by Geri Zabela Eddins

George Washington and John AdamsOur first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, both adamantly opposed the development of political parties. As early as 1780, seven years before the Constitutional Convention first met, Adams declared, “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” Despite such trepidation, the Founding Fathers wrote nothing about political parties in the Constitution.

The Federalist and Democratic-Republican Parties Emerge
Two Opposing Parties Rise to the Top
The Parties Grow and Evolve
Third Parties Exert Influence
Organizing Committees and Conventions
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Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
Reference Sources

The Federalist and Democratic-Republican Parties Emerge

During the early, formative years of our nation’s history, the interests of north and south, rich and poor, and industry and agriculture were tossed into the same pressure cooker of dissent until two profoundly different visions for the country erupted. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton believed that our new country’s federal government should be more powerful. Hamilton particularly advocated for the creation of a national bank that would establish fiscal policy, institute credit, and standardize a national currency. Opponents feared that a stronger federal government would function more like a monarchy and wipe out the newly born democracy. Such opponents, such as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and House Representative James Madison, believed it more prudent to provide more power to individual states. Jefferson also believed the creation of a national bank was not permitted by the Constitution. Finding the distance separating their visions only widening, Hamilton formed the Federalist Party and Jefferson created the Republican Party. (The Republican Party was later called the Democratic-Republican Party.) Both parties emerged during the midst of Washington’s second term, and Washington was not pleased. Washington believed that such parties would only fracture our nation and “render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.” Washington wrote these words in his farewell address, pleading with Americans to set aside their differences and remain unified.

Two Opposing Parties Rise to the Top

Despite Washington’s urgent words of caution, the two new political parties assumed center stage in the 1796 election to wrestle not only with domestic issues, but also with our continuing contentious relationship with England. Our hard-fought independence guaranteed our freedom, but it did not guarantee normalized relations. The ratification of the Jay Treaty in 1794, in which England agreed to evacuate their posts on the western frontier and to secure American shipping routes, had helped to calm our turbulent relationship, but opponents believed the treaty was ineffective. So, in one corner stood the Federalist John Adams, who had supported the Jay Treaty as a means to avoid war and continue trade. In the opposing corner stood the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, who believed the treaty to be counter to American interests because it did not prevent the British from engaging in impressment (the practice of removing seamen from American ships and forcing them to serve in the British Navy). Social conventions of the time prevented both Adams and Jefferson from campaigning on their own behalf, but their parties’ supporters rose to the challenge and assumed the mantle of their candidates. The Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans vigorously promoted their respective candidates by fighting a brutal battle in the press. Those who championed Adams’ candidacy vilified Jefferson as an atheist and a “mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Jefferson’s supporters did not remain silent. They retaliated with their own vicious attacks against Adams, condemning him as a monarchist who sought to become a king and branding him as a fool and a hypocrite.

Because the election procedures established in the Constitution did not anticipate the rise of political parties, neither party found the complete executive power it had sought. At the time, the Constitution specified that each elector cast two votes but did not specify one as being for president and the other as being for vice president—so all votes were counted together. As a result, Adams received the most number of votes and became president, and his opponent Jefferson received the second highest number of votes and became his vice president. So, the nation’s top two executives represented not only widely disparate views, but also two opposing political parties. When the following election resulted in a tie that needed to be resolved by the House of Representatives, it became clear that the unanticipated rise of political parties compelled significant change to the Constitution. Congress therefore ratified the Twelfth Amendment in 1804. This amendment requires separate votes for president and vice president and also stipulates that the president and vice president must come from different states.

The Parties Grow and Evolve

American politics has been dominated by a two-party system ever since Washington retired to Mount Vernon, but the parties have changed, separated, and evolved dramatically as the nation was forced to grapple with new challenges at home and abroad. By 1816 the Federalist Party had dissolved, but Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party remained and continues to exist today as the Democratic Party. Over the years different parties have set foot in the national spotlight—the Whigs, the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party—but by the 1860s the party system had evolved into two major parties whose names we easily recognize—the Democrats and the Republicans. Although we consider the Democrats and Republicans to be the two major parties of modern times, their early policies varied quite a bit from modern standards. A twenty-first century Republican is undoubtedly proud of the early party’s stand against slavery, but is likely to cringe at its support of protectionist tariffs (taxes levied on imported goods to restrict trade) rather than free trade. Individual opinions continue to vary within each party, but today most Republicans believe that government should tax people less, intervene in people’s lives as little as possible, and maintain a strong military. On the other hand Democrats support government programs that help those in need, as well as protection of civil rights, public education, and environmental issues.

Third Parties Exert Influence

The longstanding dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties is demonstrated in the simple fact that every single president since the Civil War has been a nominee from those two parties. Although third parties have yet to win the White House, they do manage to exert significant influence in national politics despite such a formidable stronghold. One way third parties successfully influence American politics is by lifting certain issues into the limelight—such as stronger civil liberties and conservation—that Democrats and Republicans may be ignoring. If enough citizens take notice and demand action, then the two major parties may consider addressing those issues in their own platforms. In the late nineteenth century a group of farmers angered by the price collapse of agricultural products brought ideas for economic and political reform to Democratic and Republican leaders. The farmers’ innovative ideas fell on deaf ears, but they were not deterred. They created their own party—the Populists. In 1892 the Populists held their own convention and nominated a presidential candidate, James Weaver. When the votes were tallied it was clear that the Populist Party platform had resonated with voters. Though Weaver did not win the presidency, he did win over one million votes. The Democrats were duly impressed and chose to sponsor many of the Populist Party’s causes in the following election. Though the Populist Party faded into history, their ideas have greatly influenced American life. In fact, their demands to limit the work day to eight hours; to implement a graduated income tax; and to allow the people, rather than the state legislatures, to elect Senators by a popular vote were all eventually enacted into law. One additional significant role played by third parties is their ability to attract new constituencies and thereby increase overall voter turnout.

Organizing Committees and Conventions

When Jefferson neared the end of his two terms as president in 1809, his fellow Democratic-Republican leaders recognized the critical need to recruit and promote a new candidate. They quickly formed a committee to debate and decide who would become their next nominee. This process, known as a caucus, continued to serve the political parties well for some time because the potential candidates were all distinguished men who had served in the American Revolution and at the Constitutional Convention. But over time newer generations of men had made names for themselves by serving at local and state levels. Although their achievements were recognized locally, they were unknown on the national stage. To promote these lesser-known candidates, the political parties began hosting conventions to nominate candidates. The first national convention was held by America’s first third party, the Anti-Masons, who organized themselves in 1827 to oppose what they believed was improper influence of government by the secret, fraternal organization known as the Masons. In the fall of 1831 the Anti-Masonic Party met in Baltimore to not only nominate its candidate, but to also establish a platform (the official views, policies, and agenda of a political party). Delegates at these early conventions debated the qualifications of contenders from different states and then ultimately chose one candidate to represent their party in the election. This process changed in the 1970s, however, when primary elections became the venue for selecting nominees. With the primaries now in control of selecting each party’s presidential nominee, modern party conventions concentrate their efforts on debating and finalizing the party platform and promoting that platform and nominee to the country. Although the nominee’s acceptance speech serves as the much-anticipated grand finale of the party’s convention, his or her acceptance at this point is a formality that works to energize the party faithful and perhaps persuade undecided voters.

Despite the non-stop party atmosphere and perfectly choreographed schedule of events we commonly associate with modern party conventions, past conventions have fostered fine, shining moments of democracy, as well as shameful dark moments of violence. In 1856 as the United States became increasingly overwhelmed by the menacing threat of Civil War, the newly organized Republican Party engaged in robust debate then proclaimed its opposition to slavery as a key plank in its party platform during the first day of its very first convention. Over one hundred years later the nation was again shadowed by crisis as it fought an unpopular war in Vietnam and struggled with civil rights issues. The mounting national tensions exploded on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention as anti-war demonstrators who had hoped to march peacefully clashed with police, generating riots that terrorized the city for five days. The convention itself was also thrust into chaos as the demands to make ending the Vietnam War were voted down from its platform, prompting many delegates to protest nonviolently by putting on black armbands and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Today the major political parties are professional organizations with national offices in Washington, D.C. The parties work not only to recruit, nominate, and support presidential candidates, but also to support politicians and policies at the state and local levels. One additional responsibility of modern political parties that has become even more critical and often controversial is fundraising. With the advent of new technologies that enable party messages to be distributed to even more people, the cost of political campaigns has risen higher than the balloons that float away at the end of presidential conventions. Just one 30-second TV commercial can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Read More

To view a timeline that illustrates the development of American political parties, check out:

Visit the websites of different political parties:

Read the complete text of the Twelfth Amendment.

Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

  • What positive roles do you think political parties play?
  • Many people believe that John Adams’ and George Washington’s predictions that political parties would only serve to polarize Americans from each other have been realized. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • Hot-button issues such as overseeing the economy, providing affordable health care, and dealing with rogue foreign nations trigger a wide variety of opinions and ideas for action. Do you think it is possible in our diverse nation for most people to agree on such issues without the guidance of a political party? Is it OK to “agree to disagree” on some issues? What issues are most important to you?
  • Why do you think we continue to have a two-party system? Do you think it is possible for a third-party candidate to become elected? Do you think third parties benefit the nation? How so? How would it be possible for third parties to be given a greater voice in American politics?

Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

  • Think about campaign fundraising and expenses. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump raised almost $335 million, whereas Hillary Clinton raised way more—over $623 million. Do you think this is fair? Why or why not? Pretend that you or someone you know is running for president, and think about how you would raise money to carry out a campaign. Make a list of fundraising ideas. Then, imagine you have raised $100 million to fund your campaign. How would you spend it? Make a list of potential campaign expenditures and number them by priority. Be sure to consider expenses such as staff salaries, travel, advertising, and media development. Think about how a lower-budget campaign can prioritize spending to maximize the difference. How do you think the Trump campaign maximized their much lower budget?
  • Have your class or family create a new political party and corresponding presidential campaign. Find a complete lesson plan online for this project titled “Donkeys and Elephants and Voters, Oh My!” on:
  • Compare and contrast America’s political parties! Divide your class or family into groups, and assign each group to research one of the political parties. Try to research at least one of America’s third parties. Write each party’s mission and platform on a poster board. Decorate the poster with the party’s mascots and symbols. Post all boards side by side, and have each student compare and contrast the parties’ platforms. Make a list of key issues to serve as a starting point. Key issues might include the economy, health care, energy, and foreign relations. What issues stand out as being promoted strongly by one party or as being ignored by another? On what issues do some parties have similar ideas? After each student has been able to complete a thorough analysis, host a debate to discuss the parties’ stands on the issues.

Reference Sources


Adams, Simon. The Presidents of the United States. Princeton, NJ: Two-Can Publishing, 2001.

Barber, James, and Amy Pastan. Smithsonian Presidents and First Ladies. New York: DK Publishing, 2002.

The League of Women Voters. Choosing the President. New York: Lyons, 1999.

Morris-Lipsman, Arlene. Presidential Races: The Battle for Power in the United States. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2008.

Saffell, David C. The Encyclopedia of U.S. Presidential Elections. New York: Franklin Watts, 2004.

Thurber, James A., and Candice J. Nelson. Campaigns and Elections American Style. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.

Volume Library. Nashville: Southwestern, 1998.

Wagner, Heather Lehr. How the President Is Elected. New York: Chelsea House, 2007.

Wright, Jordan M. Campaigning for President. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Online Resources

Editor’s Note: Website links listed in angle brackets are no longer available. References with no links are fee-based encyclopedia sites.

“American President. An Online Reference Resource.” 1 August through 11 October 2008.

“Antimason Party.” 21 October 2008.

“Banking on Becoming President.” 12 October 2008. < >.

“Brief History of Chicago’s 1968 Democratic Convention.” 11 October 2008.

“Direct Election of Senators.” 21 October 2008. < >

“Electing the President: A Guide to the Election Process.” 27 January 2012.

“Founding Fathers’ dirty campaign.” Cable News Network. 22 August 2008.

“GOP Convention of 1856 in Philadelphia.” 11 October 2008.

“Hamilton, Alexander.” Grolier Encyclopedia Online. 11 October 2008.

“Jay’s Treaty.” 21 October 2008.

“Money raised as of Dec. 31: Election 2016.” 24 Sept. 2019.

“Political Convention.” Grolier Encyclopedia Online. 11 October 2008.

“Political Parties.” 8 September 2008.

“Political Parties.” Grolier Encyclopedia Online. 11 October 2008.

“Presidents of the United States.” 25 February through 10 September 2008.

“Washington, George, Farewell Address.” Grolier Encyclopedia Online. 11 October 2008.

©2019 Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance