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US History to 1877: Two-Party System Development Essay

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Updated: Sep 7th, 2021


The USA parties initially performed important state support functions, but the question arises: why did the system of the two parties develop in this country? The simplest and most convincing answer is that in the former North American colonies after independence was gained, political life seemed to start from scratch. The elite of the young federative state sought initially to reach a pragmatic compromise and prevent the country from breaking up into several state formations, which would make them an object of expansion of the European powers.

When in the 1790s among the elite, during the first state events a layer of monetary-speculative super-elite emerged, trying to pursue egoistic policies an opposition appeared. Both political groups – the ruling federalist led by A. Hamilton and the opponent republican under the leadership of T. Jefferson, was rapidly advancing along the path of party building. In 1789 and 1792 the basic internal political principles of the federalists were likely to be formed. Later, in 1793-1796, under the influence of foreign policy and ideological conflicts in Europe and the Great French Revolution, there was a sharp sociopolitical polarization in American society (Wray-Lake et al. 3). The debate on foreign policy orientation, neutrality in the war of the European powers, the Anglo-American negotiations, as well as the struggle against democratic societies were of great importance for the formation of the Federalist party.

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In April 1796, on the eve of the presidential elections, in which General J. Washington, who had the status of a national hero, no longer had to take part, the Congress was going to its caucus for the first time. Although the Republicans lost the election, the situation was not devastating, and in the next presidential campaign of 1800, the Republicans demonstrated better organization and internal unity. The election results of 1800 restored historical justice and provided broad support for the American state system from the population (Nwokora and Pelizzo 112). They contributed to the coming to power of representatives of the agrarian democracy. The Jeffersonian Republicans expressed the aspirations of the overwhelming majority of Americans, such as planters, farmers, artisans. Thus, they firmly established themselves in government for a quarter of a century, and their competitors, the Federalists, turned into a weak regionalist group.

After 1816 they disappeared altogether from the national political arena, and in the presidential election of 1820, the official candidate of the Republicans J. Monroe received the votes of almost all electors. Already the economic crisis of 1819 marked the acute contradictions between the West, the South, and the Northeast over the land policy. The Missouri Compromise of 1819-1821, which formally limited the spread of slavery, gave a powerful impetus to the processes that led to the design of the second two-party system (Nwokora and Pelizzo 115). This was initiated by the presidential election of 1824, when five more candidates, representing different regions, found ambitions for the nomination.

The voting results did not reveal the winner, and the elections were transferred to Congress. They ended with the election far from the strongest, but a politically convenient candidate, whom his opponents accused of a backstage deal. As a result, the new president, J. Adams, turned out to be a rather weak and unpopular leader, whose congressional ambitions were domestic and his foreign policy plans were simply ignored. By this time, the spirit of partisanship was fully established in the country, where parties were no longer perceived as dubious.

In the presidential election of 1828, the first restructuring of the bipartisan system began, when a democratic party was born under the leadership of E. Jackson during the election campaign. He was a hero of the Anglo-American war of 1812–1815, coming from the border region of the West. Elections in 1828 and 1832 were victorious because the Democratic Party had 55-56% of the vote (Wray-Lake et al. 5). Subsequently, as the new Whig party consolidated on the basis of the old Republican party, the electoral results of the Democratic Party deteriorated, and in 1840 it suffered a perceptible defect.

In the Democratic Party in the 1840s not only the faction of the northern conservatives but also the slave-owners of southerners intensified. They managed to impose their candidate on the presidential elections of 1844 that were victorious for the Democrats, but they lost the elections of 1848 (Golosov 259). At the same time, the southern drift of the Democrats in the second half of the 40s led to the departure of many of its former supporters, and the organization of the third party. In terms of organization and ideology, the Whig Party, which was initially founded in the 1830s, was even weaker. It was formed by various opponents of the democrat E. Jackson (Golosov 251). In the mid-1840s, the Whigs had particularly sharp contradictions between the northerners and the southerners, and among the latter, there were also differences on economic policy issues.

In the 1850s, it was the Whigs who became the first and main victim of the problem of slavery. Adoption of the Kansas-Nebraska bill in May 1854, associated with the threat of the spread of slavery, finally finished off the Whig party. The second restructuring of the two-party system was quite dramatic and painful, although it resulted in only a partial update of the two-party tandem. At the same time, during the years of the Civil War, this system of two parties was deformed due to the territorial split of the country. However, the given circumstances did not significantly influence the current policy of equal opposition.


In conclusion, the development of the American two-party system involved a sequence of events that led to the abolishment of a number of politically inefficient practices. Although originally, the parties were created for social support functions, they became key elements of the political arena of the US. In the decades following the end of the Civil War, the bipartisan Republican-Democratic system finally established itself as a partisan institution. After a lengthy period of political ostracism of the southern Democrats during a radical reconstruction for the presidential elections, the democratic party was re-established on a national scale. The Democrats for the first time won a majority in the lower house of Congress, and during the presidential campaign, they received an absolute majority of votes. The third restructuring of the two-party system, in contrast to the previous actions, took place more quickly and was not associated with changes in the composition of the participants in the tandem. It was accompanied by a sectional nature of voting, where the agrarian West and south were against the industrial and banking Northeast. However, unlike the eve of the Civil War, the given conflict did not have catastrophic consequences.

Works Cited

Golosov, Grigorii V. “Factors of Party System Nationalization”. International Political Science Review, vol. 37, no. 2, 2016, pp. 246-260.

Nwokora, Zim, and Riccardo Pelizzo. “Measuring Party System Change: A Systems Perspective”. Political Studies, vol. 66, no. 1, 2018, pp. 100-118.

Wray-Lake, Laura, et al. “The Party Goes On: U.S. Young Adults’ Partisanship and Political Engagement Across Age and Historical Time”. American Politics Research, vol. 1, no. 1, 2019, pp. 2-19.

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