What Was the US Second Party System? History and Significance

Historians and political scientists refer to the Second Party System as the framework that dominated American politics from about 1828 to 1854. As a result of the presidential election of 1828, the Second Party System represented a shift in public interest in politics. In addition to more people voting on Election Day, political rallies became common, newspapers supported different candidates, and Americans became loyal to a growing number of political parties.

When previously elected officials were selected primarily by the wealthy elite, the Second Party System democratized American politics. Andrew Jackson encouraged working-class Americans to get involved in politics when he was elected president in 1828. As the country’s founders intended, the rise of two distinct political parties closely tied to topics and trials of the time allowed voters to shape government to match their ideals.

Philosophical and socioeconomic differences divided supporters of the two dominant parties. The Democratic Party represented the interests of the people, whereas the Whig Party represented business and industry. People in both the North and the South supported both parties, easing the sectional tensions that led to the Civil War, and party loyalty was high.

History of the Second Party System

From roughly 1792 to 1824, the First Party System was replaced by the Second Party System. There were only two national parties in the First Party System: the Federalist Party led by Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic-Republican Party founded by Jefferson and Madison.

In the period immediately following the War of 1812, when most Americans felt a sense of national purpose and shared desire for unity, the First Party System largely collapsed. No matter which party they supported, Americans simply assumed their elected leaders would govern them well and wisely.

From 1817 to 1825, President James Monroe embodied the spirit of the Era of Good Feelings by eliminating parties from national politics. A tumultuous presidential election in 1824 marked the end of the First Party System as the Federalist Party disintegrated. The Democratic-Republican Party remained the “only party standing”.

The Rebirth of Multi-Party Politics

There were four main candidates in the 1824 election: Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and William Crawford. They all ran as Democratic-Republicans. In the event that none of the candidates won the majority of Electoral College votes necessary to be elected president, the task of choosing the winner fell to the House of Representatives.

Jackson, Adams, and Crawford were the final three candidates to be considered by the House based on the Electoral College vote. The Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, was not one of the finalists, but it was his job to negotiate which of his three recent rivals would be elected president. Despite Jackson winning both popular votes and electoral votes, Clay chose Adams despite his open opposition to Jackson for years. Clay was Adams’ Secretary of State because he was grateful for the victory.

Jackson and his supporters called Clay’s election and subsequent appointment as secretary of state a “corrupt bargain.” In addition to being regarded as a hero during both the American Indian Wars and the War of 1812, Jackson was also a very popular politician in the country. (White Americans viewed him as a hero, while Black Americans, enslaved Americans, and Indigenous peoples were oppressed by him brutally.) He founded the Democratic Party with the support of the voting public and local militia leaders. In the presidential election of 1828, Jackson’s new Democratic Party and his most influential supporter, Martin Van Buren, ousted incumbent Democratic-Republican John Quincy Adams.

Jackson appointed Van Buren his Secretary of State and later his Vice President. As Americans increasingly aligned with easily identifiable political parties, the Democratic-Republican Party, under the leadership of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, rebranded itself as the National Republican Party.

Jackson’s War on Banks Solidifies the Second Party System

Under the Second Party System, President Jackson’s war against banks cemented the people’s interest in politics even more than the 1828 election.

Jackson hated banks because of their power and lack of government involvement in keeping their power in check. He also believed that only gold and silver should circulate, not paper money, and that banks should have been supporting western expansion more. As Jackson’s first target, the federally chartered Second Bank of the United States, operated much like the Federal Reserve System of today. Jackson turned against all federally-approved banks after his banking policies forced the Second Bank of the United States to close.

The Nullification Crisis of 1832 weakened the state’s powers by upholding federal tariffs—taxes—imposed on crops grown in the Southern States during Jackson’s first term. As a result of Jackson’s policies, the Whig Party was born. Most Whigs were bankers, economic modernizers, businessmen, commercial farmers, and Southern plantation owners frustrated by Jackson’s war on banking and his role in the Nullification Crisis.

During the Second Party era, several minor political parties emerged alongside the Democratic and Whig parties. Abolitionist Liberty Party, anti-enslavement Free Soil Party, and the innovative Anti-Masonic Party were some of these.

By the mid-1850s, the Second Party System would be replaced by the Third Party System, which lasted until about 1900. It was a period of heated debates on issues such as American nationalism, industrial modernization, workers’ rights, and racial equality, which were dominated by the new Republican Party.

The Legacy of the Second Party System

The Second Party System sparked a new and healthy interest in government and politics among the American people. For the first time since the Revolutionary War, Americans played a central role in the political process as the nation underwent democratization. 

Before the Second Party System, most voters deferred to the wisdom of the upper-class elite and let them choose their leaders. Politics seemed unimportant to everyday life, so people rarely voted or engaged.

Nevertheless, the public’s indifference ended after the 1828 presidential election and the controversies under Andrew Jackson. During the 1840s, elections at every level of the American government were marked by appeals to the “common man,” massive rallies, parades, celebrations, and intense enthusiasm, as well as high voter turnout.

Women’s suffrage, voting rights laws, and civil rights laws are all examples of the Second Party System’s legacy and reawakening of public interest in political participation.

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