bad news for Jefferson, until he won.

The birth of the red and blue

While in office, Jefferson effectively dismantled the Federalist Party, excluding them from the inner workings of his administration. The Democratic-Republicans became the Democrats with Andrew Jackson, and it wasn't until the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1861 that the Republican Party emerged. Prior to Lincoln, the Whig party still held strong, electing four presidents: William Henry Harrison (1841), John Tyler (1841), Zachary Taylor (1849), and Millard Fillmore (1850).

However, the Republican and Democratic parties looked the complete opposite of what they do today. Natalie Wolchover with LiveScience explains in an article: “During the 1860s, 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,” she wrote.

Republicans were for big government and Democrats were for small government. This continued after the Civil War, when “Republicans passed laws that granted protections for African Americans and advanced social justice; again, Democrats largely opposed these expansions of power,” Wolchover wrote.

According to Wolchover, the eventual shift can be attributed to Western expansion. Both parties sought to win voters in the newly developing Western states; big businesses in the East, however, were profiting, while farmers who moved to the West were not. “Both parties tried to exploit the discontent this generated, by promising the little guy some of the federal largesse that had hitherto gone to the business sector, “Wolchover wrote. “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.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, the first big government Democrat as evidenced by the New Deal. America has been remained a country of two warring factions ever since, and will continue to be so until a third party finds a way to worm itself in between.

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