Trace the evolution of political parties in the American governmental system, and analyze their functions in elections and government at national and state levels of the federal system.

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Focus Question: What is the role of political parties in American politics?

Topics on the Page
First Two-Party System
Second Two-Party System
Third Two-Party System
Third Parties in American Politics
  • African American Political Parties
    • Black Panther Party
Teaching Resources

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For information on the rise of political parties, see

For information on voting in America, see Government 5.4.

Multimedia.pngFor more information on Political Parties in America, watch this Crash Course video on political parties.

It is important to understand that political parties did not exist in the contemporary definition during the early republic, but manifested themselves as groups of politicians sharing similar ideas with no major funding.
  • George Washington was fearful that political parties would create factions in the political structure and limit the power of the people.
    • By the time Thomas Jefferson was elected, he was strongly affiliated with a Political Party.
    • Political Parties shifted positions over time.
      • In contrast to the two-party system, many other nations use a Parliamentary System.
        • A brief overview of this system can be found here.

First Two-Party System: 1780s-1801

Click here for a short overview of the formation of political parties from the Library of Congress.
Democratic Republicans
  • Strong central government
  • Loose interpretation of Constitution
  • Focus on commerce and manufacturing
  • Favored close ties with Britain
  • Popular in Northeast
  • Order and stability
  • Focus on States Rights
  • Strict interpretation of Constitution
  • Preference for agriculture and rural life
  • Popular in south and west
  • Strong relationship with France
  • Stressed civil liberties and trust in people

primary_sources.PNGGeorge Washington's Farewell Address, warning the nation about the potential detriments to party-politics.

Pros and Cons of the Party System

They allow common ideas to be more easily shared, debated, and refined.
Factionalizes politics, creating sometimes unhealthy adherence to the concept of a party instead of too the greater good of the nation.
Simplify politics for common citizens to understand more easily.
Tends to favor "in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community."
Lessens the problem of the plurality vote, meaning candidates need more popular-support to be elected.
Inherently acquiesces to a greater level of corruption, as wealthy donors and Super PACS fund powerful parties, and in their favor.
Prevents candidates with similar platforms from running against one another and splitting the vote between them.
Leaves the potential for one party to completely overcome the other, which could leave the country in the hands of one powerful party.

Multimedia.pngFor more about Federalism, see here.

Tippecanoe and Tyler Too! 1840

Second Two-Party System: 1836-1850

  • Opposed banks and corporations
  • Opposed state-legislated reforms
  • Preferred individual freedom of choice
  • Favored farms and rural independence
  • Encouraged rapid territorial expansion over space by purchase or war.
  • Progress through external growth
  • Agrarianism, slavery, states rights, territorial expansion
  • Most popular in the South
  • Wanted to use federal and state government to promote economic growth, especially transportation and banks
  • Advocated reforms such as temperance and public schools and prison reform
  • Were entrepreneurs who favored industry and urban growth and free labor.
  • Favored gradual territorial expansion over time and opposed the Mexican War.
  • Believed in progress through internal growth
  • Urbanization, industrialization, federal rights, commercial expansion
  • Most popular in North

Multimedia.pngClick here to listen a video on the Whigs.

Third Two-Party System: 1854-2016

The third two-party system (that is, the dominance of American politics by two parties) emerged with the rise of the Republican Party in 1854 in response to the growing complications surrounding the Missouri Compromise and the expansion of slavery in the West. The two parties lasted through the Civil War (1861-1865) but have undergone key changes in that time-frame that make them different parties than they were 150-years ago.

  • Favor "big" government, meaning an expansion of the federal governments role in economic and social affairs.
  • Generally favor higher taxes to support spending
  • Liberal/progressive ideology
  • Keynesian economic policy
  • Prefer smaller federal roll in maintaining economy. Follow the "laissez-faire" economics of the Adam-Smith era.
  • Support free markets and supporting private investment
  • Conservative ideology
  • Generally favor lower taxes to reduces pressure on big business and the average citizen
Benjamin Harrison Ribbon, 1888
Benjamin Harrison Ribbon, 1888

When the Republican Party gained power in 1860, there were some in the north who did not believe in their message which included continuing the civil war and the abolition of slavery. These people joined the democratic party and became known as Copperheads.

womens history.jpgClick here to read about women in the Democratic Party Platform and here to read about women in the Republican Party.

external image Red_apple.jpg For a lesson plan on the beginnings of political parties, see The First American Party System.

Multimedia.pngFor historical background, see The First American Political Parties, a video from SchoolTube.

Click here to be taken to a website that shows Political Party advertisements since the Eisenhower election.

Multimedia.png For a rap video about political parties, see Smart Songs: Political Parties.

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 12.30.24 PM.pngTo find out where each party stands on important issues, check out this site.

Parties to History: Four Political Conventions that Changed America from Smithsonian Magazine presents information about the 1912, 1948, 1964, and 1968 conventions.

Third Parties in American Politics

Eugene Debs 1904 Political Poster
Eugene Debs 1904 Political Poster

Third Parties in American Politics: Rich History, Many Roles provides an overview of third parties in American history.
- Third Parties play an incremental role in the political system
- They represent factions that break-away from mainstream political views
- Often times Third Parties have single major issues of interest
- They challenge the main political parties using their main issue
Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 11.29.04 AM.pngFor background on the Tea Party movement, see the book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. Theda Skocpol & Vanessa Williamson, Oxford University Press, 2012. See also review by Sam Tanenhaus, Will the Tea Get Cold? New York Review of Books, March 8, 2012.
  • Tanenhaus makes the point that there is no single Tea Party, but around 1000 independent organizations spread around the country.
    • Active participants are about 200,000, less than one-third the size of one average-size Congressional voting district.

When Walter O'Brien ran to be the Mayor of Boston on the Progressive ticket in 1949, he brought the issue of takes on the city's public transportation to the center of politics. This was covered most famously in the song "MTA (The Man Who Never Returned)".

game_icon.svg.pngTake the What the Public Knows about the Political Parties quiz from the Pew Research Center.

primary_sources.PNGWriting from Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist Party candidate in the nineteenth-century focusing on the rights of the working people.

African American Political Parties

external image black-political-party-260x160.jpgmulticultural.pngFor information on the creation African American third parties, read The National Black Independent Political Party by Warren Neal Holmes.

The Black Panther Party

Rutherford B. Hayes 1876 Political Poster
Rutherford B. Hayes 1876 Political Poster

For information on the Black Panther Party, see United States History II.25

Teaching Resources

external image Red_apple.jpgFor an engaging lesson plan, ask students to investigate the major political parties and any others that have appeared on the national scene since 2000. Examples include:
Constitution Party
Libertarian Party
Democratic Party
Reform Party
Green Party
Republican Party

timeline2_rus.svg.pngPrezi depicting a timeline of the political parties.

lessonplan.jpg A series of lesson plans and information on all the political parties.

For background on the polarization of political parties since 2000, see Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America by Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel (William Morrow, 2007).

For more detailed information on the parties that ran during the 2016 presidential, read this article by

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In United States politics, third parties such as the Populists and the Socialists have:
a) won presidential elections during times of economic distress
b) often taken control of Congress from the two major parties
c) contributed ideas and issues to the debates between the two major parties
d) appealed predominantly to conservative voters

Correct Answer: C (2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress; 73 percent of students answered this question correctly).
Wendell Wilkie 1940 Political Poster
Wendell Wilkie 1940 Political Poster