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12.3: The Second Party System

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    In the 1820s, many states expanded the electorate when they dropped the property qualifications associated with voting rights. Aside from South Carolina and Delaware, the voters instead of state legislators chose their representatives to the Electoral College by 1882. Together these developments made people believe they possessed a greater say in their state and national governments. This expansion of democratic sentiment, coupled with the social and economic developments in the 1820s and 1830s, led to the rise of the second party system in the United States. Political leaders increasingly believed that parties served to mobilize voters behind certain candidates and policies. Nevertheless, it took time for these leaders to appreciate the full potential of partisanship as well as the possible problems of trying to build a national coalition of voters when local issues dominated the minds of most voters.

    The Democrats emerged in 1828 to campaign for Andrew Jackson and continued during his presidency to define their vision and expand their support through partisan newspapers and patronage. The Whigs materialized in 1834 to oppose Jackson and his vision. These two parties dominated the political scene for almost twenty years, although several third parties captured the voters’ attention for brief periods. However, the question of slavery and its expansion westward proved the death knell of the Whigs and the second party system in the early 1850s.

    Democrats and Whigs

    When Andrew Jackson ran for president in 1828, the campaign served not just as a vehicle to promote his election but as a vehicle for creating a lasting political coalition committed to the state’s rights philosophy that had guided the Old Republicans in the Jeffersonian era. For supporters like Martin Van Buren, the creation of a national party would help keep political issues on the forefront of the common voter’s mind in the years between national elections. Furthermore, it would ensure that Jackson’s vision outlasted his own presidency.

    While during the campaign and in his first inaugural address Jackson promised to reform the national government, his statements had been somewhat vague. Therefore, partisan newspapers, especially the Washington Globe, helped define and spread the Democrats’ message using Jackson’s actions during the nullification crisis and the bank war as a guide. Historian Sean Wilentz observes that Democratic thought brought together three interrelated themes. One, they supported a “robust nationalism on constitutional issues” while also exercising some “restraint on federal support for economic development.” Two, they distrusted the wealthy and the powerful, especially those people who possessed undue economic power. Three, they believed in the power of the people or that the will of the majority reigned supreme. In essence, the Democrats wanted the freedom to pursue individual interests with as little government interference as possible.

    The opposition party took longer to develop in the early 1830s because Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and others struggled to find an effective means to arrest Jackson’s growing support. According to historian Michael Holt, these men had the difficult task of “uniting the opponents of the majority and broadening that coalition until it was competitive.” Initially, they thought they could wait Jackson out; they assumed incorrectly that once the people realized Jackson wanted to dismantle the American System his coalition would fall apart. As Jackson’s popularity grew, Clay and Webster looked for a way to bring all of the president’s opponents into one party. However, such an effort proved quite difficult. The question of the tariff affected their ability to appeal to southern voters. Meanwhile, the emergence of the antiMasons (who tended to distrust all political leaders) made it difficult to appeal to northern voters.

    Clay and Webster hoped to use the question of the bank to build up an opposition party going into the election of 1832. However, that effort failed when Jackson vetoed the re-charter bill and won a resounding reelection. Although Clay lost the election, he did not give up his effort to oppose Jackson. When Jackson moved to destroy the bank, Clay led a successful effort to censure the president in 1834, which helped lay the groundwork for a legitimate opposition party. The Whig Party finally found common ground in their opposition to Jackson—“King Andrew the First,” as he had been labeled during 1832. The party took its name from a group of British politicians who had sought to defend their liberties from a powerhungry king, and whose writings had done much to inspire the American Revolution. Whig thought centered on defending liberty against power. Moreover, the party supported the maintenance of the economic and judicial nationalism seen in the Era of Good Feelings.

    The two parties clearly differed on the meaning of the Constitution and the role of the federal government. The Democrats believed in a strong central government as evidenced by Jackson’s position during the nullification crisis, but one that left most decisions to the states. When it came to the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution, they believed in strict construction. The Maysville Road veto in 1830 demonstrated the party’s view on limiting the role of the government. Jackson saw the bill, which provided federal funding to build a road entirely in Kentucky, as beyond the scope of the powers granted to the federal government. The Whigs, on the other hand, saw a larger role for the federal government, especially when it came to economic development. In their view, funding for projects like the Maysville Road did not exceed the powers delineated to the federal government in the Constitution. Such funding would benefit the entire nation, making it a necessary and proper exercise of federal power.

    For both parties, questions about territorial expansion complicated their ability to build national coalitions. The Democrats tended to favor territorial expansion, especially in terms of acquiring territory from Mexico (such as Texas, New Mexico, and California). The Whigs believed before the nation acquired more territory, the government should focus on the economic development of the existing states and territories. Complicating the question of territorial expansion was the expansion of slavery in new territories. The Missouri Compromise seemingly settled the issue of slavery in the existing territories, but not what might happen in any new territories. Both the Democrats and the Whigs in the 1830s wanted to avoid questions about slavery, whether in terms of expansion or abolition. The Whigs found themselves stymied by the slavery question; their economic program appealed to many large slaveholders, but their reform outlook appealed to many abolitionists. Opposing territorial expansion became the easiest way for the Whigs. If the United States did not acquire any more territory, then the question of the future of slavery in those territories could not divide their coalition.

    To attract southern supporters, the Democrats avoided questions of slavery by emphasizing that states had the right to choose to allow slavery or to abolish slavery, which seemed to appease most supporters. Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and their followers looked for other ways to diffuse the slavery question, especially as antislavery sentiments began to increase in the 1830s and activists looked to the federal government to take a stand against the extension of slavery. Jackson gave tacit agreement for the postal service to interfere with the delivery of antislavery tracts to the southern states. Meanwhile, Congress implemented what became known as the “gag” rule. As the antislavery cause gained ground in the North, the number of petitions requesting legislation to end slavery in federal territories, especially the District of Columbia, increased. Southern legislators despised these petitions, even though they knew the proposals would never amount to anything. They wanted to turn all antislavery petitions away without consideration, but Democratic Party leaders knew if they allowed that to happen then their opponents would charge them with impeding free speech. Therefore, Van Buren proposed a solution to the quandary; Congress would accept the petitions, but would table them without discussion.

    As the Democrats and the Whigs built their coalitions, they attracted diverse voters to their parties. Voter loyalty stemmed from a complex set of factors. Voters in the South and the West tended to support the Democrats, whereas voters in New England, the Mid Atlantic, and the upper Midwest preferred the Whigs. Small farmers, urban workers, and artisans looked to the Democrats to represent their economic interests, whereas large southern planters, wealthy business owners, and middling farmers chose the Whigs. Immigrants tended to appreciate the Democrats’ ability to separate political and moral questions. This ability also made them appealing to Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and free thinkers. Native-born Americans, especially those associated with the Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Quaker churches, leaned in the other direction because the Whigs saw nothing wrong with the government weighing in on questions of morality. Sometimes regional or class factors determined voting patterns, but in other cases ethnic, religious, or cultural factors influenced party choice. In the end, the voters’ decisions came down to which party would best represent their interests at the local and national level.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Second Party System: Leaders, Supporters, and Beliefs




    • Andrew Jackson
    • John C. Calhoun
    • Martin Van Buren
    • Henry Clay
    • Daniel Webster
    • William Henry Harrison


    • Region: South and West
    • Class: Small farmers and urban laborers/artisans
    • Ethnicity: Scots-Irish, French, German, and Canadian
    • Religion: Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and free thinkers
    • Region: New England and Upper Midwest
    • Class: Large southern planters, wealthy businessmen, and middling farmers
    • Ethnicity: English, New England Old Stock (WASPS)
    • Religion: Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers

    Political Beliefs

    • Supported States’ Rights
    • Opposed government support for monopoly
    • Committed to Indian Removal
    • Wanted aggressive territoral expansion
    • Favored low-cost sale of federal land
    • Stressed class conflict
    • Opposed reform movements like prohibition
    • Supported National Power
    • Wanted government support for tariffs and internal improvements
    • Opposed territioral expansion
    • Opposed low-cost sale of federal land
    • Stressed harmony of interests among social classes
    • Supported reform movements like prohibition

    After the Whig coalition emerged, both parties began to prepare for the presidential election in 1836. Martin Van Buren of New York easily won the Democratic nomination. By all accounts, Van Buren had the political experience to be president. Not only had he been instrumental in the creation of the Democratic Party, but he also advised Jackson on a host of issues in the 1830s. For as influential as Van Buren was in his home state and in the nation’s capital, however, he was not particularly well-known by voters around the country. The Whigs decided to run three candidates with strong regional bases—Daniel Webster of Massachusetts to appeal to the Northeast, Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee to appeal to the South, and William Henry Harrison of Indiana to appeal to the West. Given Van Buren’s lack of popular appeal, the Whigs hoped to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where they could unite behind a single candidate.

    During the campaign, the Whigs harkened back to the fears of partisanship among the nation’s founders as an explanation for presenting voters with three candidates. The Democrats countered such anti-party sentiment by arguing their unity would help promote their principles and discourage abuses of power. The Democrats also implied to voters that the Whigs sought another “corrupt bargain” that would deny the will of the majority. Van Buren won the popular (51 percent) and Electoral College (58 percent) votes. Since Van Buren won just over a majority of the popular votes, the Democrats and the Whigs appeared almost evenly matched. The results further suggested that the two-party system had become firmly entrenched in American life. Nevertheless, the future of both parties seemed to rest on how well Martin Van Buren served as a custodian of Jacksonian principles.

    Screenshot (254).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Presidential Election Map, 1836 | In an attempt to throw the election to the House of Representatives, the Whigs nominated three favorite son candidates—Daniel Webster, Hugh Lawson White, and William Henry Harrison. However, their strategy backfired and Democrat Martin Van Buren defeated all three opponents. Author: National Atlas of the United States Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Trials of Martin Van Buren

    A major economic depression prompted by the Panic of 1837 dominated Martin Van Buren’s presidency. Not long after he took office, the mid-1830s economic boom went bust, and the new president struggled in vain to come up with a solution to remedy the decline. Andrew Jackson’s attack on the bank planted the seeds for the crisis, but other factors played a role as well. Even before the bank’s demise, the amount of money in circulation was rising because Nicolas Biddle had hoped the inflation would help him fight the president’s initiative. When Jackson deposited the federal government’s revenue in the pet banks, all brakes on credit expansion disappeared and inflation followed. Like the Panic of 1819, international factors also contributed to the economic collapse in late 1836 and early 1837. Rising commodity prices, especially cotton, worried British bankers. They began to demand payment in specie from firms that conducted business in the United States in order to stop the flow of British gold across the Atlantic. The decision caused a decline in the price of cotton. To cope with the bust, by 1837 leading banks in New York suspended specie payments and banks around the country followed suit.

    Even before the banks suspended specie payments, the public felt the pressure of rising prices for flour, pork, coal, and rent. For example, flour sold for approximately $7.75 a barrel in March 1836 and $12.00 in March 1837, bringing distress to many workers who could not afford to feed their families. In New York City, a protest meeting organized by the Loco Foco faction of the Democratic Party quickly turned into a riot. The angry mob began to storm businesses and private residences to liberate hoarded flour. After several hours, the police finally managed to restore order. Although many people feared outbreaks in other cities, those protests never materialized. However, the suffering continued around the country. Newspapers reported high levels of unemployment, perhaps as high as 30 percent by the end of 1837. For people who managed to hold onto their positions, wages declined anywhere from 30 to 50 percent.

    As people agitated for relief, Martin Van Buren publicly blamed “luxurious habits founded too often on merely fancied wealth.” The president also recognized the people’s suffering, but he never considered putting more power in the hands of the federal government to deal with the problem. Privately he weighed three options for ending the panic. One, he could reverse Jackson’s hard money by repealing the Specie Circular and by advocating for the creation of a new national bank. Two, he could retain his predecessor’s state deposit system but also promote more stringent government regulation of banks. Three, he could attempt to enact a complete separation of the government’s fiscal affairs from the private banking system by creating an independent treasury system to hold federal government deposits.

    Van Buren called for a special session of Congress to convene in September; over the summer, he agonized over which proposal to recommend. While the president clearly wanted his policy to promote economic recovery, he also needed to find a plan all factions of the Democratic Party could accept. Not all Democrats supported the hard money banking policies that Jackson instituted after he destroyed the national bank; some preferred paper currency solutions. When Congress came into session, Van Buren recommended several measures to put the nation’s financial house in order, including measures to allow for the deferment of tariff payments and to issue treasury notes to meet the government’s obligations. He then called on Congress to create an independent treasury system. When Congress began to debate the bill, John C. Calhoun amended the proposal to require the government to only take payments in specie. Van Buren, a hard-money man, found the amendment perfectly acceptable, but the move slowed Congressional action.

    Van Buren’s proposal dominated political discourse for several years. The president perceived his policy to be an appealing solution to the country’s currency and banking issues, but many conservative Democrats banded together with the Whigs to oppose the measure. Conservative Democrats tended to support continued use of the state banks, whereas the Whigs leaned toward the creation of a new national bank. However, they all agreed that Van Buren’s solution had potentially dangerous consequences for the nation’s financial health. Van Buren’s supporters in Congress worked diligently to garner support for the Independent Treasury bill until it finally won approval in 1840. Meanwhile, according to historian Harry Watson, Van Buren “seemed to concentrate on the pleasures of being President,” as opposed to working to further Jackson’s agenda.

    Whigs Triumphant

    The debate over the Independent Treasury bill set the stage for the presidential election of 1840. It provided the Whigs an opportunity to develop a cohesive statement on what they stood for that moved beyond their hatred of Andrew Jackson. Whig leaders suggested the independent treasury would lead to further economic misery; they also depicted Martin Van Buren as nearly as power hungry as his predecessor in his attempts to push Congress to accept the proposal. Finally, the Whigs painted the federal government as a force for positive change, especially in times of economic crisis. They believed the government needed to take steps to stimulate economic growth by creating a sound currency managed by private banks. The depression also helped the Whigs draw in new supporters among conservative Democrats. With the exception of their position on a national bank, the conservatives had more in common with the Whigs than they did with the radicals in their own party.

    The Democrats re-nominated Martin Van Buren for president, but since the economic crisis still plagued the nation, his chances for reelection seemed slim. Meanwhile, the Whigs concentrated on finding the most electable candidate. Henry Clay looked like a front-runner for the nomination; he could draw support from pro-development forces because he was the architect of American System and from southern Whigs because he was a Kentucky slaveholder. However, a younger generation of Whig politicians saw those qualities as negatives when voters looked for a candidate who could represent the common man; instead, they looked to Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, William Henry Harrison of Ohio, and Winfield Scott of Virginia. The Whigs eliminated Webster early on since it appeared he would not do well outside of the Northeast. Harrison (who had fought in the War of 1812) and Scott (who had eased tensions during a border conflict with Canada in 1838) could both draw on their military records to develop support.

    William Henry Harrison eventually won the nomination after his supporters used some underhanded tactics to paint Scott as an abolitionist in order to break the deadlock at the Whigs’ convention. To placate Henry Clay’s supporters, the convention nominated Clay’s longtime friend John Tyler for vice president. Tyler brought sectional balance to the ticket, but few of the delegates knew or seemed to care that his political views were more in tune with Andrew Jackson than with Henry Clay. In 1840, the Whigs relied on many of the same techniques the Democrats had used in 1828 to secure Jackson’s election. An offhand comment by a Clay supporter about Harrison drinking hard cider in his log cabin turned into a major advantage for the Whigs. The party knew they needed to shed their elitist reputation and the image of Harrison as a frontiersman (even if the description did not fit) and a war hero aided in that effort. The Whigs held rallies around the country, including in Baltimore during the Democratic convention, to promote “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” The Democrats certainly tried to overcome the support for Harrison, but it became increasingly difficult after the Whigs christened the president “Martin Van Ruin.”

    William Henry Harrison won both the popular (53 percent) and the Electoral College (80 percent) votes in an election that drew record numbers of voters to the polls. Approximately 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, which far exceeded the average of 57 percent in the three previous presidential elections. The Whigs had much to celebrate when Harrison arrived in Washington to take the oath of office in 1841. They had shown they could be a majority party, not simply an opposition party. Unfortunately, their victory was short-lived. Harrison unwisely chose to give a two-hour inaugural address in the freezing rain without a coat or hat. He contracted pneumonia and died a month later.

    John Tyler, who disregarded all concerns about the legitimacy of his succession, took the oath of office shortly after Harrison’s death. Then he proceeded to oppose the entire Whig legislative agenda since he was a committed states’ righter and strict constructionist. Congressional Whigs were furious with Tyler when he vetoed their proposal for a new national bank twice and disregarded suggestions for increasing the tariff and providing federal funds for internal improvements. Tyler became a president without a party, while the Whigs lost their momentum when the Democrats took control of Congress after the midterm elections in 1842. By the mid-1840s, the Democratic agenda of territorial expansion replaced the Whig agenda of economic development, setting the stage for the Civil War.

    Screenshot (255).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Presidential Election Map, 1840 | During the 1840 campaign, the Whigs held rallies around the country to promote “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” over “Martin Van Ruin.” The tactic clearly proved effective when William Henry Harrison defeated Martin Van Buren on election day. Author: National Atlas of the United States Source: Wikimedia Commons


    While early American leaders seemed hostile to permanent political factions, by the 1830s parties appeared to be an integral part of the political process. The Democratic Party emerged in 1828 to support Andrew Jackson’s bid for president. The Whig Party emerged in 1834 to oppose Jackson’s vision and policies. The core difference between the two parties was how they interpreted the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause. The Democrats wanted the freedom to pursue individual interests with as little government interference as possible. They deferred to the states on most issues. The Whigs promoted economic and judicial nationalism, which required a larger role for the federal government. By 1836, the second party system had taken hold as the Democrats and the Whigs squared off in the presidential election that year. Martin Van Buren, the Democrat, defeated his three Whig opponents, and he looked forward to promoting his predecessor’s vision. However, the Panic of 1837 undermined his efforts because the crisis seemed tied directly to Jackson’s decision to crush the Second Bank of the United States. Moreover, Van Buren struggled to come up with an effective solution to end the depression. In 1840, the Whigs triumphed at the national level, turning their party from an opposition party to a majority party. However, William Henry Harrison’s death and the emergence of questions about territorial expansion and slavery left the future of the second party system unclear.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The Second Party System consisted of which two political parties?

    1. Federalists and Democrats
    2. Democrats and Republicans
    3. Democrats and Whigs
    4. Republicans and Whigs


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    After the Panic of 1837, Martin Van Buren supported ____________________ to remedy the nation’s economic problems.

    1. the Second Bank of the United States
    2. the Independent Treasury System
    3. the Specie Circular
    4. a new protective tariff.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    William Henry Harrison’s defeat over Martin Van Buren in the presidential election of 1840 was a victory for the Democratic Party.

    1. True
    2. False


    This page titled 12.3: The Second Party System is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.