LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

timeline of political parties, 1820 to 1860

Political parties in the United States, 1820–1860. Click to zoom in. A PDF version (8.5"×14") is also available. (Diagram courtesy of LEARN NC. More about the diagram)

Political parties have shifted many times in 220 years of national politics. Even when parties have kept the same names for long periods, their issues, principles, supporters, and regional support all change over time.

This chart shows the evolution of political party systems in the U.S. from 1820 to 1860. Each “party system” is a roughly defined time period in which two major political parties, each with fairly consistent supporters and beliefs, dominated the political scene.

The colored lines represent organized parties that had a significant impact on national politics, electing members of Congress or receiving more than 1% of the vote for President. Where the lines merge and split, parties split or party affiliations changed dramatically in a short period of time. Presidential candidates are also listed for each party. The winner of each presidential election is designated with a bulls-eye.

Political parties in the United States, 1820–1860
Download a printable version of the timeline.
Open as PDF (363 KB, 1 page)

Second party system (1828–1854)

The second party system emerged from a split within the Democratic-Republican Party. The two main factions were led by Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812 and Indian wars, and Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Jackson’s followers formed the Democratic Party, while Clay’s formed the Whig Party. Although the parties were fairly evenly divided in Congress, the Whigs elected only two Presidents, both of whom died in office.

Democrats gradually came to support many Whig policies, such as industrialization and railroads, draining Whig support. The issue of slavery and its expansion into the western territories territories finally split the Whigs in the early 1850s.

During this period, for the first time, most voters identified strongly with one party or another. The first party nominating conventions were held, and the parties used parades and other events to rally voters. Some 80 percent of eligible voters turned out at the polls. Several “third parties” were also active in this period, electing representatives to Congress and keeping issues such as slavery and immigration in the public eye.

The second party system broke down in the 1850s over the issue of slavery. The Whig Party split early in the decade, and its members joined the Democratic Party, the American or “Know-Nothing” Party (which lasted only a few years), or (in the north and west) the new Republican Party. Some northern Democrats also joined the new Republican Party. The South, by 1860, was almost exclusively Democratic.


  • Organized around Andrew Jackson in the 1820s. During Jackson’s Presidency, supported a strong President.
  • Believed in small government and states’ rights.
  • Economically conservative. Opposed banks, especially the National Bank, and paper money. Believed the tariff was a tax on the poor to help the rich.
  • Pushed for westward expansion.
  • Support came especially from farmers, rural areas, and the frontier. Most urban immigrants, especially Catholics, also voted Democratic.


  • Believed that Congress should be stronger than the President. Saw Jackson’s power as dangerous, and took the name “Whig” after Revolutionary Patriots who had fought against monarchical rule.
  • To promote industry, supported a tariff (tax) on imported manufactured goods.
  • Wanted “modernization” of the economy and society. Supported banks, education, moral reform, and “internal improvements” such as railroads.
  • Support came from cities and market towns. Most conservative Protestants were Whigs, as were nearly all wealthy men.

Free Soil

  • Opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories, but were not in favor of abolition. Ran on the slogan “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men.”
  • Exclusively a northern and western party. Drew support from former Whigs and some northern Democrats.
  • Emerged after the Mexican War but was quickly replaced by the Republican Party.

American (Know-Nothing)

  • Opposed immigration, especially of Catholics.
  • Originally worked in secret, and when asked about their activities, replied “I know nothing.”
  • In the 1850s, as the American Party, elected some representatives to Congress.


  • Formed from former Whigs, Free-Soilers, and a few northern Democrats who opposed the expansion of slavery.
  • Adopted much of the Whig platform, supporting industry and urban growth, education, and division of western lands into homesteads for farmers.
  • Strongly nationalist, supporting unity and expansion of national interests.
  • Opposed expansion of slavery into the western territories, but did not call for abolition.
  • More likely to support moral reform, including Prohibition.
  • Supported by a coalition of northern businessmen, skilled craftsmen, professionals, commercial farmers, and African Americans.