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America's two-party system is as old as the country itself, but the first two political parties weren't called Democrats and Republicans. They were the Federalists and the Republicans, who actually had more in common with today's Democratic Party than with today's Republican Party. This timeline starts with the Federalists and Republicans of the 1790s and tracks their transformation into today's parties. Along the way, it also describes some of the major third parties that have played an important part in national politics.

The Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, emerged. They believed in a modest central government, limited commercial activity, and strong farming communities.   The Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, emerged. They believed in a strong national government with centralized authority. Although George Washington never embraced a party, he leaned toward these ideals.

The first election with two dominant parties occurred. Republican Thomas Jefferson was elected vice-president and Federalist John Adams was elected president, prompting Congress, in 1804, to pass the 12th Amendment, which prevented the election of a president and vice-president from different parties.   The first election with two dominant factions occurred. Federalist John Adams was elected president and Republican Thomas Jefferson was elected vice-president, prompting Congress, in 1804, to pass the 12th Amendment, which prevented the election of a president and vice-president from different parties.

  After this election, in which Republican James Monroe became president, the Federalists never again offered a candidate for election.

Economic growth and rapid territorial expansion caused the Republican faction to change from Jefferson's agrarian ideal. Many Republicans began to adhere to Federalist principles. By 1828, the Republican faction had split into two, fully formed political parties.    

The Democratic Republican Party, led by Andrew Jackson, was formed. Supporters favored a limited national government and were opposed to an economic aristocracy. Eventually, this party changed its name to the Democratic Party, which is now the oldest political party in the United States.   The National Republican Party, led by John Quincy Adams, was formed. Supporters favored strong economic nationalism, much like the former Federalists.

In an effort to put political power in the hands of the people, Democrats held the first national party convention to select their candidates, who were previously chosen by congressional caucuses.

A group of National Republicans who resented Andrew Jackson's membership in the Society of Freemasons formed the Anti-Mason Party, the first independent third party.


    As the National Republican Party dissolved, the Whig Party emerged. Led by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, the Whigs supported an expanded national government, increased commercial development, and cautious westward expansion.

  The first Whig president, William Henry Harrison, was elected. Harrison ran a "log cabin" campaign, arguing that Democrats were too elitist and promising to return political power to the common citizens (like those who lived in log cabins).


The Free Soil Party formed. Free Soilers supported the Wilmot Proviso, which proposed to prohibit slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico.

The last Whig president, Zachary Taylor, was elected.


The Know-Nothing Party (also known as the American Party) was formed. Supporters were former Democrats who objected to the wave of Catholic immigrants entering the United States.


    The Whigs and Free-Soilers joined to form the Republican Party, which strongly supported the abolition of slavery. Some Republicans believed in freedom for blacks, while others merely believed slavery would keep white men from available labor and create laziness. 

The Know-Nothing Party was weakening. Most members joined the Republican Party.


The Democratic Party split into two factions:

The Southern Democrats, who supported the federal protection of slavery in the western territories; and

The Northern Democrats, who wanted all questions of slavery left up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election.

At the end of the Civil War, the Democratic Party's two factions joined back together.   Civil War Reconstruction caused the Republican Party to split into factions:

The Conservatives, who wanted the confederate states to quickly rejoin the union with no consideration for racial relations;

The Radicals, who wanted to punish the confederate leaders, confiscate confederate property, and protect the rights of former slaves; and

The Moderates, who didn't want to punish the confederate leaders, but did want some protections for former slaves.

The Democratic Party was firmly entrenched in American politics. The party consisted of many Catholics, immigrants, and poor workers.   The Republican Party was firmly entrenched in American politics. The party consisted of many northern Protestants who wanted to restrict immigration and who supported the temperance movement.

A group of small farmers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers formed the Populist Party. Populists rallied against large-scale commercial agriculture that would put them out of work, and they supported federally regulated communication, transportation, and banking systems.


Theodore Roosevelt, a former Republican, formed the Progressive Party (also known as the Bull Moose Party). Progressives supported women's suffrage, environmental conservation, and the concepts of initiative, referendum, and recall.  

Democrat Franklin Roosevelt became president and helped lift the country out of the Great Depression with his New Deal programs. His Democratic supporters became known as social liberals, while his Republican opponents became known as social conservatives, beliefs that shaped the parties as we know them today.    

After capturing 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election, H. Ross Perot formed the Reform Party. Still active today, Reformists seek to limit the power of special interest groups and return political power back to the people. In 1996, Perot again ran for president, but lost. In 1998, by winning the Minnesota gubernatorial race, Jesse Ventura became the first Reform candidate to win an election.  

Want to know more?
  • Discover why people form political parties.
  • Learn why the Republican Party is sometimes called the Grand Old Party, or the GOP.
  • Examine the two-party system and how third parties fit into that system.
  • Visit the Web sites for the major U.S. parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
  • Although the United States adheres to a two-party system, small third parties have developed, like the Reform Party mentioned above. Find out about some of the other current third parties, such as the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Natural Law Party.
  • Learn more about the presidents who helped shape today's political parties. This companion site to the PBS special The American President is filled with biographies, historical documents, Web resources, essays, and articles about the political process.
  • Curious about politics at the turn of the last century? Check out the front page of a mock newspaper from election year 1900.
  • Do some research on the American presidency, elections, and political process with this online encyclopedia geared toward grades three and up.

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