The Whig Party formed out of the National Republican Party, the leaders of which were John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. They were nationalists, supported internal improvements and moral reforms, and desired gradual westward expansion in congruence with economic growth and modernization. The Whigs were based in New England and New York, mostly made up of Northern middle-class people, market-oriented farmers, and native-born skilled workers. In 1836, the Whigs factioned off, but generally united against Jackson's policies of the last eight years. They especially disliked Martin Van Buren, Jackson's hand-chosen successor.
The Democrats were the successors of Jeffersonian democracy. They favored localism and freedom from modern institutions such as banks, factories, and reform movements. They had a commitment to states' rights, a limited government, and an agrarian ideal. They believed in westward expansion by the acquisition of new territories. They were made up of Northern artisans who felt threatened by industry; farmers hurt by tariffs; immigrants who desired to keep their own traditions; and Southerners and Westerners in favor of land acquisition. In 1836 they threw their support behind Andrew Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren.
In 1840 the Whig Party ran a "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" campaign in which they presented their presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, a Virginia aristocrat, as a simple man and hero of the people. The Whigs believed in a "loose construction" of the Constitution which included supporting big government with a national bank and the congressional regulation of the expansion of slavery.
The Democrats upheld a platform which endorsed "strict construction" of the Constitution in 1840. They opposed the government's interference with the spread of slavery, the existence of a national bank, and the federal funding of internal improvements.
The Liberty Party was the political outgrowth of the growing anti-slavery movement. It had been born in 1839, when the movement factionalized into conservative and radical parts. The radicals followed William Lloyd Garrison, who demanded the immediate ending of slavery, denounced the U.S. Constitution, and allowed female activists into the movement. The conservatives formed the Liberty Party and sought to end slavery gradually through traditional, political channels.
The Whigs were unanimous in their nomination of Henry Clay for the presidency, standing on the same platform as previous elections.
Democrats desired the annexation of Texas and the complete control of Oregon Territory, then shared with England as well. They nominated James K. Polk, who was a Southerner and sure to favor westward expansion.
Again nominating James C. Birney, the Liberty Party continued to stand on an anti-slavery platform, including several planks for equal rights and the elimination of racial discrimination in the North.
The Whigs were split by the annexation from the Mexican War. They attempted to offset this damage by declaring no platform at all and nominating Zachary Taylor, a man who up until 1848 had had very little to do with politics.
The Democrats were also split by the Mexican War annexation. Southern and Western Democrats allied along a moderate platform to extend slavery, not going far enough for many slaveholding Southerners, who desired a firmer assurance of slavery's expansion.
The Free Soil Party absorbed men from the Liberty Party who had nowhere else to go; "Conscience," or anti-slavery, Whigs; and "Barnburner" Democrats, whose anti-black prejudices allied them with anti-slavery men.
Whigs were dedicated to the enforcement of the provisions of the Compromise of 1850, which included the admission of California as a free state and a stricter fugitive slave law. With Winfield Scott, they condemned further agitation of the slavery issue and saw the Compromise of 1850 as the solution. Yet they did not come out as vehemently pro-slavery, and some Southern Whigs deserted the party to join the Democrats.
Democrats and Franklin Pierce also supported the provisions of the Compromise of 1850 and united along pro-slavery lines.
Free Soilers were the only political group to officially denounce the Compromise of 1850. They demanded the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law and opposed the further admission of slave states.
The Republican Party grew out of resistance to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which overrode the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery to spread into Western territory by popular sovereignty. "Anti-Nebraska" men included anti-slavery Whigs, Democrats, Free Soilers, reformers, and abolitionists.
The unprecedented rate of immigration at mid-century, particularly from Catholic Ireland, caused many nativists to fear foreign invasion. They organized into a secret order known as the "Know-Nothings" or the "Order of the Star Spangled Banner" and then politicized themselves in 1856 as the American Party. It was made up of mostly ex-Whigs who were anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and desired to lengthen the naturalization period, allow only citizens to vote, and only native-born citizens to hold office.
Democrats again united along a pro-slavery platform, endorsing states' rights, the Fugitive Slave Law, and popular sovereignty in the territories.
The Republican Party absorbed anti-slavery Whigs and most Know-Nothings. It became more moderate in its stance on the exclusion of slavery and denounced John Brown's raid. The platform endorsed a protective tariff, the Homestead Act, and internal improvements.
The Constitutional Union Party was the anti-extremist party, absorbing Southern Whigs who didn't want to vote Democratic and Northern Whigs who felt the Republicans were too radical. They united in order to block a Republican victory.
The Democratic Party split completely along sectional lines. Southern Democrats walked out of the Democratic National Convention, which nominated Stephen A. Douglas on a popular sovereignty platform, to name their own candidate, John C. Breckenridge, on a slave code ticket.
In the midst of the Civil War, the Republican Party asked that the country continue to fight according to Lincoln's war measures. The party demanded an unconditional surrender and supported a constitutional amendment to end slavery.
The Democrats were split along "war" and "peace" factions, but managed to unite behind George McClellan in the 1864 election. With a "Union first, then peace" platform, the Democrats appeased both those who desired to defeat the Confederacy at all costs as well as those who favored negotiation and compromise.
My American Experience
Of America's first 25 presidents, who is your favorite? From George Washington to William McKinley, which of the new country's leaders most helped shape America in its first century of existence?