The Key Differences Between Whigs And Democrats?
The major parties since early 1830s in the United States of America were the Democratic Party, organized by Andrew Jackson, and the Whig Party, assembled by Henry Clay from the National Republicans and in opposition to Andrew Jackson.
There were no sectional differences between the Democratic Party and the Whig Party, but there were some cultural differences. Whig party operated from the early 1830s to the mid-1850s. The Whigs approved the authority and the power of the Congress over the presidency, favored a program of economic protectionism and modernization; they also supported active social reform. According to the Johnson County Community College’s historians, the name "Whig," which Revolutionary patriots also used to signify their opposition to King George III, was chosen to echo the American Whigs of 1776 and meant to convey; and throughout their twenty-year history, fought for independence, and because "Whig" was then a widely recognized label of choice for people who saw themselves as opposing tyranny. According to professor Michael F. Holt , the Whig party combined Anti-masons and National Republicans as well as two different groups of southern anti-Jackson people who had supported Henry Clay and his policy in 1832 because they considered National Republicans' nationalistic economic program as an unconstitutional illegality of states' rights. The issue that united anti-Jackson men in the Whig party in 1834 was their common displeasure at Jackson's executive order of September 1833 removing federal deposits from the Bank of the United States. They believed in the strong government and interference in the national economy. That’s why Whigs defended Henry Clay’s vision of the American system, which involved existence of the Bank of the United States, a protective tariff, strong central government and its intervention both in economic and in social affairs. John Mack Faragher at all claim that this group of people defended national rather than sectional interests. Also they believed in internal improvements, which means, that people, poor and rich, could have a good life if they are self-disciplined. The Whigs were very active participants in economic changes, education and social reforms. To improve the inward America, the Whigs helped create private colleges, public schools, cultural institutions and charities. People, who belonged to this political party, were in favor of religion, which was an important aspect in political joining. (81) The Whig party introduced compromise and balance in government, territorial expansion, national unity and support for a domestic manufacturing and national transportation network.
The Whig’s power was based in the North and the Northwest, which was New England and Old Northwest. The Whig ideas were authoritative among areas, which were affected by factory work and commercial agriculture, therefore among southern planters and urban merchants. David Currie claims that
The Whigs related to voters...
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You are probably well aware that the current political party situation in the United States has been dominated by a two-party system—a contest between the Republican and Democratic Parties. But did you know that these two parties didn’t really come to dominate the scene until 1856 (one of the two parties has claimed a win in every single presidential and congressional election since then)? Or did you know that the reason the symbol of the Democratic Part is the donkey is that the party’s founder, Andrew Jackson had earned the nickname “jackass” by his political adversaries? The name has stuck around since.
It’s okay if you don’t know every detail about the US political party system…yet. But you will want to know as much as possible for your upcoming AP US History exam and that’s why we are here to help. We have created this AP US History review on US political parties as a way to better understand the history of American politics.
You may think you know quite a bit about American politics today, but that doesn’t mean you fully understand the history of US political parties. By the end of this AP US history review, however, we’ll make you not only a pro about the topic of US political parties, but get you to understand how the histories of these parties have evolved and shaped over time.
US Political Parties and APUSH
Before we jumped right into the nitty-gritty details of each political party, we wanted to give you a little bit of an explanation of how we have organized this AP US history review. You should already get the gist that US political parties have changed over time. The Republican Party that Lincoln was a part of, for example, looked very different than it does today.
So, as a way to emphasize the historical nature of US political parties, we have organized this review in terms of time period. We are going to be using the time periods the way they are used by historians and political scientists throughout the academic world. So, we will begin with the Anti-Federalist/Federalist era in the country’s beginning and end with the Era of Liberalism.It’ll make sense as we move along, we swear!
And although the Democratic and Republican Parties have dominated the political landscape since 1852, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any other competitors out there. From the Bull Moosers to the Populists, there have been challenges to the political norm. Stick with this AP US history review, and we’ll let you in on the histories of all those you’ll need for your upcoming APUSH exam.
Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists, 1792-1824
This era really covers the first years that US political parties even existed. Since the nation was still relatively young, the major political debates revolved around whether or not federal rights should trump states’ rights, or vice versa. Thus the US political party system revolved mostly around the Federalists vs. the Anti-Federalists (who would form the Democratic-Republican Party). Much like today, the period was dominated by two primary parties: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republican Party.
The origins of the Federalist Party actually began well before the creation of the US political system itself. Ultimately, the Federalists wanted to see a more powerful central government, a continued relationship with Great Britain, a regulated and centralized banking system, and a healthy relationship between the elites and upper crust of society with government officials.
Key players included bankers and economic thinkers like Alexander Hamilton and longtime political figures like John Adams. The party had mostly controlled the government until 1801, when Jeffersonian notions of individual rights became more popular and views of the wealthy in America took a downward turn in common opinion.
This was the anti-Federalist Party through and through. Spearheaded by Thomas Jefferson, this was the party meant for the people. Party leaders argued for states’ rights, no central banking system, individual liberty, and a very constitutionally limited view of the federal government.
Ultimately the party emerged as a response to the increasingly powerful relationship between bankers, businessmen, and the US political party systems that was developing under the Federalist Party. Originally called that Anti-Administration Party because Jefferson wanted to combat Alexander Hamilton’s increasing efforts (1790-ish) to federalize debts and banking, it would soon become the Democratic-Republican Party. That is, until the Second Party era came along…
The Antebellum Era, 1828-1864
Two major developments define this era in the history of US political parties. First, this is the time period when the political parties that we all know and love (we’re talking about the Republican and Democratic Parties, here) begin. And second, slavery and possible secession really dominated the political and economic scene at this time, so it only makes sense that these two topics would dominate the US political party situation as well—so we see specific parties related to these issues popping up.
Simply put, the modern Democratic Party began with Andrew Jackson. Even the symbol of the Democratic Party, the donkey, began with Jackson, who was often (lovingly, we are sure) called a “jackass” by those who despised his policies. Jacksonian Democracy ultimately revolved around the idea that the federal government should serve the people, not money and not politicians.
They also argued for strong presidential power, and when South Carolina almost threatened to secede from the Union in 1832, Jackson nearly sent the military in to start a war. Slavery would become an issue that eventually weakened the party prior to the Civil War, but Democrats during these years ultimately argued that slavery was a decision to be made by the states. This kind of a platform convinced many in the North to leave the party, making the up-and-coming Republican agenda more appealing to many (more on that below).
If the Democratic-Republican Party of the early years was the anti-Federalist Party, then the Whig Party was the anti-Democrat. These were the people who came up with names like “jackass” and “King Andrew” for Jackson. This was a time in the history of US political parties where feuds reigned and grudges were held. And Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun both hated Jackson enough to create a new party to oppose him.
Whigs were more business friendly than those in the Jacksonian Democracy camp, they wanted to national bank to remain intact, and federally sponsored internal improvements. It was hugely popular from its foundation until its ending years in the early 1850’s. They even got two presidents in, William H. Harrison and Zachary Taylor. But a wishy-washy stance on slavery, especially its expansion into the west, split the party apart as things intensified in the years before the Civil War.
There was actually a National Republican Party that existed between the years 1828 and 1836, but they had a hard time getting off the ground. These were the original Jacksonian Democracy haters—including Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams. They would merge with the Whigs for a more powerful union, but when the Whigs started falling apart over the issues of slavery and expansion, the Republican Party became a thing again.
Politicians with a Jeffersonian twist began getting together in 1854, exploiting all the debating and flip-flopping that several parties were taking on the issue of expansion and slavery. Republicans decided to be clearly against the expansion of slavery in the US. They quickly gained traction and got John C. Freemont into the presidency in 1856. Antislavery Republicans were getting elected left and right and after Lincoln got into office, the nation plunged into civil war.
Did you think that conspiracies involving Masonic rituals and secrecy were only part of the modern day? Well, think again. Americans were so paranoid about the existence of the secretive Masons that they formed a party to try to get rid of them. Despite a general distrust of secret societies in the US, Freemasons were still popular (George Washington was one!) among politicians but generally disliked by the populace. And when a Freemason named William Morgan disappeared after planning to publish a book on the secret society, conspiracy theories exploded. The result was that an anti-Masonic Party was founded as a way to get the Freemasons out of politics, but the whole thing really only lasted from 1827 to 1836.
The first anti-slavery party, the Liberty Party was founded in 1840 from frictions developing in the American Anti-Slavery Society. Ultimately, a number of members of that group felt that William Lloyd Garrison’s ideas about quality in America were a little too radical, so they left in order to find a more political solution. The numbers of this party were actually fairly small and by 1848, its leadership was asking its members to vote for the emerging Free Soil Party.
Free Soil Party
Well, as you might have gathered from the above info, this was also a primarily anti-slavery US political party, but only kind of. Free Soil situated itself as a compromise between abolitionists and pro-slavery Americans. Its platform was that slavery should not be expanded into the growing US west. It became a popular party and even got ex-president Martin Van Buren on board with its principles.
Ultimately it went into decline as the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act each convinced many of its members to go full blown abolitionist. The Republican Party soon picked up many of its non-expansionist rhetoric, helping to kill off the party by 1854.
Constitutional Union Party
This party was a mish-mash of all the discontented from the Free Soilers, Whigs, and Know Nothingers. It was short lived and was ultimately about compromise. They wanted to uphold the constitution, keep the south from seceding, and figure out a solution to the problem of slavery. Sound vague? Well, it was a vague party. It influenced little and fell out of favor as Republicanism expanded, dying out before the Civil War.
Founded in 1845, this was the anti-immigrant party of the mid-nineteenth century. It was actually called the American Party, and occasionally, they took on the title of the Native American Party, but most people knew them by the name of the Know-Nothing Party, The party began in 1845, when Irish immigration into the US was at its highest. This made nativists and anti-Catholic Protestants very nervous, so they founded this party to try to keep others out. It was mostly a middle-class institution but had very little success.
The Reconstruction Era, 1864-1890’s
Reconstruction is the word here. The Civil War had torn the country apart and even after its end it would continue to do so. Just as the US political party situation in the first half of the nineteenth century dealt with the issues of a fracture nation, the parties of the latter half of the century dealt with its aftermath.
However, unlike the antebellum years, you’re not going to see as many new parties popping up after the war. The Republican and Democratic Parties won the dominance game and spend the post-Civil War years sharpening their disagreements with one another. Always remember for the APUSH exam, that political parties in US history have always been in transition, and the Reconstruction era is no different.
The Reconstruction era was not the Democratic Party’s highest point. Associations with the Civil War kept the party unpopular and the devastation of the Civil War kept the south impoverished. They wouldn’t regain control of Congress until 1874 and the presidency until 1884.
Democrats retained strong control in the South, but were ultimately split into three groups. The first believed in a very limited government, keeping out of the lives of individuals, the second consisted of immigrant groups who argued for labor rights and better lives in urban areas, and the third group saw the South and the West getting together to criticize the growing strength of the industrial economy.
Between 1868 and 1892, the Republican Party would win five of seven presidential elections. This was the hot party of the Reconstruction era. They maintained a policy of not rocking the economic boat, supporting a strong central bank, the railroad industry, tariffs, and aid to homesteaders. Freed slaves increasingly flocked to the party due to their stance on slavery before the war, giving them a new sense of strength. Increasingly, it was becoming the urban party, as northern industrialists, merchants, and professionals counted themselves amongst its ranks.
But they were increasingly having trouble keeping united. One fissure began to develop as more immigrants joined the populace. Anti-immigrant Republicans were hostile towards the melting-pot status of American cities. Party politics also helped to fracture the party. As the party system grew, established Republicans were unwilling to criticize corruption of President Ulysses S. Grant and other Republicans. Tired of this, many fled the party (these were called Mugwumps), and helped to Democrats win in the 1890’s.
Ever heard of the quote “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” by William Jennings Bryant? Well, it basically sums up the Greenback-Labor Party. After the Civil War, the federal government printed money (“greenbacks”) without basing it on silver or gold, but they cancelled that program by going back to the gold standard in 1875. Green backers hated this idea and ran on the ticket of going back to the postwar standard.
Unfortunately for the party leaders, the gold standard years ended up OK, so they fell out of favor. Laborers who supported the party began looking towards socialism for answers and those who wanted to get rid of the gold standard drifted towards the Democratic party, just like Bryant did (he was a Democrat when he gave his “cross of gold” speech). Like many of the other third parties, it fizzled in the end, and disappeared by 1884.
The Progressive Era, 1896-1932
Progressive era politics were, well, progressive. Industrialization dominated cities, as workers started to demand more rights and privileges, while a distrust of business began to sweep through the country, as unique immigrant, social, and economic groups began to vie for attention in the US political party system. The Republican Party could be described as being more “progressive,” but the problem of disunity continued to plague both of the main parties.
The twentieth century started off in debate for the Democratic Party. As you can tell from the Reconstruction era, farmers were concerned about the US economy. So, this became an issue for the Democratic Party, which was still trying to appeal to urban workers and immigrants. Ultimately, the farmers won out in the end with nominating Bryant, but at the cost of losing urban support. And the Democrats lost in general, since Bryant lost out to Republican William McKinley.
But Republicans kept arguing with themselves as well, helping Woodrow Wilson win the presidency. He argued for involvement in WWI, and even though support for the war was strong at first, support dwindled, and so did the population’s patience for Wilson’s Democratic Party. His League of Nations was shot down by Congress and civil rights groups fought back against police state policies that emerged during the war years.
As we said above, this was the Republican era—but only kind of. Initially, Republicans fought strongly against corruption in the government, tried to break down corporate interests in the government, and sought out more worker’s rights across the country.
And although the Republican Teddy Roosevelt was a popular president, he split the party into the Progressive Party, hurting Republican chances to gain control of the presidency during and after the WWI years. Republicanism kept being viewed as being in favor of industrial cities, so during these years, the party attempted to align itself with rural politics, the South, and against immigrants in much stronger ways than in previous years.
AKA the Bull Moose Party (which we think is a way better name). Just like the other parties, this one began with drama and disagreement. Theodore Roosevelt was the president from 1901 to 1908 under a Republican ticket, but soon became disenchanted in the later years. Mostly he had a falling out with the following Republican nominee, William Howard Taft. Teddy was a boisterous, my way or the highway kind of guy (he claimed to have the strength of a bull moose, thus the party’s nickname). And when Taft didn’t do everything Roosevelt wanted, Teddy ran against him, but lost.
So, he founded a new party, the Progressive Party. He argued for reforms on tariffs, voting rights for women, the regulation of businesses, and increased labor rights. Although he beat out the Republican nominee, the Democrats still won. The party itself fell apart when Roosevelt rejoined the Republican Party.
Despite losing membership and popularity by the middle of the nineteenth century, the American Party actually stuck around well into the 1920’s. Just like the Antebellum era, immigration peaked once more during the turn of the twentieth century. The party’s nativist, anti-immigrant appeal drew in folks from Ku Klux Klan and other nativist supremacy groups like that. They stayed on the platform of keeping anarchists, socialists, and invalids out of the country, educating only Protestant children, and keeping a large border-patrolling military. By the end of the Progressive era, they once again fell out of favor.
This was the farmers’ party of the Progressive era. Many of the Greenbackers joined this group in the 1880’s, which also ran on the idea of printing more money without precious metal restrictions. This, they hoped would help the debt-ridden farmers across the South and the West. Supporters of the party were also called Populists, because they wanted a more direct relationship with the government. They believed in the popular vote of senators, referendums, and the abolition of national police, and were generally very anti-immigrant.
They also really hated the Democratic and Republican Parties. But when Bryant was elected after his “cross of gold speech,” the Democratic Party took away their momentum. The party wouldn’t make it past the first decade of the twentieth century.
As industrialization began to dominate the US economy, the Socialist Party became more and more appealing. It was actually founded in 1874, but wouldn’t become influential until the twentieth century, when between 1900 and 1920, they nominated Eugene V. Debs to run for president (he got 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912). Between these years, Milwaukee voted a socialist in as mayor, several members of Congress were elected, and numerous city counselors were elected under the ticket of Socialism.
The party, like many of the others in US political history, was fragmented. Although nearly every cross-section of society found membership in the party, debates raged between reform vs. revolution. Both unions and cooperatives were supported, but the American Federation of Labor, one of the country’s biggest unions, hated the party. These internal problems would plague the party well into the latter half of the twentieth century and it would never be as strong again.
Strangely, this was the closest thing to a labor party that developed in US history at this time. Historians debate this topic all the time, asking why did labor take off throughout Europe but not really in the US?
The Era of Liberalism, 1933-Present Day
Ah, we’ve come to the modern age as we know. This is when the US political party system develops into what we know it as today. The Democratic Party aligns itself with the tenets of economic liberalism, while Republicanism moves towards conservative government and national strength.
We also see a number of challenges popping up to try and take on the main two-party system. From the Green Party to the Libertarian Party, there have been efforts to change the US political party system, but with very little success.
Liberalism is the word you are going to need to know for this segment of APUSH. The Democratic Party began to adhere to the proponents of Keynesian economic thought, which put government intervention into the economy in direct ways. As Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies helped the nation get out of the Great Depression, Democrats had success with this model throughout the country.
John F. Kennedy, during his presidency, increasingly aligned the Democratic Party with civil rights, as Republican leaders decried immigrant groups and radicals. By the 1970s, Democratic platforms had married notions of strong central government in the economy and the party of civil rights, both being central issues in nearly every Democratic presidential candidate since.
The Republican Party in the first couple of decades that followed the Great Depression could be seen as the anti-New Deal party. They spent their time and effort trying to dismantle the programs put forward by Roosevelt and by criticizing radical left groups like communism, but to little avail. But this also meant that they increasingly turned to platforms of small government, states’ rights, pro-business, anti-radicalism, and pro-military strength.
These policies could be seen in Richard Nixon’s anti-radicalism efforts, Ronald Reagan’s growth of the military and theory of “trickle down economics,” and George W. Bush’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the twenty-first century. There are plenty of important Republican figures to think about here, but what you really want to remember for the APUSH exam is the ways that the Republican Party’s platform shifted according to Great Depression New Deal efforts. This was what helped form modern Republicanism as we know it.
The Libertarian Party showed up in the 1970’s in order to provide an option that differed from the main two parties dominating the US political Party system. They have stood on the firm belief of individual freedom and a no-interventionist federal government, tenets that don’t quite fit into either Republican or Democratic categories. Ultimately, they have had very little electoral success and are considered a fringe group in the US political party system.
In 1992 and 1996, presidential candidate Ross Perot became one of the biggest challenges to the two-party system that the US had seen in years. In 1992, he ran as an independent, but during the next election, he created his own party, calling it the Reform Party. He opposed NAFTA and argued that the national debt was choking the economy. In 1992, he received nearly 20 percent of the popular vote (but not one Electoral College vote), making him the most successful third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moosers.
Independent Parties (Not the Independent Party)
Those candidates looking to not align with any particular party, and especially not the two dominant parties, often run on an independent ticket. This means that they are not obligated to adhere to a specific set of policies or platforms that are decided by a party. Examples: Minnesota’s Jesse Ventura, Ross Perot in 1992, and Joe Lieberman.
Don’t confuse this with the Independent Party, which was a far-right party best known for its nomination of George Wallace for president. Wallace became popular in the 1970s for his extreme anti-immigrant policies, protectionist thought, and celebration of nationalism.
The History of US Political Parties and the AP US History Exam
OK, you got all that? Whew, we know that this is a lot of info to digest for your APUSH exam. Just be glad we didn’t cover every single party that has ever popped up in US election cycles—this list would be ginormous if we did. No, instead, we covered everything that you’ll need to know for the AP US history exam. But always remember that this is the APUSH exam, and you always need to keep your eye on historical context.
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Just remember how we’ve organized this AP US history review. Time periods are important here—and always remember that the history of US political parties has shifted significantly over time. Your mantra should be “context and time.” When studying, think about the historical context that each party emerged and was strong under. For example, the Socialist Party piqued at a time when industrial labor led to many disenchanted workers looking for solutions. And always consider time period. The Democratic Party during the 1930s was very different when Jacksonian Democracy was the biggest this in the US political party system.
Now let’s take a look at an example from a real APUSH exam. Here’s a good Long Answer Question from 2014. In fact, it’s rather perfect, since we spent a bit of this APUSH review on the topics of Jacksonian Democracy and their relationship to the Whigs:
Compare and contrast the Jacksonian Democratic Party and the Whig Party of the 1830s and 1840s. Focus on TWO of the following: The role of the federal government in the economy, social reform, and westward expansion.
This should be much easier for you after reading through this review on US political parties. By now, you know that Jacksonian Democracy was not a fan of a centralized banking system, but the Whigs were, Jackson viewed himself as a champion of the people, and that Whigs did not like Jackson’s views on increased westward expansion.
Remember these, and all the other tips on US political parties, and you’re sure to ace your upcoming APUSH exam. Good luck!
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