What Caused the Rise of the Democrats & the Whigs?

Political battles between Thomas Jefferson, pictured here, and Alexander Hamilton led to the rise of the Democratic Party.
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The Democratic Party is America’s oldest political organization, being active since 1792. Later, in the 1830s, the modern-era Democratic Party began under Martin Van Buren and President Andrew Jackson. The Democrats arose out of the debate between politicians inside the first presidential cabinet; meanwhile, the Whigs had their origins in opposition to the policies of Democratic President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s.

1 Factions Develop

Though the Constitution never mentioned political parties, factions developed in President George Washington’s administration. Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, had different conceptions of how to run the new country. Hamilton believed in a strong national government that should actively promote economic growth. Assuming the label ''Federalists'' in 1791, this first political party never had a following among the masses because of their aristocratic leanings. Meanwhile, Jefferson, the Southern plantation owner, thought more power should reside with the state governments. First known as Anti-Federalists, those supporting Jefferson became a clear political faction in 1792, calling themselves the Democratic-Republicans, or at times just “Republicans.” This moment represents the founding of the Democratic Party.

2 Jacksonian Democrats

Martin Van Buren, a leader of the Democratic-Republicans in the 1820s, witnessed the increasing political strife between North, South and West and decided to unite voters in a party with a national scope. The Democratic-Republicans had dominated American politics from 1801 to 1824. Nevertheless, the 1824 Presidential election, in which four Democratic-Republican candidates split the vote to such a degree that none received the required number of electoral votes, demonstrated a need for unity. A two-party system, presenting voters with clear choices, would be best, thought Van Buren. He chose Andrew Jackson, the rugged military veteran, to represent a new, modern Democratic Party in the 1828 election. Jackson appealed to the common people rather than the aristocracy winning the election.

3 Bank War

The apparent height of the power Andrew Jackson amassed through the Democratic Party came in 1833. Always claiming an aversion toward aristocrats, Jackson held a dislike for the Bank of the United States. To him, this bank, first proposed by Alexander Hamilton, was an example of the concentration of wealth among the few. In 1833, Jackson, deciding to destroy the Bank of the United States, removed federal revenue from the institution.

4 Whig Challenge

Opposition to what some perceived as President Andrew Jackson’s assumption of too much power led to the creation of the Whig Party in 1833. Whigs resented most of all the removal of federal funds from the Bank of the United States. It was this action, which Jackson did to render the bank ineffective, that united Whigs across the nation, overcoming regional differences. Whigs had their largest base of support in the North. In addition, the wealthiest Americans and the rising merchant class tended to be Whigs. These constituents wanted the national government to fund economic development similar to that proposed by Alexander Hamilton during the Federalist era.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.