Abraham Lincoln became active in politics just as Americans transformed
their political life into a set of arrangements historians refer to
as the "second party system." In the early years of the American
republic, Federalists, including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams,
squared off against Democratic Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson.
The Democratic Republicans' decisive triumph led to the so-called "Era
of Good Feelings," in which the Virginians James Madison and James
Monroe succeeded Jefferson and political maneuvering occurred within
the bounds of a single organization.
Andrew Jackson's term as president (1829-1837) ushered in the changes
that would decisively influence Lincoln's career. Jackson's military
background and decisive use of federal authority inspired fears of dictatorship
among his opponents, who took to calling themselves "Whigs,"
after the Englishmen who had advocated republican government in earlier
Jackson spoke for the tradition in American politics that embraced
individual liberty and disdained government in social or economic life.
In a pivotal chapter in American political history, Jackson refused
to recharter the Bank of the United States, thereby denying the young
nation a central source of credit and monetary control. Jackson and
his followers, who came to call themselves "Democrats" believed
that banks provided their wealthy clients with special privileges that
distorted the promise of equal opportunity and liberty.
Whigs increasingly articulated a competing political vision that portrayed
economic development and moral reform as twin engines of a progressive
civilization. While Democrats attracted foreign immigrants, and especially
Catholics to their party, Whigs usually built their strength among native-born
Protestants. Although Whigs' beliefs proved influential in society at
large, Democrats dominated electoral politics during the second party
system's tenure (roughly 1840-1860).
Americans flocked to the polls in large numbers during this period.
Nearly 80% of eligible voters cast their ballots in many elections.
Followers of both parties hoped that their national organizations could
bind the Union together, especially its two major regions, the North
and South, which labored under diametrically opposed social and economic
Americans developed a system of democratic politics that provided political
rights to many everyday people who had never enjoyed them before. Nevertheless,
this system remained restrictive in important ways. In the 1820s and
30s laws requiring voters to own property fell by the wayside and a
system of "universal manhood suffrage" emerged. This "universal"
system allowed most white men to vote, but systematically excluded most
free blacks, as well as all women (and, of course, slaves).
Nevertheless, politics became a family affair and a staple of community
life. In this period individuals retained strong party affiliations
across generations, often stemming from ethnic or religious identities.
For most Americans, one was either raised a Whig or a Democrat.
In an era before mass media, political parties developed strong networks
of local organizations to get their messages to voters and mobilize
the faithful. These groups regularly organized party picnics, rallies
and marches, especially as elections approached. At these events Americans
enjoyed plentiful refreshments, games and contests, and considered stump
The parties offered special opportunities for young men. With electoral
fraud a persistent concern in many localities, both parties organized
special groups of youths devoted to observing the polls and defeating
their opponents' attempts at chicanery. Of course these groups often
veered toward extra-legal activities themselves, and perpetuated the
tradition of flying squadrons and street clashes.
Despite their lack of the franchise, women found roles within at least
one of the major political parties. While Democratic men usually excluded
their wives from all aspects of political life, Whigs' embrace of the
notion of "separate spheres" entrusted women with the important
role as arbiters of morality. Thus some Whig women consulted with their
husbands about political matters. Others found roles as organizers of
political events. Still others found influence as political singers.
Political singing played an especially large role in the organizations
of reformers concentrating upon issues like temperance and abolitionism.
While Democrats unequivocally rejected such reformers as busybodies,
the Whig Party's largely native-born, Protestant constituency naturally
overlapped with reformers.
Reformers quickly tired of the Whig Party's attempts to compromise
on controversial issues, and formed third parties on several occasions.
In 1844 abolitionists formed the Liberty Party. In 1848 other opponents
of southern slavery organized the Free Soil Party, and in 1856 the current
of anti-immigrant activism within some reform communities culminated
with the rise of the American Party.
While the second party system deeply influenced American community
life in this period and brought record numbers to the polls, it ultimately
failed to forestall the sectional crisis the nation's founders had so
feared. By the 1850s the Democratic Party had become a mouthpiece for
powerful southern interests, and even alienated many of its northern
members. The Whig Party, for its part, came undone. Many of its members
formed the new Republican Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery
into the western territories.
The sectional crisis emerged from the struggle to organize and define
these territories, wrestled from Mexico in the Mexican War. For decades
Congress and the second party system had maintained a delicate political
balance. In 1820 the Missouri Compromise had initiated this balance
by admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, while
drawing an imaginary line across the as-yet unsettled West, dividing
northerly free territories from southernly areas that were to be open
In 1850 another tortuous political compromise seemed to perpetuate
this balance, but it quickly gave way before a rising tide of mutual
distrust and recrimination. For decades the South had maintained its
political standing through a clause in the Constitution that counted
slaves as three-fifths of a single individual in determining the South's
population. Thus the South benefited from a disproportionate Congressional
delegation although slaves could not, of course, vote.
This provision infuriated northerners who sought to challenge southerners'
political power in Congress. Increasingly many northerners believed
that southerners intended to use their political clout to open the entire
nation to slavery, and pointed to a sinister "slave power"
that distorted American politics and defeated the popular will. Southerners,
for their part, feared that the rapidly growing North intended to strip
them of their rights and take their slaves. Many southerners considered
this awful fate a form of slavery itself.
In the 1850s this sectional crisis slowly unraveled the political parties and
pushed the nation toward Civil War. In 1856 Chief Justice Roger Taney
seemed to justify many northerners' paranoia with the controversial
Dred Scott decision, which sought to open the entire nation to slavery.
Democratic President James Buchanan, himself a Pennsylvanian,
increasingly gave in to southern demands in a vain hope to preserve
When Abraham Lincoln ran for the presidency in 1860 the second party
system had shattered beyond repair. As a representative of the new Republican
Party, Lincoln drew support from northerners alone. He did not bother
to campaign in the South. The Democratic Party ran two candidates. One,
the Kentuckian John Breckinridge, ran as a defender of slaveholders'
rights in the tradition of James Buchanan. The Illinoisan Stephen Douglas
ran as a spokesman for "popular sovereignty," the misguided
hope that the principle of local control could somehow remove the slavery
issue from the national political agenda. And the former Whig John Bell
contested the election as a representative of the Constitutional Union
Party (dubbed "the Old Gentlemen's Party" by its opponents),
who believed that the slavery controversy might go away if Americans
simply ignored it.
This four-way electoral race illuminated American politics' chaotic
state. Compromise was no longer an option. When Lincoln won election
with a strong showing in the North, and well beneath 50% of the popular
vote, southern states began preparations for secession from the Union.
When Lincoln took office in March of 1861, disunion was at hand.
For more information about politics in the 19th century, please see Lincoln/Net's Getting the Message Out! National Political Campaign Materials, 1840-1860 Web site.
Baker, Jean. Affairs of Party: The
Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Carwardine, Richard. Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott
Case, Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1978.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor,
Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Freehling, William W. The Road
to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854. New York: Oxford University
Gienapp, William E. The Origins
of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. New York: Oxford University Press,
Hoffert, Sylvia D. When Hens Crow:
The Woman's Rights Movement in Antebellum America. Bloomington, IN:
Indiana University Press, 1995.
Holt, Michael F. The Political
Crisis of the 1850s. New York: Wiley, 1978.
Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall
of the American Whig Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political
Culture of the American Whigs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Isenberg, Nancy. Sex and Citizenship
in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina
Johannsen, Robert. Stephen A. Douglas.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass.
New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991.
Potter, David M. The Impending
Crisis, 1848-1861. Ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher. New
York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson.
3 vols. New York: Harper and Row, 1977-1984.
Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Age
of Jackson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1945.
Sellers, Charles. The Market Revolution:
Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Watson, Harry L. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America.
New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1990.