The Evolution Of America’s Four “Political Systems” Up To 1860

It is George Washington, the only president elected as an Independent, whose Farewell Address famously warns about the dangers of political parties to the well-being of the Union. His advice, however, is quickly ignored and between 1800 and 1860 four divisive “political systems” evolve.

The 1st System is visible at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, with Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton pairing off against the Democrat-Republicans of Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists call for a strong central government shaping America’s policies, while their opponents argue that the “sovereign states” must be dominant.

                                                    America’s 1st Political System (1790-1828)

Political AvatarHamiltonJefferson 
Geographical tiltNew EnglandSouth
Political PhilosophyRepublic/leader classDemocracy/common man
Concentration of powerWashington/federal controlDe-centralized/state’s rights
Important to avoidIndecision during warfareRecreation of a monarchy
Economic visionDiversify/industrializeAgriculture/farming
FinanceSoft money/federal bankHard money/state banks
Foreign tiltPro-BritainPro-France

The troubled presidency of John Adams weakens the Federalists and ushers in the “Virginia Dynasty,” with Democrat-Republicans from Jefferson to Madison to Monroe occupying the White House for twenty-four consecutive years. This string ends with the stalemated election of 1828 where the U.S. House, under the influence of Henry Clay, chooses John Quincy Adams over the popular vote leader, Democrat Andrew Jackson. Adams will serve as a National-Republican while acting like a Federalist.

      1st Political SystemStartingPresidentsDissolution
Federalist    1797John Adams (1797-1801)  1820
Anti-Federalist/Democrat-Republicans    1789Jefferson (1801-1809)Madison (1809-1817)Monroe (1817-1825)  1828
National-Republicans    1828JQ Adams (1825-1829)  1832

The 2nd Political System is dominated by Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812, who sets out to extend suffrage and create a Democrat Party reflecting the wishes of the “common man,” including those settlers in the inland/western states. Jackson’s strong beliefs and decisive policy actions bring about the charge that he is acting like a king, and foster a series of adversaries – notably John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay – both dedicated to his defeat. Jackson easily slaps down Calhoun’s Nullifier Party, but Clay’s Whigs, named after the anti-monarch faction in Britain, take hold for a long-run. 

America’s Second Political System: 1828-1848

Jackson’s Democrat PartyClay’s Whig Party
Political Roots Jefferson Hamilton 
Political Philosophy Democracy/common man Republic/leader class 
Core Constituency Small farmers Farmers + city wage earners 
Core Geography South + West Border + Northeast 
Labor Manual power Manual + machines 
Government Power De-centralized/state’s rights Washington/federal control 
Federal spending Limit it/balance budget Invest in infrastructure 
Tariff Lower and on fewer goods Higher to protect US mfrs. 
Price to buy US land Lower Higher to fund investments 
Money Hard/specie to avoid inflationSoft/paper to support capitalism
US Bank Opposed/rigged for privileged Supportive/control currency 
Capitalism Suspicious/elites/corruption Fundamental to growth 

Jackson easily wins a second term in 1832, but his financial efforts to pay off the federal debt, shut down the privately controlled U.S. Bank, and favor hard specie over soft banknotes, all lead to the Bank Panic of 1837 and a prolonged recession. This plagues his protégé, Van Buren, and leads to the election in 1840 of the first Whig President, ex-General William Henry Harrison.

However, “Old Tippecanoe’s” death after only one month in office results in the first ascension of a Vice-President, in this case the Virginian John Tyler, who opposes the Whig charter and throws the party into chaos. In 1844, another Jackson follower, the “dark horse” James Polk, restores Democrat control and leads the nation into the Mexican War, aimed at acquiring western territory and opening it up to slavery. The war stirs further northern animosity toward the southern “Slavocracy,” and a second Whig, ex-General Zachary Taylor, defeats a weak Democrat, Senator Lewis Cass, in 1848. 

    2nd Political SystemStartingPresidentsDissolution
Democrats (unified)    1828Jackson (1829-1837)Van Buren (1837-1841)Polk (1845-49)    1860
Nullifiers (anti-cotton tariff)    1828None    1839
Anti-Masons Party    1828None    1838
Whigs    1834Harrison/Tyler (1841-45)Taylor/Fillmore (1849-1853)    1860
Liberty (anti-slavery)    1840None    1848

America’s 3rd Political System reflects a widening of the gap between the northern and southern states.  The two regions have long been divided on economic matters: the South betting its future wealth on four great agricultural crops – tobacco, rice, sugar and cotton – and on the auction value of its bred slaves; the North committed to a diversified industrialized option fueled by modern capitalism. Historically the differences have led to clashes over southern opposition to import tariffs and federal spending on infrastructure upgrades, typically resolved by political compromises. But the conflicts are exacerbated by the addition of vast new western land ceded by Mexico in 1848 after the war.

The Democrat Party, now beholden to its electoral base in the South, demands that slavery be expanded  into these new territories. The northern public deems this another example of southern arrogance and signals its refusal to go along. By dint of its larger population, the North already enjoys a sizable edge in the U.S. House, and their political leaders now view the slavery issue as a path to defeat the Democrats. 

 America’s Third Political System: 1848-1852

DemocratsFree Soil WhigsLiberty
Avatar    Stephen Douglas       Salmon Chase      Henry Clay James Birney
Geographic baseSouth        North/West     North Northeast
View of slaveryPositive good for society  Demeans white laborMorally wrongAbomination
Expanding to west  Absolute necessity    Fierce oppositionBan spread    Abolish everywhere
DC strengthSouth bloc vote in SenateHouse majority position American SystemNone
Label        Slavocracy    White Supremacy     Moral  IdealistsRadicals

But forming a winning opposition party proves to be out of reach in time for the election of 1852. The Democrats, in full-out defense mode, nominate Franklin Pierce, the first of two successive “Doughface” candidates – men from northern states who are dedicated southern sympathizers on public policy. Meanwhile the Opposition is split between several very different blocs.

Salmon Chase’s Free Soil Party is focused on resisting the expansion of slavery, but it lacks internal cohesion. Its majority comprises racists who wish to “cleanse” the nation of all blacks and insist that the new western land be set aside exclusively for “free white men and free labor.” Ironically the other party members are abolitionists who regard the “free soil” banner as a path to limiting then ending slavery.

A second group is variously labeled the American Party or the Know-Nothings, and it stands not against slavery but instead the flood of Irish and German Catholics coming to America during the potato famine and anti-monarchist defeats across Europe in 1848. It regards these immigrants as a Democrat Party plot to bolster their ranks, and claims that their allegiance will be to the Pope in Rome not to the United States. The party is centered in the northeast and, although short-lived, detracts from efforts to displace the Democrats in 1852.   
While the Free Soilers and the Know-Nothings are evidence of a 3rd Political System, they are not yet ready to challenge the Democrats — and that task falls by default on the remnants of the Whig Party. Its final presidential candidate is ex-General, Winfield Scott, who is soundly defeated by Franklin Pierce.

    3rd Political SystemStartingPresidentsDissolving
Democrats (unified)    1828Pierce (1853-1857)Buchanan (1857-1861)    1860
Free Soil    1848None    1854
American/Know Nothings    1848None    1860 
Unionists    1851None    1853 
“Opposition” (to KN Act)    1854None    1860

In America’s 4th Political System, the Republican Party is founded, the Democrat Party is fractured, and the fateful election of 1860 culminates in secession and the Civil War.

After Pierce wins in 1852, Southern insistence on opening the west to slavery leads to Stephen Douglas’ pivotal 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Bill which reneges on the 1820 Missouri Compromise and outrages the North. Instead of the fixed 36”30” line designating Slave vs. Free State boundaries, the Bill calls for local voting (aka “popular sovereignty”) to make the delineation. 

However when this policy is first tested in the Kansas Territory, pro-slavery forces from Missouri steal the election, and this initiates four years of proxy North-South warfare before the outcome is finally reversed. Kansans adopt a Free State designation, while also voting to exclude all blacks from residency! 

The violence in “Bloody Kansas” is soon repeated in Congress in 1856 with sitting U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, an outspoken abolitionist, nearly caned to death by southern Congressman Preston Brooks after a fiery speech on Kansas. The beating occurs on the floor of the Senate with Brook’s colleagues warding off Sumner’s rescuers. Additional anger and fisticuffs follow on, and members in both chambers arrive with pistols and knives at the ready.Amidst this turmoil, the 4th Political Systems takes shape.

 America’s Fourth Political System: 1856 – 1860

Moderate DemocratsSouthern Secessionists  Republican Coalition      Unionists
Avatar    Stephen Douglas    Jefferson DavisHenry SewardJJ Crittenden
Antecedents  Jackson Democrats  Calhoun DemocratsFree Soil/KNWhigs
Geographic base North SouthNorth/WestBorder
Expanding slavery        Supportive  EssentialOpposeExtend 36’30”
Kansas solution        Slave StateSlave StateFree StateSlave State
DC strength            SenatePresidential gripU.S HouseSeniority

The Whig Party dissolves in 1856, but opposition to the Democrats remains split between the Know-Nothings, and the nascent Republicans, who first appear two years earlier. This division allows the Democrat Buchanan to slip into office with only 45% of the popular vote vs. 21% for the Know-Nothings and 33% for the Republicans. 

The Know-Nothings then fade after their loss, and the Republicans become dominant. Their roots remain in the Free Soil Party of 1848, with their base being white Northerners intent on reserving the new western territories for themselves, while eliminating all racially inferior blacks. By 1858 they are also joined by an increasing numbers who have anti-slavery sympathies along with a wish to end the pro-South policies of the Democrats.  

The Republicans continue to add members after the Ohio abolitionist John Brown is hanged for attempting to muster a “slave army” at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to slaughter all plantation owners. This event effectively ends all hope for reconciliation between the North and South. 

At their 1860 convention, the Republicans nominate Lincoln and adopt a platform calling for a flat-out ban on slavery in the west, which the South regards as fatal to their economic future. The Democrats then suffer a fatal schism when its convention fails to support a proposal for a Congressional law sanctioning slavery. Northern Democrats nominate Douglas while Southern Democrats back John Breckinridge. Another party called the Constitutional Unionists hopes to avoid secession and nominates John Bell. 

Thus the 4th Political System presents voters in the 1860 election with four parties: Republicans, Northern and Southern Democrats and Unionists. The result is a victory for Lincoln who wins with only 39% of the popular vote (zero in the South) and a slim majority in the Electoral College.

Attempts to repair the sectional breach fail, and six weeks after the election South Carolina secedes from the Union. On February 4, 1861, the Confederate States of America are formed, with Jefferson Davis as president. One month later, Lincoln delivers his Inaugural Address, pleading for an end to the schism. This fails and on April 13, the bombardment of Ft. Sumter begins the Civil War. 

    4th  Political SystemStartingPresidentsDissolving
“Opposition” (to KN Act)    1854None    1860
Republicans    1854Lincoln (1861-1865)Johnson (1865-1869)ongoing
Northern Democrats    1860Noneongoing
Southern Democrats    1860None    1861
Constitutional Unionists    1860None    1861
    Collapse of the Union
Confederate States    1860Davis (1861-1865)    1865

After the war, the Republican Party holds the White House all the way up to 1885 when Grover Cleveland finally delivers a win for the Democrats. 
To learn more about America’s “Political Systems,” read Chapters: 9, 15, 21, 48-9, 55-6, 61, 67, 78-9, 95, 115, 122, 127, 140-2, 149, 171, 180, 185, 195, 204, 209, 250-54, 275.