What Was the U.S. Second Party System? History and Significance

Engraved portrait of Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson, who played an important role in the rise of the Second Party System. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Second Party System is the term used by historians and political scientists to refer to the framework that dominated politics in the United States from about 1837 to 1852. Spurred by the presidential election of 1828, the Second Party System represented a shift toward greater public interest in politics. More people voted on Election Day, political rallies became common, newspapers supported different candidates, and Americans became loyal to any of a growing number of political parties.

Key Takeaways: The Second Party System

  • The Second Party System is a term used by historians and political scientists to refer to the political framework existing in the United States from about 1828 to 1854.
  • Following the 1828 presidential election, the Second Party System spurred increasing levels of voter interest and participation in the political process.
  • The Second Party System is the first and only party system in which the two major parties competed on relatively equal footing in every region of the nation.
  • The Second Party System reflected and shaped the American peoples’ political, social, economic, and cultural concerns until it was replaced by the Third Party System in the mid-1850s.

Not only did it help increase the American peoples’ interest and participation in shaping their own government as intended by the Founders, the rise of the Second Party System also helped ease the sectional tensions that had led to the Civil War

Supporters of the system’s two dominant parties—the Democrats and the Whigs—were divided along philosophical and socio-economic lines. While the Democratic Party was the party of the people, the Whig Party generally represented business and industrial interests. As a result, both parties shared the support of people in both the North and the South.

History of the Second Party System

The Second Party System replaced the First Party System, which existed from roughly 1792 to 1824. The First Party System featured only two national parties: the Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, and Democratic-Republican Party founded by Anti-Federalist leaders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

The First Party System largely collapsed during the nation’s so-called “Era of Good Feelings,” a period immediately after the War of 1812 during which a sense of national purpose and a desire for unity left most Americans disinterested in the partisan differences between multiple political parties. Basically, Americans simply assumed that their elected leaders would govern them well and wisely, no matter which political party they belonged to.

During his term in office from 1817 to 1825, President James Monroe epitomized the spirit of the Era of Good Feelings by trying to completely eliminate partisan parties from national politics. The dissolution of the Federalist Party during the era left the Democratic-Republican Party the “only party standing” as the First Party System ended with the tumultuous 1824 presidential election.

The Rebirth of Multi-Party Politics

In the 1824 election, there were four main candidates: Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and William Crawford. All competed as Democratic-Republicans. When none of the candidates won the majority of Electoral College votes required to be elected president, the task of choosing the winner was left to the House of Representatives, where things really got complicated.

Based on the Electoral College vote, Jackson, Adams, and Crawford were the final three candidates to be considered by the House. While Henry Clay was not one of the finalists, he was the current Speaker of the House, making it his job to negotiate which one of his three recent rivals would be elected president. Andrew Jackson had won both the most popular votes and the most electoral votes, but the House elected John Quincy Adams president instead. So grateful was Adams for the victory that he chose Clay to be his Secretary of State.

Andrew Jackson vocally declared the election a “corrupt bargain.” As a hero of both the American Indian Wars and the War of 1812, Jackson was one of the nation’s most popular politicians. With the support of the public and local militia leaders, he created the Democratic Party. Then, with the help of his most influential supporter, Martin Van Buren, Jackson and his new Democratic Party ousted incumbent president Democratic-Republican John Quincy Adams in the presidential election of 1828.

As president, Jackson named Van Buren his Secretary of State, and later as his Vice President. Sensing the growing trend of Americans to align with easily identifiable political parties, the Democratic-Republican Party, along with its leaders, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, recreated itself as the National Republican Party.

Jackson’s War on Banks Solidifies the Second Party System

If the 1828 election had not been enough to solidify the peoples’ interest in the spirit of the Second Party System, President Jackson’s war on banks did.

Jackson, who had always hated banks, condemned paper money and argued that only gold and silver should circulate. Jackson’s first target, the federally-chartered Second Bank of the United States, operated much like a central bank similar to today’s Federal Reserve System banks. After his banking policies forced the closure of the Second Bank of the United States, Jackson turned against all federally-sanctioned banks.

During Jackson’s first term, the Nullification Crisis of 1832 controversially weakened the powers of the states by upholding costly federal tariffs—taxes—imposed on crops and grown in the Southern States. Anger over Jackson’s policies gave rise to the Whig Party. The Whigs were made up mainly of bankers, economic modernizers, businessmen, commercial farmers, and Southern plantation owners, angered at Jackson’s war on banking and his role in the Nullification Crisis.

Along with the Democratic and Whig parties, several minor political parties evolved during the Second Party era. These included the innovative Anti-Masonic Party, the abolitionist Liberty Party, and the anti-slavery Free Soil Party.

By the mid-1850s the Second Party System would be supplanted by what historians consider the Third Party System, which lasted until about 1900. Dominated by the new Republican Party, the era featured heated debates on issues such as American nationalism, industrial modernization, workers’ rights, and racial equality.

The Legacy of the Second Party System

The Second Party System aroused a new and healthy interest in government and politics among the American people. As the nation underwent democratization, participation in the political process played a central role in Americans’ lives for the first time since the Revolutionary War

Prior to the Second Party System, most voters were content to defer to the assumed wisdom of upper-class elite, allowing them to choose their leaders for them. People rarely voted or became engaged because politics seemed unimportant to them.

However, the public’s indifference ended following the 1828 presidential election and the controversies that arose during the Andrew Jackson administration. By 1840, elections at all levels of American government featured appeals to the “common man,” massive rallies, parades, celebrations, intense enthusiasm, and most importantly, high voter turnout.

Today, the legacy of the Second Party System and its reawakening of public interest in political participation can be seen in the enactment of sweeping social policy such as women’s suffrage, voting rights laws, and civil rights legislation.

Sources

  • Blau, Joseph L. ed. Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy: Representative Writings of the Period 1825-1850 (1947).
  • Ashworth, John. "Agrarians" & "aristocrats": Party political ideology in the United States, 1837-1846 (1983)
  • Hammond, J. D., History of Political Parties in the State of New York (2 vols., Albany, 1842).
  • Howe, Daniel Walker (1973). The American Whigs: An Anthology. Online edition