The evolution of the political spectrum in the United States: from the origins to the present day

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

(by Giacomo Forges)

1. Origins and defunct political parties

While the US Constitution never mentions political parties, they are present on the political stage since George Washington’s presidency (first US President).

The founding father “par excellence” is the only independent American President, not only because he never represented a political party during his entire term[1], but also because until the end of his presidency, he always expressed his reservations towards the role of the parties – they risked favoring foreign interference and creating further divisions inside the young Nation[2].

However, even during Washington’s presidency, the newly born political class started to organize itself in different political affiliations. Indeed, Vice-President John Adams (who later became the second American President) was a member of the Federalist Party, founded by Alexander Hamilton, first Treasure Secretary of the United States and today portrayed on the ten-dollar bill[3].

Later, in the first quarter of the XIX century, many different political movements started to proliferate. From 1801 to 1828, the main party was the Democratic-Republican Party. The party championed the protection of the interests of the agricultural industry, key sector for the country economy. They managed to elect four consecutive candidates as presidents: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams[4], (third, fourth, fifth and sixth President, respectively).

Between 1829 and the outburst of the Civil War in 1861, the political scene was dominated by the contrast between the Democratic Partyfounded in 1828 by Andrew Jackson (seventh President) – that gathered the supporters of the Democratic-Republican Party, and the Whig Party[5].

Instead, the supporters of the Whig Party championed federalist ideas and economic nationalism, in stark contrast to the policies of President A. Jackson. The Whigs managed to elect four presidents: William H. Harrison, John Tyler[6], Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore (ninth, tenth, twelfth, thirteenth President, respectively).

After the end of Fillmore’s presidency, the Whig Party disbanded in 1854. Later, M. Fillmore himself ran again for President in 1856[7] with the anti-Catholic, xenophobic, and “nativist” movement Know Nothing[8], whose supporters feared that the massive immigration of catholic Irish of the time could be a threat to American values[9].

2. Historically significant parties

Other parties and candidates that deserve a mention because they reached a significant result in presidential elections are, chronologically: