The Second Party System

The Second Party System

The Second Party System, consisting largely of the Democrats and Whigs, contributed to rising levels of voter investment and partisanship.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the origins, development, and key characteristics of the Second Party System

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Second Party System arose in 1828, with increasing levels of voter interest and partisan identification leading into the presidential election.
  • The Second Party System is the first and only party system in which the two major parties remained on about equal footing in every region.
  • The System reflected and shaped the political, social, economic, and cultural currents of the Jacksonian Era until succeeded by the Third Party System in 1854.

Key Terms

  • Jacksonian Democracy: The political movement toward greater democracy for the common man typified by American politician, Andrew Jackson, and his supporters.
  • Second Party System: A term used by historians and political scientists to name the political framework existing in the United States from about 1828 to 1854.
  • Whig Party: A political group of the United States during the era of Jacksonian democracy; considered integral to the Second Party System and operating from the early 1830s to the mid-1850s, it was formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson.


A turning point in American political history occurred in 1828,when Andrew Jackson was elected over the incumbent John Quincy Adams. While democratic practices had been in ascendance since 1800, the year also saw the further unfolding of a democratic spirit in the United States. Supporters of Jackson called themselves Democrats or the Democracy, giving birth to the Democratic Party and thus inaugurating the Second Party System. The Second Party System existed in the United States from about 1828 to 1854.

The American political system underwent fundamental change after 1820 under the rubric of Jacksonian democracy. While Jackson himself did not initiate the changes, he came to symbolize many of the changes that took place. For the first time, politics assumed a central role in voters' lives. Before then, deference to upper-class elites and general indifference often had characterized local politics across the country. The suffrage laws were not completely at fault; rather, few men were interested in politics before 1828, and fewer still voted or became engaged because politics did not seem important.

Changes followed the psychological shock of the panic of 1819 and the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson, who had a charismatic personality and controversial policies. The 1828 election year was characterized by rising levels of voter interest as demonstrated by Election Day turnout, rallies, increasingly partisan newspapers, and a higher degree of voter loyalty to their party. By 1840, campaigns were increasingly characterized by appeals to the common man, with elections generating higher voter participation than they previously had. The democratization of American politics was well underway.

Major Players of the Second Party System

The major parties during this time included the Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson, and the Whig Party, assembled by Henry Clay from the National Republicans and other opponents of Jackson. Martin Van Buren, John C. Calhoun, James K. Polk, Lewis Cass, and Stephen Douglas are among the best known Democratic figures of this period. Prominent Whig politicians included Daniel Webster, William H. Seward, and Thurlow Weed.

The Whig Party operated from the early 1830s to the mid-1850s and was formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party. In particular, the Whigs supported the supremacy of Congress over the presidency and favored a program of modernization and economic protectionism.

Minor parties included the Anti-Masonic Party, which was an important innovator from 1827 to 1834 and flourished in only those states with a weak second party; the abolitionist Liberty Party of the 1840s; and the antislavery Free Soil Party, active in the 1848 and 1852 elections. The Second Party System reflected and shaped the political, social, economic, and cultural currents of the Jacksonian Era until succeeded by the Third Party System in 1854.


According to historian Richard P. McCormick, who is is well-known for his scholarship on the Second Party System, the framework was formed over a 15-year period that varied by state, and it was produced by leaders trying to win the presidency with contenders building their own national coalitions. Regional effects strongly influenced its developments, with the Adams forces strongest in New England, for example, and the Jacksonians strongest in the Southwest.

This period marked the first time two-party politics were extended to the South and West, both of which had previously been one-party regions. The Second Party System was also the first, and remains the only, party system in which the two major parties remained on about equal footing in every region. The same two parties appeared in every state and contested both electoral votes and state offices. Because of this regional balance, the Second Party System was vulnerable to region-specific issues such as slavery.

The Election of 1828 and the Character Issue

The election of 1828 between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson saw a large number of character attacks and increased partisanship.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the circumstances leading up to the election of 1828 and the role character played in the election

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The election of 1828 was a rematch between the incumbent president, John Quincy Adams, and the runner-up in the 1824 election, Andrew Jackson.
  • The election of 1828 was an important turning point in American politics; some historians and political scientists argue that it introduced the prototype for modern American politics and the two-party system that we know today.
  • The election is also notable for the personal attacks that occurred between the opposing candidates, who had a long and controversial political history together, dating back to the hotly contested election of 1824.
  • Jackson won an overwhelming victory over Adams, capturing 56 percent of the popular vote and 68 percent of the electoral vote and bringing the Democratic Party into power.

Key Terms

  • Second Party System: A term used by historians and political scientists to describe the political system existing in the United States from about 1828 to 1854.
  • corrupt bargain: A term referring to three historic incidents in American history in which political agreement was determined by congressional or presidential actions that many viewed to be corrupt from different standpoints.

Introduction: The Election of 1828

The U.S. presidential election of 1828 featured a rematch between John Quincy Adams, the incumbent president, and Andrew Jackson, the runner-up in the 1824 election. With no other major candidates, Jackson and his chief ally, Martin Van Buren, consolidated their bases in the South and New York and easily defeated Adams. The Democratic Party derived its strength from the existing supporters of Jackson and their coalition with the supporters of Crawford (the Old Republicans ) and Vice President Calhoun.

The election marked the rise of Jacksonian democracy on the national stage and the transition from the First Party System, of which Jeffersonian democracy was characteristic, to the Second Party System. Historians debate the significance of the election, with many arguing that it marked the beginning of modern American politics and the formation of the two-party system.


The nomination of the Democratic Party was Andrew Jackson, former senator from Tennessee. Jackson accepted the incumbent vice president, John C. Calhoun, as his running mate. Jackson's supporters called themselves "Democrats," thus marking the evolution of Jefferson's Democratic- Republican Party into the modern Democratic Party.

The National Republican Party nomination was John Quincy Adams (of Massachusetts), the incumbent president of the United States. Adams accepted Secretary of the Treasury Richard Rush of Pennsylvania as his vice presidential running mate. Adams supporters called themselves "National Republicans," and were antecedents of the Whig Party of the 1830s and, later, the Republican Party.

General Election


The 1828 campaign differed significantly from earlier presidential contests because of the party organization that promoted Andrew Jackson. Jackson and his supporters reminded voters of the “corrupt bargain” of 1824. They framed it as the work of a small group of political elites, who, acting in a self-serving manner and ignoring the will of the majority, decided who would lead the nation. From Nashville, Tennessee, the Jackson campaign organized supporters around the nation through editorials in partisan newspapers and other publications. Pro-Jackson newspapers heralded the “hero of New Orleans” while denouncing Adams. Though he did not wage an election campaign filled with public appearances, Jackson did give one major campaign speech in New Orleans on January 8, the anniversary of the defeat of the British in 1815. He also engaged in rounds of discussion with politicians who came to his home, the Hermitage, in Nashville.

At the local level, Jackson’s supporters worked to bring in as many new voters as possible. Rallies, parades, and other rituals further broadcast the message that Jackson represented the common man, who stood in contrast to the corrupt elite backing Adams and Clay. Democratic organizations called "Hickory Clubs," a tribute to Jackson’s nickname, "Old Hickory," also worked tirelessly to ensure his election.

The campaign was marked by an impressive amount of mudslinging. Jackson was attacked for his marriage, his court martial and execution of deserters, his massacres of American Indian villages, and his habit of dueling. It was charged that Adams, while serving as minister to Russia, had surrendered an American servant girl to the appetites of the czar. Adams also was accused of using public funds to buy gambling devices for the presidential residence; however, further investigation failed to substantiate these claims.


The selection of electors began on October 31, 1828, with elections in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and ended on November 13 with elections in North Carolina. The Electoral College met on December 3.

Adams won the New England states, New Jersey, and Delaware. In addition, Adams picked up Maryland. Jackson won everything else, however, capturing 56 percent of the popular vote and 68 percent of the electoral vote and resulting in an overwhelming victory over Adams. As in 1800, when Jefferson had won over the Federalist incumbent, John Adams, the presidency passed to a new political party, the Democrats. The election was the climax of several decades of expanding democracy in the United States and the end of the older politics of deference.


Electoral College votes in the election of 1828: This map illustrates the Electoral College votes for Jackson and Adams for each state. Jackson won the majority by a landslide, with Adams only winning the New England states, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.

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