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US Political History in a Nutshell

Updated on April 20, 2020
Mark O Richardson profile image

Mark is from Utah. He is a graduate of the University of Utah. During his schooling, he spent some time studying US History


Beginnings-A Time of Revolution

John Adams said the Revolution was in the hearts & minds of the people long before the first shot was heard. Much of the problem was with taxes. People did not know how much they were getting taxed.

First, I’d like to tell you about the different parties when the country was young…

During the time of the Revolution, the Democratic-Agrarian party: Many were farmers, with little understanding of economics and no interest in economic growth. They did not like being ruled by gentlemen. They wanted local control, with majority rule. They were generally Anti-Federalist, which meant that they were opposed to the constitution. Eventually, they became followers of Democratic-Republicans (under Thomas Jefferson & James Madison), who favored commercial agriculture, were anti-British, Pro-French, and pro-states rights. This group then branched into Democratic-Agrarians (under John Randolph who were radicals and wished to revise the Constitution) and Moderates-Commercial Minded (Jeffersonians). The Democratic-Agrarians then evolved to the Democrats under Andrew Jackson.

The other primary movement was the Commercial-Elite. This consisted of business groups, merchants, and large farms, who understood economics. They wanted a strong central government and economic policy and growth, with a strong executive branch. They then evolved to generally Federalist, who favored the Constitution. This group was led by Alexander Hamilton, who favored independent commercial development. They also included George Washington and John Adams. They were pro-English, Anti-French trade. Moderate Adams Federalists did not confirm to this. They had a loose interpretation of the Constitution. They believed in Federal Supremacy.

The Federalists tied ideas from the English to early American government and laws. This system created most legislation & policies that carried the USA into the 19th century. Later, the Federalists dissolved.

Jeffersonian Democracy liberalized voting requirements. They believed the less governing, the better. Wanted rule by some of the people for all the people. This group included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

Jacksonian Democracy claimed everyone should govern. Voting rights were expanded. Property restrictions were dropped, mainly in the West. As a result, the common man entered politics. This group included Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and James K. Polk. Jackson was an ex-judge, ex-Senator and general in the US Army. He was the first president form the “West’. He fought in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. Many considered him to be a ruffian and unfit for office. He was part of two duels; killing one man and injuring two others. He wanted to reduce government as defined by the Constitution. This party later evolved into the Democratic party.

Jackson was the first “unionist” president and felt that the president needed to preserve the union at all costs. Under him, the national debt was wiped out in 1835. At this time, people were put into government positions that had no qualifications or experience.

Democrats were conservative at the time. They believed in state rights, Federal restraint in social & economic affairs, were Pro-Slavery, wanted low tariffs, and a public school system.

The Moderates/Jeffersonians then evolved into National Republicans & Whigs. Fast forward to 1840…the election reaffirmed the two-party system. The Whigs (Republicans) were Liberals, wanted Federal supremacy, high tariffs, were moral reformers (anti-slavery), anti-Alcohol, but also wanted a public school system.

Abraham Lincoln


Politics Around the Time of the Civil War

In 1850, California became a state. Power shifted to the North. Interstate slavery was permitted. John Calhoun died during the debate over the compromise. The book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe exposed slavery, thus increasing the ranks of abolitionists.

In 1859, John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. He was captured by Colonel Robert E. Lee and was eventually executed, turning him into a martyr for the abolitionists.

My, how things have changed with the parties... Liberal vs conservative…state rights…Anti-slavery and Anti-alcohol was liberal. This makes one wonder…did political party ideology help divide the nation and start the Civil War?

Lincoln’s plan included having voters of 1860 taking an oath of loyalty to the US Constitution. Confederates who took the oath received a full pardon and a restoration of their property. At the time of his death, Republicans had a 3 to 1 edge over the Democrats.

In 1866, Andrew Johnson had trouble with Congress. In 1868, he lost power for removing the Secretary of War without consent of the Senate. In 1867, the KKK began violent attacks on blacks and their businesses.

American Imperialism

Secretary of State William Seward claimed that commercial power would rule the world and the power was in the west. He promoted American commercialism overseas. He was involved with purchasing Alaska and the Virgin Islands. He helped with a treaty in Columbia to build the Panama Canal in 1869. Secretary of State William Evarts sought expansion of US interests in the Africa, Congo region. He worked to mediate war in South America. Secretary of State Frederick Frelinghuysen played a waiting game for foreign policy. Senator Thomas Bayard worked with countries in the Asia-Pacific area in trade. Senator James Blaine was expansionist minded. Secretary of State John Hay believed in open trade and that all should have equal access to markets in China.

Spanish-American War

There was a revolution in Cuba in 1895. Cubans destroyed the island with a scorched earth policy, making Spain want to leave and to generate American sympathy. Spain sent a harsh general, Balerino “The Butcher” Wyler to crush the revolt. He established concentration camps and widespread violations of human rights. President McKinley worked to end concentration camps and to aid Cubans. President McKinley was assassinated in 1901.

A New Century, New Challenges (Wars)

In the early 1900’s, corporations controlled legislators, which meant control of Senators, which meant control of legislation. Eventually, control was given back to the people. President Teddy Roosevelt was possibly the only true independent to serve as president. He proclaimed, “The President may take any action which benefits the interest of the American public”. He was very reform minded.

Before WWI, there were 49 treaties to keep the peace in Europe. The US wanted “Isolationism”, but later got involved. But Germany violated several treaties. In March 1917, the Russian Czar was overthrown. President Wilson declared war on Germany and proposed to have no secret treaties, among other things. In the end, Germany was expected to have no navy or air force and to have a much smaller army.

With the new deal in in 1933, black voters switched to Democrats for the most part and have stayed ever since. All banks were closed at the time and were evaluated. Banks have been more regulated since then. The US has debt that stemmed from this deal. The new deal brought on the rise of Welfare in the US. Child labor was abolished. In 1938, min age was 16 years and min wage was set.


Notes/handout packet from my history course in college: History 1700 class by Christopher S. Case at SLCC

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Mark Richardson


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