Historian Richard P. McCormick is most responsible for defining the term. He concluded:It was a distinct party system.
It formed over a 15-year period that varied by state.
It was produced by leaders trying to win the presidency, with contenders building their own national coalitions.
Regional effects strongly affected developments, with the Adams forces strongest in New England, for example, and the Jacksonians in the Southwest.
For the first time two-party politics was extended to the South and West (which had been one-party regions).
In each region the two parties were about equal—the first and only party system showing this.
Because of the regional balance it was vulnerable to region-specific issues (like slavery).
The same two parties appeared in every state, and contested both the electoral vote and state offices.
Most critical was the abrupt emergence of a two-party South in 1832-34 (mostly as a reaction against Van Buren).
The Anti-Masonic party flourished in only those states with a weak second party.
Methods varied somewhat but everywhere the political convention replaced the caucus.
The parties had an interest of their own, in terms of the office-seeking goals of party activists.
The System brought forth a new, popular campaign style.
Close elections—not charismatic candidates or particular issues—brought out the voters.
Party leaders formed the parties to some degree in their own image.
Among the best-known figures on the Democratic side were: Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John C. Calhoun, James K. Polk, Lewis Cass, and Stephen Douglas. On the Whig side were John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, William H. Seward, and Thurlow Weed.
The 1824 presidential election operated without political parties and came down to a four-man race. Each candidate (Henry Clay, William Crawford, Andrew Jackson, and John Quincy Adams), all of whom were nominally Democratic Republicans, had a regional base of support involving factions in the various states. With no electoral college majority, the choice devolved on the United States House of Representatives. Clay was not among the three finalists, but as Speaker of the House he negotiated the settlement. Jackson, despite having won the most popular votes and the most electoral votes, was not elected. John Quincy Adams, son of former President John Adams, was elected, and he immediately chose Clay as Secretary of State.
Jackson loudly denounced this "corrupt bargain." Campaigning vigorously he launched a crusade against the corruption he saw in Washington. Appealing both to local militia companies (as the most famous of the nation's Indian fighters, and a hero of the War of 1812) and to state political factions, Jackson assembled a coalition, the embryonic Democratic Party, that ousted Adams in 1828. Martin Van Buren, brilliant leader of New York politics, was Jackson's key aide, bringing along the large electoral votes of Virginia and Pennsylvania. His reward was appointment as Secretary of State and later nomination and election to the vice presidency as heir to the Jacksonian tradition. The Adams-Clay wing of the Democratic-Republican Party became known as the National Republicans, although Adams never considered himself a loyal member of the party.
As Norton explains the Jacksonian triumph in 1828:
Jacksonians believed the people's will had finally prevailed. Through a lavishly financed coalition of state parties, political leaders, and newspaper editors, a popular movement had elected the president. The Democrats became the nation's first well-organized national party...and tight party organization became the hallmark of nineteenth-century American politics.
Behind the platforms issued by state and national parties stood a widely shared political outlook that characterized the Democrats:
The Democrats represented a wide range of views but shared a fundamental commitment to the Jeffersonian concept of an agrarian society. They viewed the central government as the enemy of individual liberty. The 1824 "corrupt bargain" had strengthened their suspicion of Washington politics....Jacksonians feared the concentration of economic and political power. They believed that government intervention in the economy benefited special-interest groups and created corporate monopolies that favored the rich. They sought to restore the independence of the individual--the artisan and the ordinary farmer--by ending federal support of banks and corporations and restricting the use of paper currency, which they distrusted. Their definition of the proper role of government tended to be negative, and Jackson's political power was largely expressed in negative acts. He exercised the veto more than all previous presidents combined. Jackson and his supporters also opposed reform as a movement. Reformers eager to turn their programs into legislation called for a more active government. But Democrats tended to oppose programs like educational reform mid the establishment of a public education system. They believed, for instance, that public schools restricted individual liberty by interfering with parental responsibility and undermined freedom of religion by replacing church schools. Nor did Jackson share reformers' humanitarian concerns. He had no sympathy for American Indians, initiating the removal of the Cherokees along the Trail of Tears.
Jackson considered himself a reformer, but he was committed to the old ideals of Republicanism, and bitterly opposed anything that smacked of special favors for special interests. While Jackson never engaged in a duel as president, he had shot political opponents before and was just as determined to destroy his enemies on the battlefields of politics. The Second Party System came about primarily because of Jackson's determination to destroy the Second Bank of the United States. Headquartered in Philadelphia, with offices in major cities around the country, the federally chartered Bank operated somewhat like a central bank (like the Federal Reserve System a century later). Local bankers and politicians annoyed by the controls exerted by Nicholas Biddle grumbled loudly. Jackson did not like any banks (paper money was anathema to Jackson; he believed only gold and silver ["specie"] should circulate.) After Herculean battles with Henry Clay, his chief antagonist, Jackson finally broke Biddle's bank.
Jackson continued to attack the banking system. His Specie Circular of July 1836 rejected paper money issued by banks (it could no longer be used to buy federal land), insisting on gold and silver coins. Most businessmen and bankers (but not all) went over to the Whig party, and the commercial and industrial cities became Whig strongholds. Jackson meanwhile became even more popular with the subsistence farmers and day laborers who distrusted bankers and finance.
Economic historians have explored the high degree of financial and economic instability in the Jacksonian era. For the most part, they follow the conclusions of Peter Temin, who absolved Jackson's policies, and blamed international events beyond American control, such as conditions in Mexico, China and Britain. A survey of economic historians in 1995 show that the vast majority concur with Temin's conclusion that "the inflation and financial crisis of the 1830s had their origin in events largely beyond President Jackson's control and would have taken place whether or not he had acted as he did vis-a-vis the Second Bank of the U.S."
Jackson systematically used the federal patronage system, what was called the Spoils System. Jackson not only rewarded past supporters; he promised future jobs if local and state politicians joined his team. As Syrett explains: When Jackson became President, he implemented the theory of rotation in office, declaring it "a leading principle in the republican creed." He believed that rotation in office would prevent the development of a corrupt civil service. On the other hand, Jackson's supporters wanted to use the civil service to reward party loyalists to make the party stronger. In practice, this meant replacing civil servants with friends or party loyalists into those offices. The spoils system did not originate with Jackson. It originated under Thomas Jefferson when he removed Federalist office-holders after becoming president. Also, Jackson did not out the entire civil service. At the end of his term, Jackson had only dismissed less than twenty percent of the original civil service. While Jackson did not start the spoils system, he did encourage its growth and it became a central feature of the Second Party System, as well as the Third Party System, until it ended in the 1890s. As one historian explains:
"Although Jackson dismissed far fewer government employees than most of his contemporaries imagined and although he did not originate the spoils system, he made more sweeping changes in the Federal bureaucracy than had any of his predecessors. What is even more significant is that he defended these changes as a positive good. At present when the use of political patronage is generally considered an obstacle to good government, it is worth remembering that Jackson and his followers invariably described rotation in public office as a "reform." In this sense the spoils system was more than a way to reward Jackson's friends and punish his enemies; it was also a device for removing from public office the representatives of minority political groups that Jackson insisted had been made corrupt by their long tenure."
The Whigs and Democrats agreed on many basic principles—they were both strongly committed to the ideals of Republicanism in the United States. In most of the United States, the Whigs were more upscale, better educated, more urban, and more entrepreneurial; the Democrats were strongest on the frontier and in subsistence farming areas. Catholic immigrants, especially Irish and German, were heavily and enthusiastically Democratic, while evangelical Protestants and English and Scots-Irish immigrants were typically Whigs. As Norton explains, there were major policy differences:
Whigs favored economic expansion through an activist government, Democrats through limited central government. Whigs supported corporate charters, a national bank, and paper currency; Democrats were opposed to all three. Whigs also favored more humanitarian reforms than did Democrats, including public schools, abolition of capital punishment, prison and asylum reform and temperance. Whigs were more optimistic than Democrats, generally speaking, and more enterprising. They did not object to helping a specific group if doing so would promote the general welfare. The chartering of corporations, they argued, expanded economic opportunity for everyone, laborers and farmers alike. Democrats, distrustful of concentrated economic power and of moral and economic coercion, held fast to the Jeffersonian principle of limited government.
Meanwhile, economic modernizers, bankers, businessmen, commercial farmers, many of whom were already National Republicans, and Southern planters angry at Jackson's handling of the Nullification crisis were mobilized into a new anti-Jackson force; they called themselves Whigs. Just as the Whigs of 1776 were patriots who battled the tyranny of King George III, so too the new party saw itself battling "King Andrew". In the northeast, a moralistic crusade against the highly secretive Masonic order matured into a regular political party, the Anti-Masons, which soon combined with the Whigs. Jackson fought back by aggressive use of federal patronage, by timely alliances with local leaders, and with a rhetoric that identified the Bank and its agents as the greatest threat to the republican spirit. Eventually his partisans called themselves "Democrats." The Whigs had an elaborate program for modernizing the economy. To stimulate the creation of new factories, they proposed a high tariff on imported manufactured goods.
The Democrats said that would fatten the rich; the tariff should be low—for "revenue only" (thus not to foster manufacturing). Whigs argued that banks and paper money were needed; the Democrats countered that no honest man wants them. Public works programs to build roads, canals and railroads would give the country the infrastructure it needed for rapid economic development, said the Whigs. Democrats replied they did not want that kind of complex change. Rather the Democrats called for more of the same—especially more farms to raise the families in the traditional style. More land is needed for that, Democrats said, so they pushed for expansion south and west. Jackson conquered Florida for the US. Over intense Whig opposition, his political heir, James Polk (1844–48) added Texas, the Southwest, California, and Oregon. Next on the Democratic agenda would be Cuba.
In most cities the rich men were solidly Whig—85-90% of the men worth over $100,000 in Boston and New York City voted Whig. In rural America, the Whigs were stronger in market towns and commercial areas, and the Democrats stronger on the frontier and in more isolated areas. Ethnic and religious communities usually went the same way, with Irish and German Catholics heavily Democratic, and pietistic Protestants more Whiggish.
Gienapp (1982) points out that the American political system underwent fundamental change after 1820 under the rubric of Jacksonian Democracy. While Jackson himself did not initiate the changes, he took advantage in 1828 and symbolized many of the changes. For the first time politics assumed a central role in voters' lives. Before then deference to upper class elites, and general indifference most of the time, characterized local politics across the country. The suffrage laws were not at fault for they allowed mass participation; rather few men were interested in politics before 1828, and fewer still voted or became engaged because politics did not seem important. Changes followed the psychological shock of the panic of 1819, and the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson, with his charismatic personality and controversial policies. By 1840, Gienapp argues, the revolution was complete: "With the full establishment of the second party system, campaigns were characterized by appeals to the common man, mass meetings, parades, celebrations, and intense enthusiasm, while elections generated high voter participation. In structure and ideology, American politics had been democratized."
Both parties relied heavily on their national network of newspapers. Some editors were the key political players in their states, and most of them filled their papers with useful information on rallies and speeches and candidates, as well as the text of major speeches and campaign platforms.
The Whigs built a strong party organization in most states; they were weak only on the frontier. The Whigs used newspapers effectively, and soon adopted the exciting campaign techniques that lured 75 to 85% of the eligible voters to the polls. Abraham Lincoln emerged early as the leader in Illinois—where he usually was bested by an even more talented politician, Stephen Douglas. While Douglas and the Democrats were somewhat behind the Whigs in newspaper work, they made up for this weakness by emphasis on party loyalty. Anyone who attended a Democratic convention, from precinct level to national level, was honor bound to support the final candidate, whether he liked him or not. This rule produced numerous schisms, but on the whole the Democrats controlled and mobilized their rank and file more effectively than the Whigs did.
One fundamental weakness was its inability to take a position on slavery. As a coalition of Northern National Republicans and Southern Nullifiers, Whigs in each of the two regions held opposing views on slavery. Therefore, the Whig party was only able to conduct successful campaigns as long as the slavery issue was ignored.
By the mid-1850s, the question of slavery dominated the political landscape, and the Whigs, unable to agree on an approach to the issue, began to disintegrate. A few Whigs lingered, claiming that, with the alternatives being a pro-Northern Republican party and a pro-Southern Democratic party, they were the only political party that could preserve the Union. In 1856, the remaining Whigs endorsed the Know-Nothing campaign of Millard Fillmore and in 1860 they endorsed the Constitutional Union ticket of John Bell, but, with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Whig party ceased to exist.
Most of the prominent men in most towns and cities were Whigs, and they controlled local offices and judgeships, in addition to many state offices. Thus the outcome of the political process was mixed. In Springfield, Illinois, a strong Whig enclave in a Democratic region, poll books that show how individuals voted indicates the rise of the Whigs took place in 1836 in opposition to the presidential candidacy of Martin Van Buren and was consolidated in 1840. Springfield Whigs tend to validate historical studies elsewhere: they were largely native-born, either in New England or Kentucky, professional men or farm owners, and devoted to partisan organization. Abraham Lincoln's career mirrors the Whigs' political rise, but by the 1840s Springfield began to fall into the hands of the Democrats, as immigrants changed the city's political makeup. By the 1860 presidential election, Lincoln was barely able to win the city.
By the 1850s most Democratic party leaders had accepted many Whiggish ideas, and no one could deny the economic modernization of factories and railroads was moving ahead rapidly. The old economic issues died about the same time old leaders like Calhoun, Webster, Clay, Jackson and Polk passed from the scene. New issues, especially the questions of slavery, nativism and religion came to the fore. 1852 was the last hurrah for the Whigs; everyone realized they could win only if the Democrats split in two. With the healing of the Free Soil revolt after 1852, Democratic dominance seemed assured. The Whigs went through the motions, but both rank and file and leaders quietly dropped out. The Third Party System was ready to emerge.