party system united states

Written by Asad Ullah, Muhammad Shahab and Syed Ehsan Ali 4:47 pm Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content, Research Papers

Evolution of the Two-Party System in the United States

Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party and Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party continue to dominate American politics today. Have you ever wondered how the two-party system in the United States evolved? This informative paper explores this question and examines the key changes in these two political parties from the nation’s beginning.
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About the Author(s)
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Mr Asad Ullah is an MPhil scholar studying American Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University.

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Mr Muhammad Shahab is an MPhil scholar studying American Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University.

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Mr Syed Ehsan Ali is an MPhil scholar studying American Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University.


American exceptionalism and uniqueness helped the country establish a new government that was different from that of the colonial powers in Europe. The brutality, inequality, and suppression of the colonial powers made them think of a new government where they would be able to exercise freedom and equality. The first president of the United States, George Washington, was against the party system.

However, the seed of a two-party system was already sprouted in Washington’s cabinet with the difference between the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury (Jensen, 1970). Their difference of opinion caused them to be divided into federalists and anti-federalists. Later, the anti-federalists were further divided into the Whig party led by Henry Clay and the democratic party led by the populist leader Andrew Jackson (Remini, 2002). 

During the 1850s, the anti-slavery discourse was profound, but the already existing parties were not willing to endanger their votes by proposing an anti-slavery bill in Congress. Abraham Lincoln believed that slavery must be abolished and to do that, he needed a party. Hence, he founded the republican party which has been in American politics since then (Gould, 1972).  

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On the superficial level, it seems that the two-party system arose from the difference of opinion between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, but if we painstakingly sift through the literature, we would trace the ideas back to the age of Enlightenment.

The debate between the strong central government and the government which governs the least has been a part of discourse and debate since the Greek philosophers’ time. A hue of that debate is also vibrant in American politics, leading towards a two-party system.


The whole debate since the declaration of independence in 1776 whirled around the distribution of power and the function of the federal government. Those ideas could be traced back to the enlightenment thinkers of the 17th century, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes (2008) believed that human nature was “brutal, nasty and short” thereby only a strong government would be able to overcome the chaotic state of nature. John Locke, however, believed that human nature was cooperative and harmonious, and to maintain peace and stability, a small and minimalist government was needed to enforce the laws of nature and protect the life, liberty, and property of the people (Vaughn, 1978).

With the current lacunas in the political system, it was not possible to run a seamless government under the Articles of Confederation, so the people started massing around a strong central government. Those people were later known as federalists. They wrote “federalist papers” to convince the American people.

On the other side, anti-federalists also started convincing people that a strong government was synonymous with monarchy and authoritarianism. They claimed that more power to the center would infringe on individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Zuckert, 1996). While the federalists were strong, it was not possible to enact the new constitution without the anti-federalists’ support. The anti-federalists proposed twelve amendments, of which ten were adopted in the new constitution and known as the Bill of Rights (Labunski, 2006).

Governmental Structure    

The whole governmental structure of the United States favors the two-party system. The US has a Congress, which is divided into the Senate and the House of Representatives, a presidential form of government rather than a parliamentary one, and an electoral college. The structure is divided in such a way that the president gets representation from the people and the states through the electoral college.

Negotiations and Compromises

The history of the US is filled with negotiations and compromises which make it flexible and unique The first compromise during the formulation of the US constitution was between the bicameral government in Virginia Plan and the unicameral government in New Jersey Plan. Both plans were addressed through the formation of two houses: the House of Representatives, where states would have representation according to their population, and the Senate, where seats would be equally divided among the states.

The second compromise was the 3/5th compromise. According to this compromise, direct taxes and representation in the house of representatives would be based on a 3/5th of the slave population. In the third compromise, the 36th parallel line was drawn, declaring that above the particular line, slavery would be banned.

As for the fourth compromise, the anti-federalists agreed to the constitution, provided that the Bill of Rights was included. These compromises make the constitution unique and compatible with the American political system.


The main proponents of federalists were James Madison, Hamilton, John Jay, and Franklin. They supported ratifying the constitution and having a strong national government. They believed that the economic problems and the internal unrest of the 1780s were due to a weak central government under the Articles of Confederation. Moreover, the states were not required to provide any help in form of military assistance or monetary aid.

There was no executive seat in the federal government, and the existing government had no authority over taxation and law enforcement. The federalists were in favor of foreign relations with the British, while the anti-federalists were comfortable with France. The foreign ambassadors could not make a deal with foreign countries because they had to be unanimously ratified by the 13 states.

Three notable federalists, Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay, wrote 85 essays, supporting the ratification of the constitution. The federalist papers convinced people of a new political system where there would an executive, bicameral political system, and a powerful central government.


Anti-federalists were members of the Democratic-Republican party, and they were sometimes called the Jeffersonian-Republican party. The main proponents were John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. They were against ratification of the constitution and believed that a strong central government would lead to despotism and tyranny. It would threaten the very cherished values for which the country was created.

The impasse of ratification was solved with a compromise between federalists and anti-federalists when the federalists agreed to include the ten amendments (Bill of Rights) in the constitution. The Bill of Rights protected basic human rights against a strong government.

Thomas Jefferson believed that the preservation of liberty was the main goal. According to him, aloofness and political detachment are necessary to preserve and develop the nation, thus he proposed isolationism for the foreign policy of the US. However, he recognizes the importance of trade with other nations for prosperity and development, so he was prepared to negotiate commerce with other nations (Hunt, 2009).

Split in the Democratic-Republican Party

The break within the Democratic-Republican Party occurred during the administration of Jefferson. John Randolph of Virginia is recognized as the leader of the faction which bolted from the Democratic-Republican Party. This group of insurgents became known as Quids. Randolph and his group denounced Jefferson as a traitor to Republican principles.

One of the reasons for the split is Randolph and Taylor’s dissatisfaction with the administrative policy towards England. The real break in the party came late in I806. The treaty that James Monroe negotiated with England had no provisions regarding impressments and compensation for seized cargoes, but it did embrace moderate concessions in regard to West Indian trade. Jefferson did not even bother to submit the treaty to the Senate.

The rift in the Democratic-Republican Party occurred in the 1824 presidential elections. The final four candidates were ostensibly Democrat-Republicans and had a regional support base comprised of factions from various states. In the absence of an electoral college majority, the House of Representatives made the decision.

Even though Jackson obtained most of the popular votes, Quincy Adams was elected president and he then chose Clay to be his Secretary of State (Lynn, 2009). John Quincy Adams’ National Republicans and Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party separated the Democratic-Republican Party.

National Republican Party

The National Republican Party emerged from a group of the Democratic-Republican Party which was supported by Quincy Adams in 1824. In the 1820s, partisan fighting reappeared due to Andrew Jackson and Quincy Adam’s dispute in the 1824 elections. Anti-Jackson supporters included New England merchants, industrialists, farmers, and workers from different locations. They supported Henry Clay’s American system and a strong federal government.

In the 1828 elections, the rival factions were not yet official political parties. It was only after Andrew Jackson defeated John Adams in 1828 that the National Republicans sought official recognition in 1830. The party’s power was in New England and minor enclaves elsewhere.  

In 1831, Clay was nominated as a presidential candidate and criticized Jackson for vetoing the Second Bank of the US, antagonizing Britain, and sustaining the spoils system. Jackson’s win in the 1932 presidential elections ended the National Republicans. The National Republicans never ran a candidate for president again and quickly formed the Whig Party with conservative members (Jensen, 1970).

Democratic Party

Jackson’s Democratic Party comfortably defeated Adams in 1828 and Clay in 1832. His Vice-president Martin Van Buren, a shrewd politician and former New York governor, succeeded him (Cobb, 2021). Historically, the Democratic Party has been centered on one of three broad frameworks: democracy, liberalism, or ethno-culturalism. 

Jackson, like Jefferson, strengthened the executive branch of government while advocating for limited government. The reformers supported Whig Party, but they also supported Jacksonian Democrats. They were worried about social issues, particularly class disparities, but the national parties often remained silent on the issue of slavery (Nortan, Carol, & Blight, 2012).

Andrew Jackson, a democrat, strengthened the office of president, increased the number of advisors, widened the scope of patronage, and extended the application of the veto power. Moreover, the two-party system emerged as a result of his weak presidential tenure.

Whig Party

Whig Party was founded in 1834 by Jackson’s opponents and led by Clay. He was a former Secretary of State, Speaker of the house, and had a powerful voice in the parliament. Daniel Webster, Steven, Horace Greeley, and William Seward were among the other leaders.

The term “Whig” was drawn from the English antimonarchist party, and the reason behind granting the party’s name was to portray Jackson as a monarch. The most obvious motive was to compete with Jackson (Holt, 2003). Whigs lost the 1836 elections to Jacksonian democrat Van Burren, but they triumphed in the popular vote.

William Henry Harrison became the first Whig president in 1840, but after 31 days, he died, with Vice president Taylor succeeding him. Henry Clay was the Whigs’ 1844 presidential candidate and narrowly lost to Polk, but the Whigs made a comeback in 1848.

Whigs favored a strong central government, whereas Democrats favored limited government. Whigs also favored industrial and commercial progress in the East. The party planned to boost growth with high tariffs, centralized banking, and federal assistance for internal improvements.

Democrats and Whigs formed the two-party system, with strong structures, and deep ethnic and religious voting trends in the United States (Norton, Chudacoff, et al., 2014). In the 1850s, as the nation expanded into new areas, differences of opinion arose within the party over the question of slavery, leading to the party’s demise.

The last nail in the American Whig Party’s coffin was the adoption of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which reversed the Missouri compromise. Thus, an anti-slavery supporter of Whigs established the Republican Party (Sacher, 1999).

The Free Soil Party

The Free Soil Party began when the Liberty party lost the 1844 elections. In 1848, the party ran for president. “Free soil, free speech, free labor, free men” was its slogan. It opposed expanding slavery into other lands and territories out of fear of southern slaveholders. The Free Soil Party included anti-slavery Whigs and some abolitionists. They claimed that if the government couldn’t end slavery, it should stop expanding it.

The Free Soil Party had 16 members in Congress. With a small number of representatives, they influenced major congress decisions. In 1848, the Free Soil Party’s Martin Van Buren terribly lost the election and ranked last among the presidential candidates. The 1852 elections were far worse as John Hale only got 5% of the votes. Due to woeful performances, the party soon discontinued, with some members joining the Republican Party (Blue, 1987).

The Know-Nothing Party

Founded in 1849, the Know-Nothing Party opposed immigrants and Catholics. Dissatisfaction with the Democrats and Whigs spurred Know-Nothing to organize the American Party, the movement’s public front. It became a national sensation, but it only succeeded in Massachusetts.

The Know-Nothing was not just a party but a multi-issue movement. It gathered antislavery Free-Soilers, Temperance activists, and urban manufacturing workers who sought a 10-hour workweek and secret ballot. Most Know-Nothings were middle-class or working-class. The party’s critics called it Know-Nothing Party because it was like a secret organization.

The Know-Nothing Party became American Party in 1854. In the North, where most new immigrants lived, the Know-Nothing Party swiftly gained favor. Know-Nothings won the Massachusetts legislature in 1854 (Davis, 2006). In the 1856 elections, they supported American Party presidential candidate Millard Fillmore.  

The Know-Nothing Party didn’t run a presidential candidate in the 1860 presidential elections because it opposed slavery, and many of the party’s supporters had joined the Republican party (Anbinder, 1992).

Republican Party

The party traces back its roots to 1792 when Thomas Jefferson adopted the term “Republican”. The party was formed in 1854 to oppose the expansion of slavery westward. After the civil war, African Americans’ rights were protected. From 1860 to 1912, the Republican party won all except two elections. The white Americans did not support the Republican party because of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which guaranteed African Americans freedom, equal protection under the law, and the ability to vote.  

The Republican Party originated with the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This act split the Whigs, stating that the American Whig party couldn’t remain unified. Between 1854 and 1856, political realignment created the Republican Party. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 sparked a northern anti-slavery campaign. This anti-Nebraska coalition included former Whigs, antislavery Democrats, Know-Nothings, and abolitionists (Dobson, 2013).

In the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln brought the party to power. The Republican Party is a party of strength, vision, future, wealth, and freedom. Its worldview is rooted in conservatism, free market capitalism, lower taxes, immigration restrictions, high military expenditure, abortion restrictions, gun rights, and a ban on labor unions.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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