While Democrats and Republicans dominate the United States government today, that hasn’t always been the case. At the founding of the republic, there were no formal political parties. That didn’t last long, and George Washington is the only president in U.S. history that wasn’t a member of one party or another.
The Federalist Party was the first in the nation to be established (1791), have a candidate elected president (the second president, John Adams, in 1797), and to be dissolved (1824). But the second – the Democratic-Republican Party – wasn’t far behind in any of those milestones. It was established in 1792 and dissolved in 1825, and the third president of the United States was the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, who took office in 1801.
What’s in a Name?
We call Jefferson’s party the Democratic-Republicans, but this is mostly to distinguish it from the Republican Party of today. The title Democratic-Republicans was only occasionally used at the time, and there was no official name. Most often, members simply called themselves Republicans.
The word republican was commonly used to describe the sort of government the colonists wanted to create: a republic of three separate branches of government based on the principles and structure of the ancient republics – especially the focus on civic duty and opposition to elitism, aristocracy, and monarchy.
A Government of Less
The Federalist Party strove to build a strong central government, but Jefferson and other early Democratic-Republicans saw a powerful federal government as a threat to individual liberty. They opposed the establishment of a national bank, the growth of the federally controlled military, and the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
To Jefferson and his political allies, the Federalists weren’t any better than the monarchy and aristocracy of Britain. While many Federalists felt the wealthy should lead, Democratic-Republicans believed in equality amongst white men regardless of economic status. The right to vote had been restricted to white landowners aged 21 or older. Under the leadership of the Democratic-Republican Party, all but three states did away with the landowning requirement by 1824.
The Empire of Liberty
Jefferson’s foreign policy was built around a distaste for foreign influence in America and the idea that the United States had a responsibility to spread freedom around the world. Under Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase, acquired Florida from Spain, and got Britain to grant shared sovereignty over Oregon Country, greatly expanding the empire of liberty Jefferson envisioned.
In 1823, the U.S. adopted the Monroe Doctrine, which reiterated the policy of neutrality in European wars, but declared that the U.S. would oppose the recolonization of any country by Britain. This dominated foreign policy for decades to come.
The Beginning of the End
While the Democratic-Republicans pretty much all believed in the equality and freedom of white men, the party had been split on slavery from the beginning. Jefferson and many others from Virginia saw slavery as immoral but worried that an immediate and absolute abolition would be economically devastating. Southern Democratic-Republicans increasingly over time came to see slavery as beneficial rather than just an unfortunate economic necessity.
The Northern Democratic-Republicans, however, believed that slavery was more than just unfortunate. It was incompatible with the equality and individual rights promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This ideological split over slavery eventually brought about the party’s demise. The anti-slavery view later influenced other parties, such as the Free Soil Party and the Republican Party. Many Democratic-Republicans who supported slavery, however, joined Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party.