Examining Antebellum Elections


What can the statistics tell us about the rise and fall of the second two-party system? How did the breakdown of this system contribute to the onset of the Civil War?


The purpose of this lesson is to examine the antebellum era through the lens of elections and electoral politics.

Although an “era of good feeling” had followed the War of 1812, signs of political dissension were appearing as early as the presidential election of 1824. The issues contested in elections and debated in the legislative sessions from 1824 to 1861 were critical ones: the direction that the economy of the new republic ought to take; the role that federal government should play in that development, territorial expansion, and above all, the status of slavery in the new territories.

This lesson is designed to help students understand the relevance of elections and the two-party system and their connection to historical events. In this particular period in history, the two-party system served to preserve stability in the country for several decades; its demise preceded, and contributed to, the outbreak of the Civil War. Looking at the data derived from elections, students have an opportunity to study our democracy at a time when the contest for power proved momentous.


Students will

  1. Consider the impact of the expansion of suffrage on antebellum party alignment
  2. Examine the important political issues of elections from 1824 to 1861 as well as the outcomes of those elections
  3. Examine the rise of the two major political parties and oppositional parties in antebellum elections and identify the significance of these parties to the growing sectional division in the country


Exercise One

In order to build a historical basis for an analysis of the data and gain a better understanding of the political parties of the antebellum era, students should read the chapters covering the political developments of the first half of the nineteenth century in their textbook.

Using information from a text and the following websites, students should be prepared to discuss the questions below:

Questions for Discussion

  1. Which groups (e.g., business, farm, labor) supported the Whigs and anti-Jacksonians, and which ones supported the Democrats or Jacksonians?
  2. What sections of the country supported each of the parties? What was the potential significance of the geographic distribution of membership in the parties? 

Exercise Two

Using the following websites, as well as the Timeline of Presidential Elections, the class will investigate the issues of the elections from 1824 through 1861, their outcomes, and the positions of each candidate:

  1. Identify the state from which each of the presidents and vice presidents came.
  2. What were the results of the Electoral College vote and the popular vote in each of the ten presidential elections?
  3. Which states cast their electoral votes for the president-elect in each election?
  4. Identify any trends and continuities or changes that you find in the election results.
  5. Identify four major political issues that the nation faced during the period 1824–1861. Can you explain the positions of the North, South, and West on each of these important issues?

Exercise Three

Research the sessions of the House of Representatives and the Senate using information from your text and the following websites:

  1. Looking at the records of the House of Representatives and the Senate, determine which political faction or party dominated each legislative body from the Eighteenth through the Thirty-Sixth Session.
  2. How did the positions of the dominant political party affect the following legislative actions:
    • a. Tariffs of 1824, 1828 (Tariff of Abominations), 1832, and 1833
    • b. Force Bill
    • c. Gag Rule
    • d. Mexican War
    • e. Wilmot Proviso
    • f. Compromise of 1850
    • g. Kansas-Nebraska Act
    • h. Crittenden Compromise


Congressional Debate

Using knowledge of the issues and the individuals elected to Congress, students should choose a legislative session from the antebellum era and a well-known legislator in the session. Prepare to debate the issues of that session, representing the stand of the legislator. Consider using the actual debates in the House and the Senate to verify your arguments. Such issues as the tariffs, the Mexican War, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act produced powerful debates before the House and the Senate.

A particularly helpful source is this compilation of US Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774–1875 from the Library of Congress

Election Campaign

Students should select a presidential campaign from the antebellum era and research its issues and the party and platform of one of its candidates. Each student should create an original campaign for a historic candidate that may include as many elements as desirable, but at a minimum should include a platform, a slogan, poster(s), and a strategy for winning the election.

Helpful sources include


  1. To what extent did the political alignment of the second two-party system affect the ability of the Senate and the House of Representatives to find a basis for compromise on the tariff issue and on questions regarding the expansion of slavery?
  2. To what extent was the collapse of the two-party system responsible for the onset of the Civil War in 1861? Support your answer with specific information.

Application Questions

  1. How did the issues in the election of 1860 compare and contrast to the issues in the elections of 2004, 2008, or 2012?
  2. How did public attitudes during the 1860 election compare to those in the election of 2004, 2008, or 2012?
  3. Given the candidacies of Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, how effective has the two-party system been in responding to current issues?
  4. Do you believe that the United States is likely to maintain a strong two-party system? Explain why or why not.