By Trevor Law
This is a multi-part series on why American politics is the way it is. This first part will deal with the foundings of both parties as well as the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War.
Have you ever wondered why Democrats are the Liberal party and Republicans are the Conservative party? I mean if you look back to the founders of each party they couldn’t be more different than their respective parties today. Abraham Lincoln aggressively put down a rebellion, first just to keep the Union together, but then to end the institution of slavery in the U.S. He essentially stretched the Constitution to become the biggest promoter of civil rights in American history. While Andrew Jackson so totally changed the party he essentially founded (The Democrats) that it could hardly be considered the same. As a slave owner, Indian fighter and hater of banks and paper money, he was the very embodiment the frontier spirit. He was a hero of the war of 1812 and loved to fight. It would be hard to imagine either man in either party today.
This may blow your minds, but many abolitionists ran in the same circles as the first generation of great capitalists. These two groups, combined with the a massive wave of settlers in the west, formed the Republican party. Based in New England and the Midwest this coalition proved unbeatable. The grassroots of the abolitionists, with the money and influence of capitalists, swept the Republican party to power just six years after it was founded. It led to a massive shift in American politics and it was because of the party’s threat to slavery that the south seceded.
The Democrats on the other hand couldn’t have been more different. While many in the business community had links to southern plantations and the production of cotton and tobacco was fueled by slave labor, it was a shift that occurred in the North that ended the alliance between these two groups. Northern business owners were pressured to cut ties and with the fugitive slave act, blacks who escaped to the north could be hunted down and brought back down South. This along with the Democratic parties split and the further spread of Slavery led to its downfall.
The American Civil War totally transformed the United States. The Election of 1860 might be the single most important one in U.S. history. When the new Republican party was able to win the Presidency and a majority in in the house without without winning a single state. It ended the Democratic party, and the South’s dominance in American Politics. It is very very hard to give this singular moment the significance it deserves. The Democrats, which at one time were the Democratic-Republicans under Thomas Jefferson, had control the Federal government for most of the early Republic.
The Democratic party though was being split just as the country was. In the Democratic convention of 1860 the southern delegations broke from the rest of the party. The Southerners wanted a plank that protected the Dread Scott decision. It stated that it made slavery legal in all territories. This enraged the north, which was split between letting the territories vote, or between banning an expansion of territories all together. The Northern Delegates, lead by Stephen Douglas, couldn’t accept it and knew they would lose the north on such a platform. Thus the Democrats split, and while Lincoln might have won without that split, it made it impossible for him to lose, even with the entire South voting against him.
This is when the Civil War Started and caused another reshuffling in American politics. During the war politics was entirely defined by the conflict, should the Union make peace, should they press for total war, should they make it about slavery? In the aftermath of the war the Republican party gained a level of dominance that even the Democratic party of the early 19th century never enjoyed. An alliance of westerners,and northern industrialists, ensured that the party of Lincoln would define American politics.
It was defined by an astoundingly weak federal government. As the industrial revolution transformed the country, making the first generation of billionaires and creating a massive working class the government was largely absent from people’s lives. There was no Federal reserve, taxes were much lower and no social safety net and very little restrictions on the power of companies. While this supercharged growth it lead to massive inequalities and huge safety gaps, as well as things like child labor. It created a shimmering pot of anxieties that were ready to burst, and it was two men, William Jennings Bryan, and Theodore Roosevelt, that gave a voice to that.
I hope you enjoyed part one! Part two will be coming soon!
And you should also check out some of our other articles