Today, almost every American politician is either a Republican or a Democrat, but this wasn’t always true. 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 a party.
The Federalist Party was the first in the nation, but the second – the Democratic-Republican Party – wasn’t far behind. It began in 1792 and ended in 1825. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, who took office in 1801, was a Democratic-Republican.
A Government of Less
The Federalist Party wanted a strong central (federal) government. Jefferson and other early Democratic-Republicans disagreed, seeing a powerful federal government as dangerous to freedom.
The Democratic-Republicans wanted to give the American idea of liberty to as many people as possible. Unlike the Federalists, they didn’t want to give special privileges to the wealthy. Under Jefferson and others, the U.S. bought Florida from Spain and completed the Louisiana Purchase, which added more people to the “empire of liberty” that Democratic-Republicans wanted to spread.
The Beginning of the End
The Democratic-Republicans believed in the equality and freedom of white men, but the party was split on slavery. Jefferson and others from Virginia saw slavery as wrong but worried that ending it would hurt the economy (the nation’s money supply). Over time, most Southern Democratic-Republicans came to see slavery as a benefit.
The Northern Democratic-Republicans disagreed. They believed that slavery didn’t fit with the ideas of equality and individual rights in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This disagreement over slavery eventually ended the party. The anti-slavery view later influenced other parties, such as the Free Soil Party and the Republican Party. Many Democratic-Republicans who supported slavery joined Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party.