Early American Political Parties
Why did political parties rise and fall?
Iowa political parties, like those in other American states, respond to changes that are important to voters at the time of elections. Economic interests like taxes are always important, but sometimes moral or cultural issues like prohibition or bodily autonomy can also capture attention.The American federal system that links states to the national government also plays an important role in fostering the creation and continuation of the political party system.
Whigs and Democrats in Iowa
Before the Civil War, in Iowa's territorial and early statehood days, there were two dominant political parties: the Whigs and the Democrats. The Whigs tended to favor a more active government role in the promotion of business and economic development (building roads, promoting commerce and manufacturing, stronger currency) while Democrats favored the smallest government possible with lower taxes. However, both parties experienced internal divisions as the interests of eastern states and western states differed, and especially with growing tensions between the North and South over slavery.
In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed the settlers in western territories to decide themselves whether they would be a slave or free state. This ended the provision of the Missouri Compromise that extended the line along the Missouri-Arkansas border as the western division between slave and free territories in the West. This opened the possibility of more slave territory and was strongly opposed by many in the North of both parties. Opponents of the new law in both parties broke ranks to form first the Free-Soil Party which quickly became the Republican Party. While the Democrats continued to hold support in both North and South, the Republican Party was based almost entirely in the North, including Iowa. The Civil War cemented Iowa's loyalty to the Republican Party that continued to produce election victories at the polls until the Great Depression in the 1930s. Following World War II, Democrats began gaining strength in the cities. Today, Iowa is a two-party state and has swung both ways in recent presidential elections.
Issue-Based Party Formation
While third parties have sometimes appeared on the Iowa ballot, none has earned a significant permanent place in the political landscape. In the 1870s and 1880s, tough economic conditions for Iowa farmers led to the formation of the Populist and Greenback Parties, which encouraged the regulation of railroads, corporations and other business interests thought to be practicing unfair policies toward farmers. They also wanted more money in circulation to make borrowing and repaying interest easier. The Prohibition Party focused narrowly on efforts to eliminate the sale of alcohol, but it competed for voters with the Republicans. In 1912, supporters of Teddy Roosevelt backed him in a race against the incumbent President William Howard Taft. This split the Republican vote and allowed the Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the White House.
In early days, candidates were nominated by political conventions. Those who had influence within the party structure played the key roles in candidate selection. In the early 1900s, Iowa amended the constitution to select candidates by direct primaries where registered voters in the party held primary elections to name the candidates. A popular candidate could gain the nomination without the support of party leaders, though this rarely happened. In 1976, the Iowa caucuses moved front and center of the national stage as the first step in the presidential nominating process. Every four years, those testing the waters for a shot at the presidency come to Iowa, providing opportunities for local voters to meet personally with top national leaders. Local politicians may step in to support one candidate or another or may keep on the sidelines so they do not offend Iowa voters or other persuasions. Regardless, national politics becomes Iowa politics every four years.
Parties are loose coalitions of citizens who rally around candidates who best promote their interests. Today, more Iowans register as "no-party" or independent than either Republican or Democrat. Among active party voters as of July 2019, registered Democrats hold a slight lead over Republicans. Republicans hold margins in the rural areas, while Democrats have urban majorities.
What economic factors impacted the rise and fall of political parties during the antebellum period?
- "Chapter X: Parties in the United States" from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835 (Document)
- "The Whale that Swallowed Jonah," 1844 (Political Cartoon)
- "Whig Harmony," 1848 (Political Cartoon)
- Know-Nothing National Platform, July 13, 1855 (Document)
How did the conflict over slavery influence the rise and fall of political parties during the antebellum period?
- Grand Democratic Free Soil Banner, 1848 (Image)
- "Marriage of the Free Soil and Liberty Parties," 1848 (Political Cartoon)
- Governor James Grimes' Letter to the Citizens of Iowa, February 12, 1856 (Document)
- Grand National Union Banner, 1860 (Image)
How did national figures shape political parties?
- Federalist Paper No. 10, November 22, 1787 (Document)
- President George Washington's Farewell Address, September 19, 1796 (Document)
- Letter from Former President Andrew Jackson to Amos Kendall, June 2, 1840 (Document)
- "Old Des Moines Awake!" Newspaper Article, July 23, 1840 (Document)
- "True Republican Ticket" Ballot, 1860 (Document)
|Early American Political Parties Teaching Guide|
|Printable Image and Document Guide|
"Chapter X: Parties in the United States" from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835
"The Whale that Swallowed Jonah," 1844
"Whig Harmony," 1848
Know-Nothing National Platform, July 13, 1855
Grand Democratic Free Soil Banner, 1848
"Marriage of the Free Soil and Liberty Parties," 1848
Governor James Grimes' Letter to the Citizens of Iowa, February 12, 1856
Grand National Union Banner, 1860
Federalist Paper No. 10, November 22, 1787
President George Washington's Farewell Address, September 19, 1796
Letter from Former President Andrew Jackson to Amos Kendall, June 2, 1840
"Old Des Moines Awake!" Newspaper Article, July 23, 1840
"True Republican Ticket" Ballot, 1860
- Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generations by Joseph Ellis
This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book written by Joseph Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, that explores selected interactions among individuals who profoundly influenced the early development of the United States.
- "The History and Principles of the Whigs in the Territory of Iowa" from The Iowa Journal of History and Politics
This entry in The Iowa Journal of History and Politics focuses on the origin of the Whig Party in the territory of Iowa. The essay highlights the history of the party and its prominent politicians in the state.
- "The Know Nothings in Iowa: Opportunity and Frustration in Antebellum Politics" from The Annals of Iowa
This scholarly essay from The Annals of Iowa looks at the story of the Know-Nothing Party in Iowa, which was an outburst of nativistic sentiment that has - from time to time - punctuated American history.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (8th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are middle school-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for eighth-grade students.
No. Standard Description SS.8.13. Explain the powers and responsibilities of citizens, political parties, and the media in a variety of governmental and nongovernmental contexts. SS.8.14. Examine and explain the origins, functions and structure of government with reference to the US Constitution and other founding documents, branches of government, bureaucracies, and other systems and its effectiveness on citizens. (21st century skills) SS.8.21. Analyze connections among early American historical events and developments in broader historical contexts. SS.8.23. Explain multiple causes and effects of events and developments in early American history.