Few institutions in America are held in such uniformly and consistently low esteem as our political parties. Opinion polls show that Americans regard the parties as less trustworthy than used car salesmen, union officials – even lawyers. (Yes, lawyers!) The parties are thought to be corrupt, unprincipled, and interested only in achieving and maintaining power, not in “the public good,” whatever that amorphous concept may be. They are, in short, despised. Yet, when we speak of “parties” in America, we are really talking about only two parties: the Democrats and the Republicans. The former have their roots in Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party of the early republic; the latter grew in the mid-1850s from the remains of the Whig, Anti-Masonic, Liberty, and Free Soil parties. The very recitation of those Republican forerunners suggests the tumultuous and colorful history of the early party system. The Whigs were distinguished by their sponsorship of the “American System” of Henry Clay, which envisioned government support of internal improvements (roads, canals, waterways) and a national bank as a means to economic growth. The Anti-Masonic Party, on which so many Republican strategists cut their eyeteeth, stood for an end to secret societies and for openness in government. The Liberty Party was abolitionist; it saw slavery as the great stain on the American escutcheon, and sought to erase that stain by emancipating African slaves. The Free Soil Party combined a determination to stop the spread of slavery into the western territories with a plan to encourage the settlement of those western lands by free farmers who would form the backbone of frontier society.
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