Kristine has a B.A. in journalism from Penn State University and an M.A. in specializing in American history from the University of Michigan
It is a well-known fact in American history that Republican President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves during the Civil War. Lincoln and his fellow Republicans felt it was a necessary act in order to save the United States of America from destroying itself over the issue of slavery.
What is not a well-known fact, however, is that the Republican Party Lincoln represented—as well as the Democratic Party of that era —bear little resemblance to the political parties we know today.
In the course of a century, the Democratic and Republican parties essentially switched ideologies. This explains why progressive President Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican in the early 1900s while his equally progressive cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a Democrat in the 1930s.
The Democratic and Republican parties were not the only parties to exist over the course of the United States history. Both parties actually evolved from the Democratic-Republican Party that was formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The Democratic-Republican Party supported states’ rights over federal powers and existed in opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party, whose goal was to centralize power in the federal government, according to The Museum Center’s article, “Conservative Democrats and Liberal Republicans.”
The Democratic Party is the world’s oldest political party. Formed to support Andrew Jackson in 1828, it splintered from the Democratic-Republican Party and supported small government and individual liberties. Big government was seen as corrupt and harmful to farmers and businesses. It opposed public schools because they undermined the authority of parents and religious organizations. Any sort of reform—whether in business or public policy—was opposed because it required government intervention.
According to History.com’s “Republican Party,” opponents of Jackson’s policies formed their own party, the Whig Party. In the 1840s, Democrats and Whigs were the two main political coalitions in this country. During the 1850s, the issue of expanding slavery into the Western territories divided political coalitions and led to the brief rise of other parties, including the Free Soil and the American (or Know-Nothing) parties.
When the Kansas-Nebraska Act was introduced in 1854 to expand slavery in new U.S. territories by popular referendum, an antislavery coalition of Whigs, Free-Soilers, Americans, and a few disgruntled Democrats formed the new Republican Party. During the 1850s, the Republican Party opposed the expansion of slavery into the Western territories, which they believed would allow slaveholding interests to dominate national politics.
Slavery and the Rise of the Republican Party
At the start of the Civil War, the Democratic Party fractured between northern and southern members over the issue of slavery and state’s rights. This fracture allowed Abraham Lincoln to win the presidency as a Republican in 1860.
The Republican Party began in 1854 on a platform that was pro-economic reform and anti-slavery. They strongly opposed the plantation system that used slaves as free labor, largely because it negatively impacted small farms. They promoted raising taxes to encourage economic growth, increased wages for workers, and pensions for military veterans, according to History.com.
The Republicans reflected some of the platforms of Hamilton’s Federalist Party by advocating for a strong federal government that could subsidize transcontinental railroads, oversee a national banking system, and support a higher education system in the form of land grants.
During the period of Reconstruction between the end of the Civil War and 1877, Republicans would align themselves more and more with the big businesses, financial institutions, and industries in the North. During the war, the federal government had greatly expanded, adopting legislation such as the passage of the first income tax in 1861. The increased government spending was highly beneficial to Northern financiers and industrialists, according to History.com.
As Reconstruction continued in the South, white opposition to it grew. As this opposition began to solidify among white Southern citizens, the advancement of Black citizens became less and less part of the platform of the Republican Party, according to History.com. Democratic Southern state legislatures railed against societal changes in the South. With the aid of some Southern Republicans, by the 1870s these state legislatures had managed to eliminate most of the gains that Reconstruction made for Black citizens, and Jim Crow laws limiting the rights of African Americans ruled the south.
William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, ran on a platform advocating for an expanded government to ensure social justice for Black citizens. Bryan ultimately lost the race, but support for a bigger federal government role was established as part of Democratic ideology.
Evolution of the Parties in the 20th Century
In the early part of the 20th century, however, the Republican Party ran into big problems. President William Howard Taft had a disagreement with former president and fellow party member Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt supported small business and social reform, which clashed with the ideals of Taft and his fellow Republicans who were in power at the time.
When Roosevelt left the Republican Party to form the Progressive Bull Moose Party, many of his supporters went with him, weakening the Republican Party. The Progressive Era, which began in the late 1800s and grew during the early 1900s, led to a further split between conservative and more progressive Democrats, according to History.com’s article “Democratic Party.”
Up until this time, each of the parties had both liberal and conservative elements. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, the differences between the two parties became more defined. While the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression, another Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, was elected president as a Democrat in 1932. At this time in the history of the parties, Republicans were largely social liberals and economic conservatives, while the Democrats were primarily social conservatives and economic liberals.
In an effort to lift the nation out of the Depression, FDR introduced a socially liberal platform that aided and empowered the poor and minorities of the nation. The Republican Party was now divided between two factions: Midwest Conservative Republicans and Northeast Liberal Republicans. The Democrats also began to feel a rift between Liberal Democrats in the North and Conservative Democrats in the South, according to History.com.
An alliance began to form between the Conservative Republicans and Conservative Democrats, both of whom were opposed to the platforms of the New Deal. Liberal Republicans threw their support behind the New Deal and aligned with the Liberal Democrats.
Roosevelt’s reforms did not sit well in the South, which strongly opposed expanding labor unions and federal power. A large number of Southern Democrats began to join the Republicans in opposition to government expansion, according to History.com.
After presidential candidate Harry Truman, a Southern Democrat from Missouri, announced he would run on a pro-civil rights platform, a group of Southern Democrats staged a walk-out at the party’s national convention in 1948. Nicknamed the Dixiecrats, they proceeded to run their own candidate for president. Strom Thurmond, while still a Democrat and governor of South Carolina, ran on a segregationist States' Rights ticket in 1948 and received more than 1 million votes.
Following Truman’s election, most of the Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic Party. But the divide that culminated at the 1948 Democratic Convention had caused a rift in the demographics of the party. African Americans who had shown loyalty to the Republican Party since the Civil War had slowly begun switching their allegiance to the Democratic Party beginning with the Great Depression. This large-scale abandonment by Black Americans would continue for the next two decades and culminate with the rise of the Civil Rights movement.
Demographic Shifts Realign the Parties
A seismic shift had begun in the Northeast part of the nation following the elections of FDR and Truman and the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. The Northeastern states became more liberal and began voting overwhelmingly to elect Democrats. At the same time, the South began to see a shift toward support of the Republican Party as liberal and moderate members were pushed out through the 1970s.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the conservative ideology of the Republican Party was cemented. At the same time, Southern opposition to big government, labor unions, civil rights, and “culture war” issues such as abortion and LBGTQ rights grew. As a result, the Southern United States became staunchly Republican, according to History.com.
Throughout its 243 year history, the United States has undergone many social and cultural changes as it has grown and evolved. Like the country itself, the political parties have undergone evolutions to the point that their ideologies have morphed into the liberal and conservative bastions they are today. If history is any indication, the parties will continue to change and progress, along with American society itself.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.