While Democrats and Republicans run the United States government today, that hasn’t always been the case. When the United States began, there were no formal political parties. That didn’t last long, and George Washington is the only president in U.S. history who 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. It was established in 1792 and dissolved in 1825. The third president of the United States was Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican.
What’s in a Name?
We call Jefferson’s party the Democratic-Republicans, but this is mostly so that people don’t get it confused with the modern Republican Party. The term Democratic-Republicans wasn’t used much at the time, and there was no official name. Most often, members called themselves Republicans.
A Government of Less
The Federalist Party wanted a strong central government, but Jefferson and other early Democratic-Republicans saw a powerful federal government as a threat to individual liberty. They were against the establishment of a national bank, the growth of the federally controlled military, and the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The Empire of Liberty
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.
Jefferson thought the United States had a responsibility to spread freedom around the world. Over time, 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.
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 wrong but worried that abolishing it would hurt the economy. Over time, the Southern Democratic-Republicans increasingly came to prefer slavery instead of just seeing it as a necessary evil.
The Northern Democratic-Republicans, however, believed that slavery was incompatible with the equality and individual rights promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This split over slavery was eventually 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.