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The Rise of the Second Party System
Digital History ID 342

Author:   Thomas Jefferson


Following the War of 1812, American politics was still dominated by deference. Voters generally deferred to the leadership of local elites or leading families. Political campaigns tended to be relatively staid affairs. Direct appeals by candidates for support were considered in poor taste.

By later standards, election procedures were undemocratic. Most states imposed property and taxpaying requirements on the white adult males who alone had the vote. Voting was conducted by voice. Presidential electors were generally chosen by state legislatures. Given the fact that citizens had only the most indirect say in the election of a President, it is not surprising that voting participation was generally low, amounting to less than 30 percent of adult white males.

By 1840, voting participation had reached unprecedented levels. Nearly 80 percent of adult white males went to the polls. A major reason for the expanded electorate was the replacement of the politics of deference and leadership by elites with a new two-party system. By the mid-1830s, two national political parties with marked philosophical differences, strong organizations, and wide popular appeal competed in virtually every state. Professional party managers used partisan newspapers, speeches, parades, and rallies to mobilize popular support.

In 1789, Jefferson had declared, "If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." In the following letter, he reverses his early opposition to parties and argues that two political parties are essential to a functioning democracy.


I believe their existence to be salutary inasmuch as they act as Censors on each other, and keep the principles & practices of each constantly at the bar of public opinion. It is only when they give to party principles a predominance over the love of country, when they degenerate into personal antipathies, and affect the intercourse of society and friendship, or the justice due to honest opinion, that they become vicious and baneful to the general happiness and good. We have seen such days. May we hope never to see such again!

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Thomas Jefferson to Samuel McCay

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