History of Political Parties in the U.S.
The United States Constitution has never formally addressed the issue of political parties. The Founding Fathers did not originally intend for American politics to be partisan. In Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, respectively, wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions. In addition, the first President of the United States, George Washington, was not a member of any political party at the time of his election or throughout his tenure as president. Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation, as outlined in his Farewell Address. Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system emerged from his immediate circle of advisers. Hamilton and Madison, who wrote the aforementioned Federalist Papers against political factions, ended up being the core leaders in this emerging party system. It was the split camps of Federalists, given rise with Hamilton as a leader, and Democratic-Republicans, with Madison and Thomas Jefferson helming this political faction, that created the environment in which, once distasteful partisanship, came to being.
First Party System: 1792-1824
The First Party System of the United States featured the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party (Anti-Federalist). The Federalist Party grew from Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who favored a strong united central government, close ties to Britain, a centralized banking system, and close links between the government and men of wealth. The Democratic-Republican Party was founded by James Madison and by Washington's Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who strongly opposed Hamilton's agenda. Both parties had newspapers favoring them, with the Federalist paper being the Gazette of the United States and the Democratic-Republican paper being the National Gazette.
The Era of Good Feelings (1816–1824), marked the end of the First Party System. The elitism of the Federalists had diminished their appeal, and their refusal to support the War of 1812 verged on secession and was a devastating blow when the war ended well. The Era of Good Feelings under President James Monroe (1816–24) marked a brief period in which partisanship was minimal. These good feelings inspired the first short-lived "era of internal improvements" from the 18th through the 25th Congress, which ended with the panic of 1837.
Second Party System: 1828-1854
In 1829, the Second Party System saw a split of the Democratic-Republican Party into the Jacksonian Democrats, who grew into the modern Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson, and the Whig Party, led by Henry Clay. The Democrats supported the primacy of the Presidency over the other branches of government, and opposed the Bank of the United States as well as modernizing programs that they felt would build up industry at the expense of the taxpayer. The Whigs, on the other hand, advocated the primacy of Congress over the executive branch as well as policies of modernization and economic protectionism. Central political battles of this era were the Bank War and the Spoils system of federal patronage.
The 1850s saw the collapse of the Whig party, largely as a result of deaths in its leadership and a major intra-party split over slavery as a result of the Compromise of 1850. In addition, the fading of old economic issues removed many of the unifying forces holding the party together.
Third Party System: 1854-1890s
The Third Party System stretched from 1854 to the mid-1890s, and was characterized by the emergence of the anti-slavery Republican Party, which adopted many of the economic policies of the Whigs, such as national banks, railroads, high tariffs, homesteads and aid to land grant colleges. Civil war and Reconstruction issues polarized the parties until the Compromise of 1877, which ended the latter. Thus, both parties became broad-based voting coalitions. The race issue pulled newly enfranchised African Americans (Freedmen) into the Republican party while white southerners (Redeemers) joined the Democratic Party. The Democratic coalition also had conservative pro-business Bourbon Democrats, traditional Democrats in the North (many of them former Copperheads), and Catholic immigrants, among others. The Republican coalition also consisted of businessmen, shop owners, skilled craftsmen, clerks and professionals who were attracted to the party's modernization policies.
Fourth Party System: 1896-1932
The Fourth Party System, 1896 to 1932, retained the same primary parties as the Third Party System, but saw major shifts in the central issues of debate. This period also corresponded to the Progressive Era, and was dominated by the Republican Party. It began after the Republicans blamed the Democrats for the Panic of 1893, which later resulted in William McKinley's victory over William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election. The central domestic issues changed to government regulation of railroads and large corporations ("trusts"), the protective tariff, the role of labor unions, child labor, the need for a new banking system, corruption in party politics, primary elections, direct election of senators, racial segregation, efficiency in government, women's suffrage, and control of immigration. Most voting blocs continued unchanged, but some realignment took place, giving Republicans dominance in the industrial Northeast and new strength in the border states.
Fifth Party System: 1933-present
The Fifth Party System emerged with the New Deal Coalition beginning in 1933. The Republicans began losing support after the Great Depression, giving rise to Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the activist New Deal. They promoted American Liberalism, anchored in a coalition of specific liberal groups, especially ethno-religious constituencies (Catholics, Jews, African Americans), white Southerners, well-organized labor unions, urban machines, progressive intellectuals, and populist farm groups. Opposition Republicans were split between a conservative wing, led by Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, and a more successful moderate wing exemplified by the politics of Northeastern leaders such as Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, and Henry Cabot Lodge. The latter steadily lost influence inside the GOP after 1964.
Experts debate whether this era ended (and a Sixth Party System subsequently emerged) in the mid-1960s when the New Deal coalition did, the early 1980s when the Moral Majority and the Reagan coalition were formed, the mid-1990s during the Republican Revolution, or continues to the present. Since the 1930s, the Democrats positioned themselves more towards Liberalism while the Conservatives increasingly dominated the GOP.
Minor parties and independents
Although American politics have been dominated by the two-party system, several other political parties have also emerged throughout the country's history. The oldest third party was the Anti-Masonic Party and was formed in upstate New York in 1828; the party's creators feared the Freemasons, believing they were a powerful secret society that was trying to rule the country in defiance of republican principles.
Despite the large influence of political parties, a number of political candidates and voters refer to themselves as independents and choose not to identify with any particular political party at all. Several state governors and congressmen such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have officially run as independents.