- Historic Sites
The Lives Of The Parties
The two-party system, undreamt of by the founders of the Republic, has been one of its basic shaping forces ever since their time
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
The machine, refined by constant testing and experience, was the greatest artifact of the golden era of American two-party politics.
The Republicans broke all precedents for instant success. In 1856 their first presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, won 114 electoral votes, only 35 short of the needed majority, and they also elected 92 representatives and 20 senators. From the start they were the second major party. The Whigs were gone, and the only other challenge in 1856 came from the American, or Know-Nothing, party, which got Maryland’s 8 electoral votes. This too was a one idea third party, a transient holding pen for those cut adrift by party shakeups. Its one idea was hostility to foreigners and Catholics. It had a brief run of success in industrial Massachusetts before its quick demise; its 1856 attraction for many conflicted borderstate voters was that it took no clear position on slavery.
The Democrats at last split in their final pre-Civil War convention in 1860. Northern Democrats who had not already defected to the Republicans nominated Stephen A. Douglas, the leading spokesman ffa for a morally neutral “deal” on slavery in the territories—namely, leaving it up to the Vf6 actual settlers to decide prior to admission to statehood. It was not enough for extreme pro-slavery Democrats, who by then were demanding federal protection for slavery wherever the flag went. They walked out and named their own candidate, John C. Breckenridge. A fourth party was formed, mainly by aging border-state politicians still desperate to leave the whole subject of slavery alone.
Abraham Lincoln won, with a clear electoral-college majority and without the vote of a single Southern state. Southern hotheads seized on that as “proof” that the South and its institutions were no longer safe within the Union. Secession and war followed, and both the Union and the party system that had helped keep it together lay in ruins.
But only as a prelude to triumph. A stronger Union and a two-party system more vigorous than ever arose from the carnage. The third act began in 1865 and lasted until another war, almost eighty years later, rang down the curtain.
The agonies of battle, occupation, and Reconstruction set a fiery new brand of emotional partisanship on national politics. The elephant and donkey (invented by the cartoonist Thomas Nast at this time) became symbols as highly charged as the grand old flag or the old rugged cross. In the North the Republicans proclaimed themselves the party that had, in Robert M. La Follette’s words, “fought a desperate war for a great and righteous cause” and “had behind it the passionate enthusiasm of a whole generation.” It was, for young men like himself in the 188Os, “the party of partriotism.” Republican slogan makers put it tersely to veterans: “Vote as you shot.” Meanwhile, the Republicans’ Hamiltonian generosity to bankers, railroad builders, and manufacturers I encouraged the postwar I industrial boom and allowed Republicans likewise to identify themselves with growth and progress.
In the South the war had directly the reverse result. During Reconstruction the states of the occupied South were run by Republican governments elected by freed blacks, newcomers from the North, and local white allies taking advantage of new political openings. For that reason, when pre-war Southern leaders regained control of the region’s politics and culture, after 1877, the very name of Republicanism was associated with whatever was hateful to them. No “decent” white man would any more vote Republican than he would defile the graves of his ancestors. The Solid South was born. Every Democratic presidential nominee began his campaign with a bonus of the South’s small but unwavering electoral vote. In Congress persistently re-elected Southern Democrats were able to translate their seniority into important leadership positions.
By the late 1880s the two parties were in fairly even balance in voting for Congress, and control on Capitol Hill passed frequently from one side to the other. Since the Democratic leadership had by then signed on to approving industrial growth, there was no significant Democratic-versus-Republican debate on the overall drift of the nation away from its old anchorage in an agrarian majority. Critics of the new order fought their battles within the ranks of each party and generally lost.
But in 1892 came a change. Wheat and cotton farmers found themselves desperately squeezed between falling prices for the crops they sold and higher charges for the money they borrowed and the goods and services they bought. They blamed their plight on high-tariff, pro-monopoly, tight-money policies tolerated by both old parties, and they formed a new one, the People’s, or Populist, party. To its standard they rallied a measurable force of protesters against the decline of equal opportunity in a consolidating economy. They won 22 electoral votes, a sprinkling of congressional seats, and many state offices in 1892. Four years later Democratic sympathizers with the Populist ideology took over their party’s convention and nominated William Jennings Bryan, who ran on a combined Democratic-Populist ticket.