Understanding the Namesakes of the U.S. Major Political Parties – The Democrats, Republicans, and Their Lineage
We explain the origin and meaning of the U.S. party names Democratic Party and Republican Party. We’ll also look at the Whigs, Federalists, Anti-Federalists, Union, and Confederacy and discuss the political terms the major parties adopted as their party names. This will help us to understand the original left-right ideologies of each historical party.
Understanding the Namesakes of the Major U.S. Parties
- Jefferson’s original faction, which essentially became the Democrats, was called the Anti-Federalists, as in “Against Big Government Federalism and for States’ Rights.”
- Likewise, Hamilton’s faction, which essentially became the Whigs and then the Republicans, was called the Federalists, as in “For Big Government Federalism over States’ Rights.”
In other words, it was essentially the opposite of what it is today, but that aside, the namesakes of the major political parties can be explained like this:
Originally, at the Constitutional Convention, the anti-Federalists were against the Constitution and for the Articles of Confederation.
From then to the Civil War the anti-Federalists and then Democrats were generally more for a Confederation of States that could support an agrarian democracy than for strong central aristocratic Union.
In other words, from the Articles of Confederation to the Confederacy, those who called themselves Anti-Federalists and Democrats preferred a “States’ Rights” Democracy, while those who called themselves Federalist, Whigs, and Republicans favored a more aristocratic or Whig-like Republican form of government.
Noting that for a moment both parties came together for a few moments of “good feelings” as Democratic-Republicans, we can say that in any era there is a “against big government” party and a “for big government” party.
Of course, confusingly what party was for what has notably changed in general since the “solid south switch” (although in reality it differs by faction, by wing of a party, and per-issue).
Today the “small government” (at least rhetorically on some issues) party is the Republican party, while in 1830 it was the Democratic Party.
The party names have important meanings, speaking directly to their general stance on government at their formation (speaking to the classical terms democracy, republicanism, and federalism (which all parties technically embraced but had different left-right stances on).
However, with the above said, if you conflate the modern parties with the namesakes of the parties you will be grappling with unnecessary complexity.
Below we explain how to understand the party namesakes and how to compare that to the modern parties in detail.
BOTTOM LINE: The major U.S. political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, are both named after types of governments which were preferred by a given party at its formation. The Federalists, Whigs, then Republicans originally were more aristocratic and favored more “law, order, federal power, central banking, and modernization”, like “a Republic” and the Anti-Federalists and then Democrats favored “states’ rights, liberties, independent banks, and that one old rural south vice allowed for by popular sovereignty and Jeffersonian Democracy”, like “a Democracy”. With that said, our government is “mixed” by design, each parties are both Democratic and Republican (AKA American parties)… and, that aside, so much has changed that the party names only speak to the aspects of the party’s modern ideologies. Today, for the sake of simplicity and brevity, we can say: the modern parties hold “mixed” ideologies with who is more Democratic or Republican differing issue-to-issue. That said, generally speaking, the Republicans are the “Small Government” party of today and the Democratic Party favors Federal Power (as government is necessary to ensure the social safety net and social, environmental, and economic justice). The reasons for using Federal Power have changed with the issues, but the idea that one party is Federalist and the other Anti- never really changed.
TIP: Under George Washington, before the parties became official, those who would later be called Federalists were called “pro-administration” and those who would later be called anti-Federalists and then Democratic-Republicans were called “anti-administration.” The namesakes of the factions/parties speak to the stances of the factions/parties at their formation. If you stood with the more conservative and more pro-government party then you were pro-administration, then Federalist, then National Republican, then Whig, then Republican… and then history gets complex and things changed.
A Summary of the Origin of the Party Names and Their Related Ideologies
Above we covered the gist, below we explore some specifics.
In general, and in terms of the major U.S. political parties at their founding (but not specifically true of the modern parties):
In the west in general, but specifically in America, both “Democrats” and “Republicans” favor a lawful republic in which sovereign people elect representatives (the country was founded on liberal values, the founders were enlightened patriots in support of a popular government, not loyalist in support of George III), it is just that originally the namesake of the Democratic Party denoted err’ing toward the people (and states) and Republican toward the aristocracy (and the federal government).
Neither party actually favored a pure aristocracy or a pure democracy (or oligarchy, anarchy, despotism, timacrachy, or monarchy for that matter; we have a purposefully “mixed government”).
In this sense, essentially every American is both a Democrat and Republican (favoring aspects of the pure liberty and equality that democracy offers as an ideal and the order and lawfulness offered by an aristocracy, in a lawful Republic, in which representatives rule whether they be elected by direct vote or appointed).
With the above in mind, the original party names come from the fact that Democrats used to favor a more direct democracy in which people made public policy decisions directly (or at least people / states had more direct say in government than the central government), while the more elite Republicans preferred a more indirect form of central government in which representatives to acted for the people (for example, in which Senators and Presidents were appointed, not elected).
The Federalists (who went on to become Whigs, who went on to become Republicans) favored a central Federal Republic, the original Anti-Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, and then Democrats tended toward a rural agrarian Confederate Democracy.
The Republican line was more like the Old English Whigs or Tories or French Ancien Régime or Girondists, and the Democratic party line more like the New Whigs or radical Jacobins of France. In any era, in any liberal country, we’ll find a left and right faction, the Democrats have always been “to the left” of the other party on government size, but only gradually over time after the Civl war did they move to the left on some social issues like race as a party.
Adding complexity to the conversation, every big tent always has a number of differing factions and as factions switch parties and new voter issues arise the overall politics of a party and their platforms can change significantly.
Our modern thoughts on slavery make it hard to understand that it was the “left” Democrats who allowed for the Democratic spirited states’ rights and individual liberty to devolve into the sentiment found in the KKK (although Plato predicted such things back when he coined all these terms in the first place in his Republic)… but our modern thoughts shouldn’t get in the way of us properly understanding our political history.
To translate this into Aristotle’s Forms of Government, in modern terms, it looks like this:
|One Ruler||Monarchy <— Just the President.||Despotism <– We all don’t like this.|
|Few Rulers||Aristocracy (loosely speaking, “a Republic”)||Oligarchy <– A little of this (see: America is capitalist).|
|Many Rulers||Democracy||Anarchy <— at home, when breaking no laws (pure liberty).|
TIP: America is a mixed government with Democratic and Republican aspects (what Plato would have called a Kallipolis or Aristotle a Polity; AKA an attempt at an ideal state that is a constitutional / lawful mix of Democracy and Aristocracy). You can place that on the line between Democracy and Aristocracy if you wish, it is a “mixed government” so it doesn’t fully go in one box. It is not a pure Monarchy (see: the American Revolution), and ideally, no nation wants to be purely the less lawful anarchy, oligarchy, or despotism (although to the Greeks oligarchy wasn’t as dirty as a word as we think it today, and some would say America’s capitalist system is clearly somewhat oligarchical; still though the U.S. Constitution is “mixed”). All this to say, “hence, the political party names” Democrats and Republicans. Likewise, the flag is red, white, and blue… so the major parties are (well, red and blue at least). Likewise, the U.S. is a Federal republic with a strong central government, unlike what the states’ rights focused Articles of Confederation provided, hence Federalists, Anti-Federalists, Confederates, and the Union.
Ok, now that we have the gist, the rest of the page is about hammering in these points and adding details.
What Do Democrat and Republican Mean?
As noted above, the major U.S. political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, are both named after types of governments which were preferred by a given party at its formation.
When they were organized in the 1820’s, the Democratic Party favored a populist and democratic republic in which people participated directly and in which states’ rights were favored over federal power. They were formed from old Anti-Federalists who went on to become a faction of Democratic-Republicans.
When the Republican Party was formed in the 1850’s from Federalists, who became Democratic-Republicans, who became Whigs, they supported an elitist and classically conservative Republic in which elected officials acted on the people’s behalf. Sure, those old Republicans used that state power for modernization, which at the time meant going to war over slavery and expansion, but thoughts on slavery aside, they were ultimately representing the Union and using Federal Power (which is more aristocratic and republican than the states’ rights rural Democrats).
Thus, both parties favored Democracy and Republics, but Democrats err’ed toward Democracy and Republicans toward Aristocracy in “the Republic”.
TIP: In the era of Good Feelings there was only one major party, the Democratic-Republicans (the Jeffersonians of the Virginia Dynasty). Here one could find an Adams and Monroe ruling side-by-side, cross voting on issues important to the Federalist and Anti-Federalist ideology. We can learn just as much from this union as we can from the split on either side of that era.
TIP: To be clear, Democracy in early 1800’s America allowed for states’ rights so states could be slave states. Republicans stood for the right to tax and centralize power. Both had pros and cons, and both have roots in American liberalism.
The Original Republican Party Name was a Reference to Republicanism, and the Democratic Party a Reference to Democracy
Specifically, Republican is a reference to a Republican form of government where representatives rule, and Democrat is a reference to a more individual-focused Democracy with more “power to the people.”
Meanwhile, Republicans favored collective rights and central government, more like the Britain’s Constitutional Liberal Monarchy. They were collectivist, elitist, and conservative classical liberals who had the most support in the more urban Northeast.
The Same is True for Federalists, Anti-Federalists, the Union, and the Confederacy
The same is true for Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Federalists favored the Constitution and federal power; Anti-Federalists were, as the name implies, opposed to federal power. They believed in states having power and supported both the Articles of Confederation and the concept of a Confederacy.
At the time of the Civil War, the Federalist aligned with “the Union” since they a strong union. The former-Democratic party, who had evolved from the Anti-Federalists became the Confederacy, which supported a dissolution of the Union. The Anti-Federalists wanted a Confederacy; the Federalists wanted a centralized and strong Union.
As Things Change, the Party Names Become Less Relevant (or at Least Take on New Meaning)
However, over time, after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and Progressive era the parties changed considerably. From Reconstruction onward, the party names began to speak less-and-less to initial ideologies. The parties became increasingly convoluted as platforms and factions changed.
Today, the party names speak little to the current ideologies of the parties. In fact, one could say today, on most issues, Republicans favor states’ rights and individual rights while Democrats favor collective rights and central government. Know-Nothings, Confederates, and the Tea Party all have similar policy stances, and that that position isn’t much different from Jackson and Calhoun (the first Democratic President and VP). As a faction, they stand opposed to Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln. Thus, today’s Republican is, in many ways, an updated Jacksonian Democrat, and a contemporary Democrat leans more toward Lincoln’s beliefs. Of course, there are many differences between 1850 and 2017, so we find elements of both old parties in the modern parties. Consider figures like John McCain and Bernie Sanders. McCain is more classically Republican like Eisenhower while Sanders is more classically Democratic like William Jennings Bryan.
All the complexities of today and yesterday aside, for all our differences, we can see a longstanding unity.
Both Republicanism and Democracy are liberal ideas, both can work together as they do in our Constitution, and both are alternatives to pure Monarchy, Despotism, and Anarchy. See an essay on the types of governments. The best proof of our unity is found in the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans who managed to unite all the factions for a brief period known as “the Era of Good Feelings.”Democracy vs. Republic. The United States is a Constitutional Federal Republic (a federation of states with a Representative Democracy). The Constitution ensures the liberal values of Republicanism, Democracy, and Federalism. Hence the names of the American political parties.
TIP: Today I would say neocons who favor statist policy are “Republican” Meanwhile, those like Bernie Sanders, those who favor deregulation, and those that favor the people’s voice are “Democratic.” This meaning, neither major party is fully Democratic or Republican, each has many factions with “mixed” ideologies. With that said, it is mostly Democrats who support a well-run centralized policy with elite representatives, while Republicans work for deregulation and states’ rights.
The Ideology and Policy of the Democrats and a Republicans Over Time
Although it their core Republicanism and Democracy speak to who rules and votes on laws, from a broader American lens we can say:
- Democratic ideas include the Articles of Confederation, Bill of rights, direct voting on politicians, states’ rights, and individual rights in rural Americas. Example. Will tolerate slavery if it is what the voting population wants it. People, not Kings rule, even when they don’t rule wisely.
- Republican ideas include the Constitution, Electoral College, the federal government, central banking, national trade, and the collective rights in more modernized urban America. Example willing to override popular sovereignty to abolish slavery. Only those who are fit to rule should rule, even if they are aristocrats.
If we forget about slavery, segregation, and Civil War, and think about “the people, not the state, choosing who gets to do what” we can see that the original Democrats advocated individual and states’ rights while the original Republicans preferred elite state control and order. For example, if we examine the end of “the Era of Good Feelings” in which nearly all politicians were Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, we can see a very clear illustration of the difference between being Republican and a Democrat. This is particularly apparent if we examine Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, and the Great Triumvirate (Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina).
- Clay, Adams, and Webster all favored central banks, trade, and central government; they were Hamilton Republicans. They were Federalists, Whigs, National Republicans, and Republicans as Lincoln would be before he became the leader of “the Union.”
- Meanwhile, Jackson, Van Buren, and Calhoun favored states’ and individual’s rights; they would rather “kill the bank” than abolish slavery against the will of the Southern rural states. Calhoun aside, they didn’t favor slavery, but they thought it was worse to tell people what to do. They were Jeffersonian Democrats. They were Anti-Federalists and Democrats and would go on to become the Confederacy.
Putting aside factors like the slavery and the unified Democratic-Republicans, we can see that, in these eras, the anti-Federalists and Democrats were the populist individualists on most issues while the Federalists, Whigs, Republicans were often elite collectivists. We can also see that the Democrat and Republican naming structure makes sense, as it denotes two different types of American liberalism, one collective and one individualist.
When we add slavery back into the equation, the Republicans look more like modern social liberals. They were “Teddy Roosevelt like social liberals” or social liberals who want to use the state to ensure social welfare and justice.
In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, being pro-people was Democratic and liberal, even if it meant accepting slavery for new states. However, as time passed, slavery and segregation became seen as increasingly socially conservative, thus adding complexity to party politics.
Ultimately the Republicans would continue to be Republicans in name and action until Theodore Roosevelt left the party to run as a Progressive in the 1912 election. Then, after Teddy’s exodus, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover reshaped the party into an individual liberty and small government party.
From Hoover on, the old Republicans became in many ways “Democrats.” Likewise, when FDR picked up Roosevelt’s torch and embraced his cousin’s programs, he confirmed the trend that Bryan and Wilson had started; the new Democratic party would from here on favor the type of Republicanism once found in the Republican party.
In truth, there is no clear generalization since America and her parties get more complex over time.
For example, Republicans retained their elite business-minded factions, and they remained elitist toward immigration. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s and Wilson’s pro-business wing of the Democrats continued to grow until the modern day. Still, the changes are evidenced by figures like Henry Wallace, FDR’s party switching VP. Even though the GOP retained an elite business wing, the geographic locations it favored and its stance on some issues has changed over time as the parties around the factions changed.
Today, we can look back on the classical terms as they relate to voting and who rules. Democrats tend to favor a national popular vote, which is more Democratic than the state-based winner-take-all vote that Republicans favor.
The takeaway is this:
- Originally the naming of the parties was generally accurate. The Federalists favored a central government and federation of states. The Anti-Federalists wanted to keep the more Democratic Articles of Confederation. The Confederates wanted a weaker federation; the Union wanted a stronger Union. The Whigs named themselves after the English Whigs; the other party was more like the Radical Whigs or Jacobins. The Republicans favored a Republic; the Democrats favored Jacksonian Democracy.
- Today, essentially the parties have “switched.” Progressives joined the Democratic party and states’ rights Southern liberals went to the Republicans; this was enough to change the parties’ stance. Today Democrats are more like the old Republicans and Republicans more like the Democrats. This is true except when it isn’t, for instance in the electoral college and winner-take-all popular vote by states.
- There was a brief time where there was only one major party, the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. At the end of the day, we are all Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Federalists… anyone who supports the Constitution must concede it, for our founding documents confirm little more than this.