The Dead Political Parties of America

By Eric Wang
Photo: The Democratic-Republicans wore tricolor ribbons in support of the revolutionaries in France, and the Federalists wore similar black and white ribbons.

Today there are two main parties that dominate United States politics: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. However, there are also a few minor parties such as the Green Party and the Libertarian Party. As far as most people are concerned, this small handful of parties is all that’s relevant to US politics. But if we rewind the clock, we will see the rise and fall of several parties throughout American political history. Parties, such as the Federalist Party and the Whig Party, dominated periods of American history and majorly affected the course of our country and the world. By looking at failed American political parties, what they stood for, who made up their voter base, and why they fell, we can better understand our two-party system.

The Federalist Party
The Federalist Party was created alongside our fledgling nation in the late 18th century to oppose the Democratic-Republicans. Led by Alexander Hamilton, the Federalists supported protectionism, a strong national government, manufacturing, and, in terms of international affairs, Great Britain (“Federalist” 2021). As a result, many of the proponents of the party were businessmen who benefitted from protectionist and pro-manufacturing policies. Similarly, the party garnered support from those who preferred a strong overarching national government. This included a strong standing army and navy, as well as powerful federal institutions. The Federalists dominated the US government for about a decade but held influence until the 1820s (Federalist 2021). However, Federalist John Marshall (the 4th Chief Justice of the United States) handed down Federalist decisions long after the fall of the party and instilled many Federalist beliefs into our government with landmark cases such as McCulloch v. Maryland and Marbury v. Madison (Federalist 2021). Marbury v. Madison (1803) established the power of judicial review, which allowed the Supreme Court to declare laws unconstitutional (Marbury). Additionally, McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), where the state government of Maryland tried to impose a tax on a federal institution, was important as it concluded that the US Government and Constitution had supreme power over the states (McCulloch). Both of these decisions display Marshall’s Federalist beliefs as they strengthened the power of the national government and its entities. 

The Fall of the Federalist Party
A loss of support and popularity and a split within the Federalists’ ranks eventually crippled the party (“Federalist” 2021). Events such as Jay’s Treaty and the Whiskey Rebellion caused the party to lose public support. Jay’s Treaty was negotiated in 1794 by John Jay between the US and Great Britain to lower tensions between the two countries. The treaty met fierce opposition in Congress, especially from Democratic-Republicans Jefferson and Madison (“George” 2020). The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was the boiling point of years of tension between tax collectors and Pennsylvanian distillers. Those who opposed the tax unsurprisingly joined the Democratic-Republicans which weakened Federalist support (“Whiskey” 2019). In 1798, the Federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were widely disliked. These laws made it harder to become a US citizen, criminalized criticizing the government, and allowed the government to imprison or deport those deemed as “dangerous” (“Alien” 2020). The Alien and Sedition Acts led to increased opposition from the Democratic-Republicans, who claimed that the acts were unconstitutional and used to suppress those who disagreed with the Federalists (“Alien” 2020). The population largely agreed with the Democratic-Republicans, and support for the Federalists declined. The killing blow to the party came in 1799 when President Adams surprised the country by announcing a peace mission to France (“Federalist” 2021). This split the party in two: one faction supporting Adams and the other supporting Hamilton. This division allowed the Democratic-Republicans to easily win the presidential election of 1800. The Federalists would go on to make a small resurgence during the War of 1812, but they would never fully recover (“Federalist” 2021). 

The Democratic-Republican Party
Following the fall of the Federalist Party came the heyday of the Democratic-Republican Party. The Democratic-Republicans opposed all for which the Federalists stood. According to political scientist James A. Reichley, the point that divided the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans the most was the issue of social equality (Reichley 1992). Led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, they supported agrarianism, expansionism, republicanism, and France, as opposed to the Federalists’ support of Great Britain (Murse 2018). Much of the support for the party was from the yeoman (a person who owns and cultivates a small plot of land) farmers of the era. Since most of the US was agrarian at this time, it is no surprise they took power after the Federalists. 

The Fall of the Democratic-Republican Party
The party’s downfall began during the presidential election of 1824. All the candidates were from the Democratic-Republican Party, and no one received a majority of electoral votes (Murse 2018). Thus, the House of Representatives held a vote to decide the president. One of the candidates, Henry Clay, was a former Speaker of the House and he decided to support John Quincy Adams over the other two candidates, William Crawford and Andrew Jackson. After Adams won, Clay was appointed Secretary of State. This led to Jackson and his supporters claiming that Clay and Adams had a “Corrupt Bargain” where Adams promised the Secretary of State position to Clay if Clay gave him his support (Murse 2018). As a result, there became two factions within the party, one behind Adams and one behind Jackson. Soon after, the Democratic-Republican Party dissolved into other factions and smaller parties (Murse 2018). The party lasted around 35 years from the mid-1790s to the late 1820s (Murse 2018). 

The Whig Party
The Whig Party would be the next big American political party to die out. This party was created to oppose Andrew Jackson and it consisted of people from factions of the Democratic-Republicans, the Anti-Masonic Party, and many more, small factions (“Whigs” 2021). The Whigs’ most influential figures were Henry Clay, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor. The Whigs opposed Jackson and his Democratic policies and supported a national bank and the American System (“Whigs” 2021). Pioneered by Clay, the American System was a plan that called for national infrastructural improvements to promote trade, increasing revenue through public land sales and tariffs, and a federal bank to strengthen the economy (Byrd 1994).

The Fall of the Whig Party
The collapse of the Whig Party can be attributed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the issue of slavery. It divided northern and southern Whigs and led to a splintering of the Whig party into smaller parties and factions like the Know-Nothing Party and the Constitutional Union Party. The party was created in the mid-1830s and collapsed around the mid-1850s (“Whigs” 2021). 

The Reform Party
The Reform Party was formed in 1995 by Ross Perot (Hingston 2018). It never gained much of a foothold as the two-party system had been solidified by this point. However, Perot gained 19% of the popular vote in the presidential election of 1992, something no other third-party candidate has done since (Hingston 2018). The party called for a variety of reforms, such as a term limit for Congressmen and updating the electoral system. They also tried to keep social issues out of their platform, as the party’s goal was to bring people in from both sides of these issues (“About the Reform Party”). 

The Fall of the Reform Party
The party is still around today; however, its influence is negligible (Hingston 2018). The party’s support sharply decreased after their record-breaking year in the 1992 presidential election, partly due to infighting. Fun Fact: Donald Trump ran for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination in the presidential election of 2000 (Hingston 2018).

Now what?
Just from these four dead parties of American history, a trend regarding the fall of each party is apparent. Each party fell due to fractures caused by ideological differences and other disputes within the party. Now the question is, could we see something like this happen to either of our two parties today? 

In the past few years, there seems to be increased radicalization in both parties (Dimock 2014). If polarization continues increasing, new parties could be created, or new factions could appear. Of the many ways this could happen, there are three that stand out. Either the fringes of the parties will break away, the moderate parts will join together, or a major politician will form their own party, bringing along their supporters. 

Realistically, the most likely to occur would be a major politician breaking away from all their supporters and creating a new party. This was the case with the Progressive Party in the early 1900s which broke away from the Republican Party and rallied around Theodore Roosevelt. In a two-party system, candidates from break-away parties and their parent parties tend to perform poorly in elections because the voter base of the parent party is split, allowing the other dominant party’s candidate to win. This happened with the Progressive Party and the Republican Party in the presidential election of 1912. During this election, Theodore Roosevelt earned 27.4% of the popular vote with 88 electoral votes while William Howard Taft (the Republican presidential candidate) earned 23.2% of the popular vote with 8 electoral votes (“United” 2017). However, these numbers were not enough to defeat Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats, who received 41.8% of the popular vote and 81.9% of the electoral votes (“United” 2017). The next two methods are different sides of the same coin. If a radical branch emerges successfully from one of the two parties, we would be left with a group of more moderate individuals under the original party name. Alternatively, if the moderates of a party break away, then we would be left with a group of people with a more extreme agenda under the original party name. Since moderates favor stability, it is more likely for the fringes of a party to break away from the original party. If either type of split happens, it would not destroy the original parties—their supporter base and cultural influence are significant. But a new party, no matter their stance, would lead to increased competition for voters among all parties. As a result, parties would push for, and pass, popular and new legislation to please and enlarge their supporter base. This would help give more power to the people and it would support the democratic ideals that the United States was founded upon.  

Eric Wang is a freshman mathematics major from Pittsford, New York. In the future, he hopes to go to graduate school to continue his studies in mathematics. In his free time, he enjoys fishing, playing soccer, and collecting coins. Eric is also an avid mathlete and helped Binghamton University place 54 out of 427 schools in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.


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