When did political parties emerge?

Figure 1. The Gracchi brothers were seen as early reformers and supporters of the Populares.

We usually think that today to have a democratic state there need to be political parties. While that is largely true for most democracies today, this was not the case earlier in history when elections and democratic systems developed. Political parties likely developed in England in the 17th century as the country began to transition into a country led by a prime minister. In the United States, political parties were not envisioned when the Constitution was developed, but they soon emerged once controversies on the nature and development of government became evident.

Origins of Political Parties

In his writings, Thucydides from ancient Athens suggests that there may have been political factions or groups allied and associated in the way they operated within the Athenian political system. They were never called political parties, where politics was often seen more about the individual than larger platforms held in common as a party system would. Nevertheless, alliances and factions would emerge within an assembly which could create something akin to a temporary party where groups of people would work together at least on some issues, usually working for or against different rivals.[1]

In the late Roman Republic, two political parties existed, which were the Populares (Figure 1) and Optimates, which have been seen as representing the interests of the plebeians and Senate respectively. The Senate held the interests of the upper classes, including the patricians, while the Populares championed the causes of the common classes through the plebeian tribune. Although these can be considered perhaps the first political parties to have emerged, it is unclear if they are comparable to our political parties in the modern sense, as they may have lacked clear political platforms and the parties in ancient Rome usually held control of one part of the governing bodies of the Republic (i.e., the Optimates in the Senate and the Populares in the plebeian tribune). Class generally defined which party you belonged to rather than ideals, although often class also did influence political ideals.[2]

Although in the Medieval period, elections and legislators did exist, most of these were driven by family or class loyalties. Something more similar to our modern political parties then began to emerge only in the late 17th century in England. The emergence linked back to the English Civil War and the turbulent time that followed with the temporary dissolution of the monarchy. Feelings of having a monarch split English society in the 17th century. After the restoration of the monarch, and then the later Glorious Revolution in 1688, political factions within parliament began to emerge into more coherent ideals. Namely, this revolved around the idea of how much power the monarch should have, where eventually a constitutional monarchy with more limited authority emerged.

The Whigs and the Tories were the first two factions that emerged that we can call true parties as they had fairly developed platforms, where the Whigs supported a more limited monarch and the Tories supported a stronger monarch. Initially, these were limited areas where the parties focused their energies but this soon changed as the parties began to develop more coherent political ideals on different issues such as foreign adventures, although this often involved some role in relation to the monarch. Both parties depended on relatively wealthy and aristocratic classes at first, but in the 18th century, the Whigs began to depend also on emerging merchant classes. For the first 50 years of the two-party system that emerged in parliament, the Whigs were in power.[3]

Throughout out the first half of the 18th century, political parties were relatively limited in their platforms. It was in the period when the Whigs were out of power, during the 1760s, that Edmund Burke, who was a Whig and political philosopher, developed more coherent concepts that laid the foundation for modern political parties. He stated that a political party represented "joint endeavours (in regarding) the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed." This allowed factions within the Whigs to emerge that held these ideals as a way to unify its members, which coalesced into a more unified Whig party in the 1780s around Charles Fox, the leader of the party. The Tories also then began to emerge around similar principals, under the leadership of William Pitt the Younger, for unifying their party but with different ideals. The Whigs began to become major supporters of Adam Smith's liberal economic policies, as the middle class began to influence Whig interests and also became more active in politics.[4]

Development in the United States

Figure 2. Edmund Burke philosophically shaped what became the concept behind modern political parties in democratic states.

In the United States, similar disputes over the nature and power of leadership led to the eventual emergence of parties. The debate as to how much power the federal government should have relative to state rights became the core issue that led to the emergence of the two-party system in the United States. The Federalists Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, emerged as the first political party in the United States at around 1789, which championed the idea of strong federal government with power over the states and investment and development of manufacturing and trade. This included developing a central bank for the United States.

The Democratic-Republican Party soon emerged as its opposition in 1792, although they were usually called the Republican Party (historians though use Democratic-Republican to distinguish from modern Republicans), with the party led by Thomas Jefferson. As the name suggests, their main ideas were Republicanism that opposed a strong, central federalists policy. The party opposed Hamilton's financial support for a healthy, Central Bank of the United States. Its support for state rights became perhaps the most well-known platform, which also became the main issue that eventually sparked the Civil War. The Federalists only lasted until about 1824, while the Democratic-Republican party dissolved in 1825.

Both the main modern parties were influenced by the ideals by both these parties, although neither of them can claim descent from these two parties in a direct manner since members of these parties began to join other very different parties after their collapse.[5]

The Federalists shaped much of US politics and political development in the 1790s. During this time, they began to try to reestablish relations with Great Britain and develop a robust fiscal banking policy. Their policies did help shape a stronger central government, that has lasted to this day through their legacy, and presidency than some other Revolutionaries had hoped for in interpreting the Constitution. They also were instrumental in the selection of John Marshal as head of the Supreme Court, that helped define the United States legal system to this day. The Federalists mostly collapsed after the early 1800s, with the election of 1800 being a critical turning point, mainly because they were seen as too elitist and there were genuine fears they would make the United States more similar to a monarchy. This led to the Democratic-Republicans to dominate politics until the early 1820s.

During the first two decades of the 19th century, the United States became, arguably, less central in its approach to government, which led to divergence among states in governing and law. Perhaps the most obvious was the issue of slavery, but other laws also regarding taxes, building, and other issues were often very different from state to state. This has also led to a legacy today, as state laws can be quite different in the United States relative to most Western countries.[6]

Modern Political Parties

As revolutionary ideas spread in the late 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, the emerging republics and nation-state began to develop concepts of political parties. In Germany, in the mid 19th century, parties emerged around those that supported different classes and the role of the central government that emerged later in the 19th century. In France, one of the legacies is the concept of left- versus right-wing political parties. The concept of left and right being political philosophies was developed in the French Revolution, when members of the National Assembly in the 1789 sat on the right or left. The monarchists and eventually constitution supporters were on the right and the more "innovators" in government ideas and concepts sat on the left. This continued into the Legislative Assembly in 1791, when also the concept of "centrist" emerged for those who sat in the middle supporting some measures of a strong constitutional form of government and also ideals that led to more individual freedoms.[7]

In the United States, the modern political parties first emerged in 1828 with the founding of the Democratic Party, which is now considered the world's oldest living voter-based party. The Republican Party was founded in 1854. The issues these parties support have varied drastically, but initially, the Democratic Party was most associated with defending slavery, as many of its early members derived from the Democratic-Republicans who supported state rights. The Republican party emerged, in part, as it opposed slavery and became strong in the northern states.[8]


Ideas behind political parties do have ancient origins, but ancient political parties, such as from Rome, were very different from modern parties. Class was initially the main divide in political support. In later parties in the 17th century, generally the wealthy supported different parties but during the 18th-century parties became broader in support and began to be associated with economic and other policies. In the United States, political parties mostly collapsed after a short period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Revolutions and emergence of nation-states in Europe during the late 18th and 19th centuries led to the spread of political parties in Western states.


  1. For more on Thucydides and political parties, see: Crane, G. (1998). Thucydides and the ancient simplicity: the limits of political realism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. For more on Roman politics during the late Republic and political system, see: Taylor, L. R. (1996). Party politics in the age of Caesar (Nachdr.). Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press.
  3. For more on how the Whigs and Tories developed, see: Du Rivage, J. (2017). Revolution against empire: taxes, politics, and the origins of American independence. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  4. For more on Burke's influence and evolution of the Whigs and Tories, see: Adams, I. (1998). Ideology and politics in Britain today. Manchester ; New York : New York: Manchester University Press ; Distributed exclusively in the USA by St. Martin’s Press, pg. 68.
  5. For more on the Federalists and Democratic-Republican, see: Payan, G. (2004). The federalists and anti-federalists: how and why political parties were formed in young America. New York: Rosen Pub. Group.
  6. For more on the fall of the Federalists and then rise and fall of the Democratic-Republicans, see: Larson, E. J. (2008). A magnificent catastrophe: the tumultuous election of 1800, America’s first presidential campaign (1st Free Press trade pbk. ed). New York: Free Press.
  7. For more on how the French Revolution influenced political party development and European politics, see: Klaits, J., Haltzel, M. H., Wilson Center, & Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Eds.). (2002). The global ramifications of the French Revolution . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. For more on the emergence of the modern political parties in the United States, see: Berkin, C. (Ed.). (2012). Making America: a history of the United States (6th ed). Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.