America’s Major Political Parties: a Long Way from George Washington

The Capitol in Washington is seen early Thursday, April 6, 2017.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Two hundred forty-one years ago, in late June to early July 1776, our Founding Fathers deliberated whether to break the American Colonies free from the Mother Country, England. Those debates culminated in the signing of the Declaration of Independence at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, by the Continental Congress, on July 4.

Eleven years later, in 1787, after concluding that they had failed to establish a successful, longstanding government under the Articles of Confederation, the Founders returned to Independence Hall and crafted the U.S. Constitution.

Under the new form of government – which, 130 years and counting, is the longest-sustained government anywhere in the world today – there would be three branches: the legislative branch, headed by the U.S. Congress; the executive branch, headed by the president of the United States; and the judicial branch, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

George Washington, the first president under the Constitution (there were others before him under the Articles), was elected unanimously in 1788. Others who ran for the office did so only because back then, candidates did not run as president/vice president teams; instead, whoever received the most electoral votes would be president, and those receiving the second-most would be vice president. Under that model, our latest election, in 2016, would have meant that Donald Trump would be president, as is the case, but that Hillary Clinton would be vice president. But that model was repealed long before Trump and Clinton came along, by the 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, as bitter political rivalries were already well underway.

In his Farewell Address to the nation in 1796, during the closing days of his second and final presidential term, Washington warned the nation not to adopt political parties. As much as Washington’s contemporaries loved him, their political fanaticism got the better of them, and in the very next presidential election, in 1796, Federalist John Adams defeated Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, with Jefferson winning the rematch in 1800. Both were very bitter political feuds.

Countless political parties emerged in America over the past couple of centuries and several hundred exist today. Many are so small and obscure that most people have never even heard of them. But there have been only five major political parties in our country’s history. Here is a summary of their history and their platform:

FEDERALISTS

The Federalists were the first major political party in the United States, founded on the principle that the nation needed a strong national government in order to be stable. Of course, words conveying abstract measures are relative: though the Federalists were the “big government” party of their time, the size of the role they envisioned for the federal government paled in comparison to, say, President (Franklin) Roosevelt’s New Deal or President (Lyndon) Johnson’s Great Society. George Washington was a federalist in ideology, but never a Federalist in name. President Adams was both. And Washington’s protégé and ideological ally, Alexander Hamilton, greatly influenced the imprint of federalism in the government during the writing and adoption of the Constitution. After Adams’ presidency, though, the Federalists faded as a party and would never recapture the White House again.

DEMOCRATIC-REPUBLICANS

Beginning with the party’s leader and America’s foremost anti-federalist, Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republicans were committed to a smaller role for the federal government with more of a focus on individual liberties. The very libertarian-minded party produced Presidents Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, the son of the first President Adams. As the nation’s only major party of note for close to 30 years, it morphed into two competing parties: the Democrats and the Whigs.

DEMOCRATS

From the large Democratic-Republican Party sprang the Democrats, who under their first president, Andrew Jackson, were essentially the party of common folks, not of the rich and powerful. While the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans argued over how big or small the government ought to be, it seemed to the populists that either way, only those with money and power would benefit. Jacksonian Democracy was ushered in, and the Democrats endured.

Following the assassination of President Lincoln, the Democrats, mostly situated in the Southern states, which had just lost the Civil War and the right to own slaves, became the party of slavery, increasing white racism, and objection to full equal rights of newly freed slaves (the overwhelming majority – though not the entirety – of which were African-American), such as to run for political office, or even to vote.

At some point between World Wars I and II, the Democrats traded in that ideology and believed in big government solutions and a big role on the world stage. Essentially, they became a combination of big government Federalists and Jacksonian Democrats and, to a great extent, remain as such to this day. The Democrats are only one of two major American political parties remaining.

WHIGS

Andrew Jackson had a forceful personality and was a very polarizing political figure. His supporters absolutely loved him, but his abrasive style caused him to make many enemies. He probably would have liked Donald Trump’s quip when criticized for being too harsh: “I don’t have time for tone.” Many believed that Jackson’s alpha-male personality created an imperial presidency, and referred to him as “King Andrew,” with political cartoons often portraying him in regal garb, gold crown and all. Many Americans feared that the presidency had grown too powerful, and as a remedy believed that Congress should be strengthened to keep the presidency in check. From those notions, the Whig Party was born.

REPUBLICANS

As politically divided as America seems today, it was bitterly torn apart to an even greater extent a little over 150 years ago, when the debate over slavery came to a boiling point. The abolitionists grew from a small faction of the Whigs, and eventually formed their own party, the Republicans, with a goal of ending slavery and establishing equal rights for all. The Whigs faded away for good soon thereafter.

The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, caused such outrage among the Southern states that they seceded from the Union, formed the Confederate States of America, and remained a nation for four years, 1861-65, the duration of the Civil War, whose end caused their compulsory return to the Union. As a result of the Republicans’ abolishing slavery and keeping the nation together, they were lauded as being the “Grand Old Party,” or GOP, a moniker by which they are still known today.

By the end of World War I, it didn’t really matter much that the Republicans were the party against slavery, because slavery had been abolished over 50 years earlier.

In its political facelift, the GOP expanded some of the pro-business, pro-growth, low taxes, small government models of both the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans and the Whigs.

Supply-side economics was born, and endured throughout the 1920s, until being overwhelmed by the Great Depression in the following decade. As a result, the Republicans faded almost into oblivion, only to be rescued in the 1950s by the eminently popular general Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose presidency spanned a period in American history often referred to by many as “the good old days.”

More of a pragmatist than an ideologue, Eisenhower did not do a whole lot to impact the party’s philosophy. In stark contrast, Ronald Reagan’s emergence as president in 1980 firmly placed a renewed focus on two concepts: low taxes and military might.

That philosophy was intensified in the post-Reagan yearsand remains the party’s philosophy for the most part, with one notable exception. President Trump, elected in 2016, is neither a classic conservative nor a classic Republican. It is far too early in his presidency to determine whether he will usher in a new way of thinking for the party, but to this point it seems that his law and order, national security, politically incorrect, anti-establishment populism has earned him mixed reviews from fellow Republicans, some on board because they believe in the message, others for political expediency, while others yet openly critical. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are the other (besides the Democrats) remaining major American political party. And both are considerably different from the mindset in George Washington’s day.

Constantinos E. Scaros, PhD, a writer and editor for the Herald, is the author of numerous books. His latest, Grumpy Old Party, about the 2016 presidential election, is available on Amazon and in bookstores nationwide.