In his farewell address to the nation, George Washington warned the public about the dangers of allowing political parties to emerge. In his mind, those types of organizations tended to focus more upon rewarding themselves and their own membership, and less upon anything that would be for the good of the nation. To that end, he said:
“However they may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
It would be hard to argue that Washington was wrong—one glance at our current political situation demonstrates many of the evils of the party system. Of course, his words went unheeded in 1796, and there hasn’t been a lot of movement toward eliminating the party system in the subsequent 220 years. By the time President Washington spoke these words, he had been in office for nearly eight years, and had already seen the creation of two distinct political camps within the United States (and, for that matter, within his own cabinet.) The Federalists primarily stood for the creation of a strong central government that would be inherently supreme over the states. The Anti-Federalists effectively stood for the opposite—strong state governments and a weak federal government responsible for national defense and little else.
Within a few short years, the two groups coalesced into the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists won the first true presidential election in 1796, with Washington’s vice president, John Adams, succeeding to the presidency. The Democratic-Republicans won the next, as Adams was in turn replaced by his vice president, Thomas Jefferson. In 1804, the strongest voice within the Federalists, Alexander Hamilton, was killed by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel. For all intents and purposes, the Democratic-Republicans became the only functional political party in the nation in the aftermath. Jefferson was succeeded by fellow Virginian James Madison, who won a crushing victory in 1808, and served for eight years. In 1816, the Federalists
ran a presidential candidate for the last time—and he managed to win just three states in the contest. In 1820, James Monroe ran for reelection completely unopposed—the first and last president to do so. (Interestingly, he still didn’t win by unanimous vote—William Plumer of New Hampshire cast his electoral vote for John Quincy Adams, ostensibly to keep Washington as the only president with a unanimous electoral tally.)
In 1824, John Quincy Adams won the presidency after a hotly-contested election that required the House of Representatives to choose the winner from the top three finishers, since none of them won a majority of the electoral votes. But, here’s the thing: all four of the major candidates (Adams, Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay) all ran on the Democratic-Republican ticket! The electoral votes split largely on a regional basis, but the party collected all of the electoral votes cast. This bizarre outcome demonstrated some of the factionalism within the party, and in 1828, Andrew Jackson ran as the candidate of the newly-christened Democratic Party. Adams, the incumbent, lost the election while representing the National Republican ticket. The election made it clear that the Democratic-Republican Party no longer survived—but the question of what parties would emerge to replace it took longer to solidify. When Jackson ran for reelection, he did so as a Democrat, and his chief challenger, Henry Clay, ran as a National Republican. Minor showings by John Floyd (the Nullifier Party) and William Wirt (the Anti-Masonic Party) did little to affect the outcome of Jackson’s reelection campaign.
Jackson was an extremely polarizing figure in American politics—much like the Federalists and Anti-Federalists emerged in the early years of the republic, it soon became clear in the 1830s that there would be a Democrat and Anti-Democrat party. And thus, in 1833, in the aftermath of the election, the National Republican and Anti-Masonic parties united to form the Whig Party, adopting the name of a much-older political organization in Britain. In 1836, four different Whigs received electoral votes, which demonstrated an effort to throw the election to the House of Representatives as had happened twelve years earlier. The effort failed, but four years later, the Whigs managed to capture the White House under the banner of William Henry Harrison. In only seven years, the party had been formed, competed in two national elections, and won the highest office.
The Whigs and Democrats stabilized as the two national political parties until the 1850s, when the issue of slavery divided the membership of both parties. The Democratic Party, which drew its primary power base in the South, was a staunch supporter not only of the retention of slavery, but also of the expansion of it into new territories in the West. When the Whigs proved unwilling to formally commit to an abolitionist platform (assuming that they could not win national elections with such a radical position), it spelled the end for their organization. In 1854, a new political party, the Republicans, arose in opposition to the expansion of slavery, and two years later, their candidate, John C. Frémont, claimed the second-highest number of electoral votes. The new party’s membership was concentrated in the North and West, and extremely motivated to perform well in elections. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the party’s nomination for the presidency, and went on to the White House (albeit with the lowest percentage of the popular vote of any president directly elected to the office.)
Obviously, the Civil War created a massive political divide within the United States, and when the Union emerged victorious, it did so under a Republican banner—which meant that the Republicans won almost every presidential election for a generation. The lone Democrat elected to the presidency, Grover Cleveland, won in 1888 and 1896, making him the only president to serve non-consecutive terms. But, for all intents and purposes, the Republicans had a stranglehold on the federal government. Once the memories of the Civil War faded, it became possible for a Democrat to run for national office without being accused of supporting the rebellion—but when Woodrow Wilson won the office in 1912, it was largely due to a schism within the Republican Party.
Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901, after William McKinley’s assassination. In 1908, he chose not to run for reelection, and instead promoted the campaign of his chosen successor, William Howard Taft. But, in 1912 Roosevelt decided he wanted to take the office back—and when Taft refused to stand aside, Roosevelt chose to run as a third-party candidate (under the oddly-named Bull Moose Party masthead). This decision all but handed the election to Wilson, who served two terms as a southern Democrat.
The Republicans returned to the office from 1921-1933, but having Herbert Hoover in office for the commencement of the Great Depression all but doomed the party for nearly two decades. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected four times, and when he died in 1945, Harry S. Truman took up where he left off, including winning a close reelection in 1948. The 1952 election brought Dwight Eisenhower to the office, and it seemed that some of the back-and-forth regularity of national elections came with him. From the time of Eisenhower’s election until today, neither party has managed to hold the presidency for more than a twelve year stretch.
Why does this rapid-fire run through presidential elections matter today? Because it demonstrates a few fundamental truths about American politics, particularly at the national level. First, the American system has always had, at most, two major political parties. And, if one party managed to take credit for a major improvement in the national atmosphere (or blame the other party for something terrible), periods of single-party rule have been fairly common. Second, it is possible for new political parties to emerge, but they effectively need to be taking the place of an existing political party—and to do so, they tend to need a massive crisis and a bungled response to serve as the catalyst for the destruction of one of the existing parties. Third, Washington was right—both political parties tend to put self-preservation at the top of their list of priorities. Each of the major political parties has an acute awareness of the demise of predecessors—and no party has made the same missteps as a defunct one.
Thus, if any would-be national political party hopes to challenge for the office of the presidency (or for long-term viability even in state-level offices), it needs to have the opening created by the destruction of an existing party. Such a destruction creates a vacuum, with disaffected members looking for a new organization that might suit their preferences. That is not to suggest that third-party politicians should be hoping for a crisis, nor should they attempt to manufacture one—but it does mean that they would do well to monitor the internal schisms within the existing parties, and be prepared to court their membership if a collapse occurs.