The 19th-Century Origins of Modern Political Parties: The Unwanted Emergence of Party-Based Politics

Susan E Scarrow. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. Sage Publications, 2006.

Party-based politics was one of the transforming inventions of the 19th century. Of course, parties were not unknown before this time, but it was not until the 19th century that they emerged as central organizing features in many countries’ politics. Before this, parties were loose groupings at best, linked by support for a particular leader or political idea. Often they were equated with ‘factions’, unwanted divisions that endangered the national order. Yet despite these widespread and deep-rooted anti-party biases, during the 19th century parties took on a well-defined shape both inside and outside of the legislatures in many countries.

These changes in political parties coincided with, and stimulated, a much wider transformation of politics. Across Europe and North America the 19th century witnessed a broad movement towards mass electoral politics. As the electorate grew, so too did the seeming inevitability of party-organized electoral competition. Because of this, the presence of multiple, competing, political parties gradually came to be considered one of the hallmarks of a democratic regime: as E. E. Schattschneider (1942: 1) would put it in the middle of the 20th century, ‘political parties created democracy, and modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties’. Along with this shift came new definitions that highlighted electoral aspirations as the most important feature which distinguished political parties from other groups seeking to influence public policy. In the succinct words of Anthony Downs (1957: 25), a party is ‘a team seeking to control the governing apparatus by gaining office in a duly constituted election’. Though electoral competition came to be seen as a core activity for parties, in more elaborate functionalist descriptions parties did much more than this. They performed multiple tasks, including, according to one list, selecting official personnel, formulating public policies, conducting and criticizing government, providing political education, and intermediating between individuals and government (Merriam, 1923: 391). All this was a far cry from Edmund Burke’s late 18th century definition, in which a party was ‘a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed’ (Burke, 1889: 530).

The best way to understand how this transformation occurred, and how party-based politics came to be a central feature of modern democratic practice, is to look to political developments in the 19th century.

The Conceptual Heritage: Are all Parties Factions?

As suggested above, political parties as we know them today have their roots in distinctly inhospitable intellectual soil. Versions of the word ‘party’, derived from the Latin partir (to divide), were in use in all the major European languages by the 18th century. At this stage the term was most usually applied in a negative sense, interchangeably with the term ‘faction’, to describe divisions around ideas or personal interests which threatened peaceful government. The label ‘party’ was not confined to the realm of secular politics: it also was applied to rival religious factions, whether within the Catholic Church or as a designation for protestant sects (Sartori, 1976: 5-12; Beyme, 1978: 677-701). This broad usage of the party label lingered, particularly in continental Europe.

The slow emergence of a secular and non-pejorative definition of parties is evident in political practice as well as theory. Through the 18th century and well into the 19th century, most of those involved in what we would now describe as political parties themselves rejected the label: in fact, many claimed the moral high ground of pursuing the best path for the nation, while deriding their opponents for being ‘partisan’. Such a reaction was seen perhaps most strongly in the French Revolution. Influenced by Rousseau’s ideal of the General Will, and his attack on associations that rallied only a part of the nation, rival groups staked claims to speak for all the people. Ironically, though the Revolutionary groupings claimed to be above party, later French commentators who rejected the Revolution viewed these groups as prime exemplars of partisan excesses, so that in France one of the enduring legacies of the Revolution was an anti-party bias across the political spectrum (Ignazi, 1996: 282-6).

Though this strand of French thought was perhaps extreme in its anti-partisanship, much of the 19th century’s intellectual anti-party heritage was rooted in the long-standing equation of parties with factions, that is, with groups pursuing private ends at the cost of the broader public welfare. Factions were by definition immoderate and self-serving, and factional rivalry threatened public order. Thus, Lord Bolingbroke, an English politician and writer, warned in 1738 against the dangers of parties, arguing that they were qualitatively little different from factions, because all pursued particular ends instead of the good of the whole state: ‘party is a political evil, and faction is the worst of all parties’ (Bolingbroke, 1881: 219). A few years later, in 1742, David Hume gave a somewhat more sympathetic account of political parties, but he nonetheless compared them with dangerous weeds that are difficult to extirpate (see Hume, 1953: 77-84). Fifty years later, in 1796, Burke went further than Hume’s cautious defense of parties, but his willingness to see some types of parties as compatible with public welfare was by no means the norm for this period. More typical of the lingering suspicion of parties were the sentiments expressed in the new American republic, where luminaries such as President Washington warned in 1796 against the ‘baneful effects of the spirit of party’ (see Washington, 1896: 218).

Such prejudices notwithstanding, political parties developed rapidly in the new American republic (Aldrich, 1995: 68-96). And here as elsewhere, anti-party attitudes gradually changed as experience with political parties grew. By the middle of the 19th century political life in many countries had begun to be defined in terms of partisan struggles. Reflecting this shift, 19th-century writing about political parties shows a similar move away from questions about whether countries were better off without parties at all, towards a discussion of party types and party features. As this sequence suggests, views of parties tended to be reactive, shaped by experiences with parties rather than pointing the way towards changes in political practice. Thus, to understand the development of party scholarship, we need some understanding of when and why parties themselves began to assume the characteristics of modern parties.

Why Parties?

The newfound prominence of political parties in much of 19th-century Europe seems clearly linked to two distinct but interrelated developments: the transfer of political power to legislatures, and the expansion of the electorate. Many authors have emphasized the temporal and causal priority of parliamentarization in this process: ‘First there is the creation of parliamentary groups, then the appearance of electoral committees, and finally the establishment of a permanent connection between these two elements’ (Duverger, 1954: xxiv). Sartori described a similar sequence: legislatures became more responsible, then parties became more important, then party competition led parties to try to gain an electoral edge by enfranchising new, and presumably grateful, voters. Finally, the need to mobilize a larger electorate stimulated the parties to develop more formal organizations (Sartori, 1976: 23). The sequential models proposed by Duverger and Sartori apply well to Britain, but they seem less useful for understanding countries such as Denmark, where large expansions of the franchise preceded the emergence of legislative parties. Their model also ignores the extent to which parties in some countries were important in winning more responsibility for the legislature—in some instances, parliamentarization was as much a product as a cause of party growth (Svåsand, 1980). These gaps may be the reason others have emphasized the causal priority of the expanding franchise in stimulating the emergence of parties in the modern, that is, electoral, sense of the word. As Epstein (1980: 23) put it most concisely, ‘the enlargement of the suffrage accounts for the development of modern parties’.

Table 2.1 Steps toward institutional democratization in western Europe


Suffrage for lower house exceeds 10% of population over 19 years old


Universal manhood suffrage


Austria 1919 1873 1907
Belgium 1831 1894 1894/1919
Denmark 1901 1849 1849
Finland 1917 1907 1907
France 1875 1848 1919
Germany 1919 1871 1871
Italy 1861 1882 1913/1919
Netherlands 1868 1888 1918
Sweden 1917 1875 1911
Switzerland 1848 1848 1848
United Kingdom 1832-35 1869 1918

Sources: a Kohl, 1983: 396; b Bartolini, 2000: 582-5

In any case, it is unlikely that a single model can explain why parties emerged when they did, because, as Table 2.1 illustrates for some countries in western Europe, the sequence of changes in the legislative and electoral realms varied broadly. Countries can be roughly divided into three categories: those where the shift of decision-making to legislatures (‘parliamentarization’) preceded the creation of a large electorate, those where legislative sovereignty increased only after the creation of a large electorate, and those where the two changes occurred more or less simultaneously. These patterns are clearly key to any model that hopes to explain why recognizably modern, electorally-oriented, political parties emerged where and when they did. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to pinpoint the year when modern parties began to play a role in each country’s political life. Though Duverger (1954: xxxix) writes figuratively about ‘the birth certificate of a party’, in many cases these birthdates are hard to establish, particularly for the earliest parties. The lack of such firm dates is one reason why it is difficult definitively to link these two institutional changes with the timing of party emergence. Still, it seems evident that differences in institutional change affected both the timing and the particulars of party development. They also affected perceptions about the need for parties.

For instance, in the United States, both representative government and a broad franchise were present at the country’s independence, and national political parties developed in the wake of both. In contrast, in Britain the superiority of the elected chamber of Parliament was established by 1832, and soon thereafter parties began organizing daily activity within the House of Commons (Cox, 1987). However, it was not until the election of 1885 that more than half of British adult males had the right to vote (Williams and Ramsden, 1990: 285). Thus, in Britain parties emerged as established parliamentary groupings before they became organized forces to contest elections (McKenzie, 1955). But contra Duverger and Sartori, a sequence like that in Britain did not inevitably lead to electorally-oriented parties with extra-parliamentary organization. This was amply illustrated by experiences in Italy. In this newly created country the parliament had constitutionally-guaranteed dominance from the time of the country’s independence in 1860 (indeed, this supremacy stretched back to 1848 in Piedmont, the constitutional monarchy which became the nucleus of the new Italian state). Yet the franchise remained limited in Italy, and parties had little incentive to build up extra-parliamentary electoral organizations. Politicians also felt little incentive to form binding ties within the legislature, and they valued independence from party as an honorable course (Carstairs, 1980: 149-50). In the three countries named above, ‘parliamentarization’ occurred comparatively early, but the development of parties differed greatly.

Outside Switzerland, most continental European powers retained strong monarchies and weak legislatures well into the middle of the 19th century. These systems were shaken by the revolutions of 1848, but, with the exception of Piedmont, the democratic constitutions of 1848-49 were quickly replaced by more autocratic ones which discouraged popular political activity. Because of this, for much of the 19th century political observers in these countries might describe national political disputes in partisan terms, but there was no need for these ‘partisans’ to form strong associational links: legislators seldom voted, and governments did not get their mandate from legislative coalitions. As a result, late parliamentarization may have affected not only the nature of the parties which developed (legislative links were more loosely organized), but also their number (in countries where parties did not form governments, there were fewer incentives to work together).

In many places, democratization of the suffrage outpaced the transfer of responsibility to the legislature, so that countries like Germany and France had manhood suffrage long before their elected bodies received a full mandate to govern. In Germany and Austria this sequence led to the development of active extra-parliamentary organizing even before the representative assemblies gained complete authority. However, the same did not happen in Second Empire France, where broad suffrage elections preceded parliamentarization, but where partisan organizing was almost entirely prohibited. This brings up a third, and often overlooked, set of institutional constraints that were important determinants of the timing of political party emergence: laws governing the right to free assembly, free association, and free speech.

Why not Parties?

When trying to explain why parties emerged when and where they did, it is as important to consider the institutional obstacles to party building as to look at the institutional incentives for organized competition. These obstacles can easily be overlooked by those who study party emergence in the Anglo-American realms, because they played such a minor role in these countries. Yet one of the things which made the United States and Great Britain unusual in the first half of the 19th century was the extent to which their citizens enjoyed the right to form political organizations and to express opposition to government policies. Press freedom and the right to free assembly were enshrined in the US Constitution, though even here press freedom (freedom from prior censorship) initially was viewed as being compatible with public action against those deemed to be disseminating views which threatened public order (Levy, 1985). This interpretation reflected the prevailing view in British Common Law. British censorship laws were abolished at the end of the 17th century, but well into the mid-19th century strict libel laws hampered the publication of remarks which might be construed as attacks on the government or on those who governed (Harling, 2001). But British laws did allow groups to organize to petition Parliament to present their grievances. Thus, for instance, while the violence associated with the Chartist protests of the 1830s was illegal, the petition itself was legitimate and was voted on by the Parliament (though soundly rejected). At a time when the electorate was very small, the Chartist protests did not lead to the foundation of a political party, but this episode demonstrates the comparatively wide scope of freedom of political association that Britons enjoyed by the first part of the 19th century.

The case was sharply different on much of the European continent. Here, many countries maintained laws throughout the 19th century that were designed to inhibit the development of organized political groupings and to stifle views hostile to those of the government. In central Europe, the brief period of relative freedom after Napoleon’s defeat was ended by the 1819 promulgation of the Karlsbad Decrees, which committed all states in the German Federation to establish political censorship and other restrictions on political activities. In 1831 these common measures were extended to forbid all political gatherings, and in 1832 it became illegal to form a political organization (Beyme, 1978: 707). These laws severely limited political opposition, but they did not entirely prevent the articulation of liberal and nationalist positions. Such ideas found their place in books (very long documents were exempt from censorship), in private associations, and, to a lesser extent, in the legislatures of some of the German states (Blackbourn, 1997: 125). In much of Germany direct press censorship was ended by 1850, but even after this governments continued using other legal tools to harass publishers of unsympathetic newspapers (Ruud, 1979: 525). The combined result of these restrictions was that schools of ‘partisan’ thought emerged within these countries well in advance of the appearance of organized parties.

Across continental Europe, prohibitions against political organizing were briefly lifted after the revolutions of 1848-49, but they were quickly reimposed once these revolutions failed. Such strictures gradually relaxed, but in many countries their remnants lingered well into the 20th century. For instance, until 1899 German laws prevented all cross-regional links between party associations, and until 1908 local political associations in most German states had to notify local authorities whenever they held public meetings: women and minors were legally excluded from all such gatherings. Germany also had another type of legal obstacle to party development: laws intended to thwart the development of specific parties. Most notably, from 1878 to 1890, Germany’s anti-socialist laws banned socialist or communist publications, and prohibited public meetings to promote socialist and communist aims, though they did allow Social Democratic candidates to compete in Reichstag elections and to take their seats if they won (Fairbairn, 1996; Turk, 1990; Ruud, 1979: 525).

Legal measures in France also inhibited party formation for most of the 19th century. Laws that limited the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of association were legacies of the reaction to the first French Revolution. These laws were carried forward into the 19th century, becoming progressively more restrictive. For instance, at the beginning of the 19th century political gatherings of fewer than 20 people were allowed to assemble without a permit, and some political organizers tried to create networks based on small cells. But even this type of organizational effort was thwarted after 1834, when laws against political gatherings were extended to cover groups of all sizes (Huard, 1996: 77). Many restrictions against political organization continued for some years after the regime democratized in 1871, although they were no longer so strictly enforced. They were not entirely abolished until 1901, when a new law of association gave parties the same standing as other organizations (Huard, 1996). In addition, through the end of the Second Empire governments continued to use post-publication legal procedures to harass or shut down newspapers expressing views hostile to the government. Restrictions on press freedom were not lifted until 1881 (Ruud, 1979: 524). The combination of these restrictions did not entirely stifle partisan organization in the Second Empire and the early Third Republic, but they certainly discouraged efforts to build permanent structures for mobilizing political support.

This brief review makes clear that the emergence of modern parties was not just a function of changing organizational incentives. It also was influenced by the strength of organizational disincentives: in many places party development was retarded by laws deliberately designed to stifle political opinions and political organizations, particularly those that might threaten the status quo.

Why these Particular Parties?

In addition to trying to explain the overall emergence of modern parties, party scholars also have been interested in explaining why certain types of parties developed when and where they did. Klaus von Beyme gives one of the best brief overviews of the development of different ‘party families’, and he offers considerations about the interaction between the development of various party types, noting for example that ‘Radical parties emerged mainly in those countries in which the Socialist movement developed into a powerful factor rather late’ (1985: 43), and that Conservative parties have usually been ‘the second party to develop, the organizational response to the challenge of Liberalism and Radicalism’ (1985: 46). But as intriguing as his observations are, they beg the question of why the earliest parties emerged. One type of answer looks to sociological factors to explain why and when certain party types appeared. From this perspective, parties are entrepreneurs which try to exploit existing social divisions, transforming social identities into political ones. Thus, in Seymour Lipset’s and Stein Rokkan’s (1967) oft-cited account of cleavage-based party formation, different types of parties were the products of successive social revolutions that brought new conflicts to the fore.

More recent investigations of the development of particular party families have been less concerned with general explanations and more concerned with the reasons why similar social conditions did not always produce similar party formations. For instance, in separate studies Stathis Kalyvas (1996) and Carolyn Warner (2000) have sought to explain why Christian Democrats flourished in countries such as Belgium and Italy but not in France. Stefano Bartolini (2000) has examined the factors in addition to the industrialization of the labor force which explain the varying timing and success of left parties. These accounts do not reject the importance of societal preconditions, but they have tended to stress the importance of decisions by individual politicians, and of institutional settings which made it more or less easy for new parties to compete. They reject (as did Lipset and Rokkan) a simple mechanical model whereby cleavages are automatically translated into parties, and focus instead on the process by which political entrepreneurs more or less successfully mobilized these cleavages and created new political identities.

Political Parties as Objects of Analysis

The study of political parties developed much more slowly than the emergence of parties themselves. Reviews of the American and European party literature of the 19th century clearly show how little is written about political parties until after the first third of the century (see Scarrow, 2003). This doubtless reflects the limited experiences with political parties up to that time, but it also reflects the very slow recognition of parties as a legitimate part of the governing process. Thus, in the United States, where recognizably modern parties developed comparatively early, prior to the 1840s few analysts paid much attention to parties as institutions (though particular parties figured more prominently in political polemics). Alexis de Tocqueville, the perceptive French observer of Jacksonian America, was one of the earliest commentators to devote an extended reflection to the role of the parties in American political life. He saw American parties through the lens of French anti-party prejudices, and hence argued that the American parties founded on selfish and even petty interests were more conducive to public welfare than parties based on high principles, because the latter are less willing to compromise (Tocqueville, 1839).

Tocqueville’s comments on the desirability of different types of parties were typical of one of the most prominent strands of writing about parties prior to the 1840s. Around this time, however, the emphasis in the literature started to shift, particularly in countries which were beginning to acquire more experience with party politics.

In Britain, for instance, changes in political practice in the wake of the Reform Act of 1832 prompted some sharp debates about the newfound prominence of parties in parliamentary life. Some observers were profoundly disturbed by the growing expectation of party loyalty within governing cabinets, and of party-line voting within Parliament, viewing these changes as an unwise retreat from the Burkean ideal of parties as uncoerced coalitions united by shared principles. One such critic was Lord Brougham, a politician who served as a Whig minister during the 1830s, but who split with his colleagues because he prized his political independence. Brougham (1839: 300) denounced the increasingly partisan politics of the 1830s as ‘this most anomalous state of things,—this arrangement of political affairs which systematically excludes at least one-half of the great men of each age from their country’s service, and devotes both classes infinitely more to maintaining a conflict with one another than to furthering the general good’. Although other British analysts shared Brougham’s regret over the disappearing role for the independent legislator, by mid-century most Anglo-Saxon commentators tended to accept party discipline as a necessary cost of parliamentary government. One of the most prominent advocates of this view was Henry George, Earl Grey the son of a prime minister and himself a member of several cabinets. In a treatise that was quickly translated into several languages he argued that ‘Parliamentary Government is essentially a government by party’, and that cohesive parties led to better government even if some of this cohesion was ‘purchased’ by the favors which ministers could offer to their supporters (Grey 1858). A few years later, Walter Bagehot (1867) amplified on this theme of the centrality of cohesive parties in parliamentary government.

Even in continental Europe, where parties and legislatures were much less developed than their Anglo-American counterparts, there is also evidence of an increased awareness of party politics by the second third of the 19th century. Some of their earliest concerns were taxonomical efforts to categorize parties conceived of as schools of political thought. One of the earliest and most elaborate of these taxonomies was developed by Friedrich Roehmer (1844), whose observation of Swiss politics led him to develop a very elaborate classification based on the four ages of man. Roehmer’s categories were not widely adopted—they were in fact painstakingly dismissed in articles like that published a few years later in the Staatslexicon (Abt, 1848)—but many agreed with Roehmer’s central premise that there were cross-national similarities in the varieties of available political alternatives.

Britain’s comparatively early experience with party-based parliamentary government was on the minds of many across the continent who sought to establish more constitutional forms of government. Some saw Britain as a model worth emulating, such as the Austrian translator of Earl Grey’s treatise on parliamentary government (Grey 1863) and the German legal scholar Robert von Mohl (1872). Yet defenders of more autocratic systems tended to disparage party-based government and the party discipline this seemed to demand. For instance, in 1871, a few months after the formation of the new German empire, the influential German historian Heinrich von Treitschke pointedly rejected the British example, arguing that Germany benefited from having a constitutional monarch who was ‘above the parties’ (Treitschke, 1903). Four decades later, on the eve of World War I, German authors continued to debate the desirability of party participation in public life. While the liberal theorist Friedrich Naumann still found it necessary to defend parties as being a necessary form of contemporary political life, with educational and creative value (see Naumann, 1964: 214), others voiced concern about the partiality of parties, and repeated Treitschke’s argument that constitutional monarchy was a good form of government precisely because monarchy transcended partisan divisions (Hasbach, 1912: 586).

American observers also responded to British accounts of party-based parliamentary life. Perhaps most famously, the young Woodrow Wilson (1885) was inspired by his studies of British politics to argue that American government could be improved by the advent of ‘real party government’, under which there would be a more secure link between Congress and the Executive. Others emphasized the special role of parties in the ethnically diverse and politically divided American federation, stressing parties’ beneficial role as a ‘nationalizing influence’ (Ford, 1898). These responses to the British experience were the origins of what would become a long-running debate among US academics about the feasibility, and desirability, of responsible party government in the United States (see Ranney 1954).

The 1890s saw the emergence of another concern that would form the basis for much subsequent party scholarship: writings on parties as extra-legislative organizations. A great deal of this commentary was fuelled by the perception that party organizations were becoming too powerful and well organized, with the prime example of this being the

‘machines’ that dominated politics in many American cities at the time. One of the most enduring of these works was Moisei Ostrogorski’s (1902) comparison of party organizations in Britain and the United States. Ostrogorksi was a French-educated Russian whose suspicion of the benefits of organized political parties was shared by other French scholars of the period (Quagliariello, 1996). Others also shared his interest in parties’ organizational activities. For instance in Germany, where Social Democratic organization had inspired other parties to strengthen their own extra-parliamentary associations, Robert Michels and Max Weber were soon to write their now classic comments on the relations between parties’ professional organizers and their rank-and-file supporters (Michels, 1959; Weber, 1982). But it was observers of US politics who wrote the most on this subject, undoubtedly because at the beginning of the 20th century the US parties had the strongest organizations.

The roots of the strong American party organizations extended back to the Jacksonian era, when the Democratic Party dominated national politics for much of the 1830s. This party shocked many contemporary observers by its unabashed use of public resources for party ends, but patronage politics quickly emerged as the new norm. From the Jacksonian era through the end of the 19th century and beyond, American parties often treated electoral victory as a license to distribute government jobs and other public assets to their supporters. Reactions against such intermingling of public and private interest became an increasingly prominent strain in 19th-century American political debates.

These attacks came to the fore in the final decade of the century, when ‘good government’ reformers and Populists became ever more strident in denouncing the evils of existing political parties and in promoting institutional innovations like referendums that would enable ‘the people’ to bypass the parties. Academic observers also were troubled by party corruption, but they were less willing to attack the existence of parties. By this time many saw parties as essential to the functioning of the US political system (Beard, 1910; Macy 1904). Though very few defended the party machines, some did argue that the spoils of office might be a necessary price to pay for having parties which were strong enough to coordinate politics within the institutionally and geographically fragmented United States (Goodnow, 1900; see also Ford, 1898).


This chapter has tried to show how the roots of modern parties, and of modern party scholarship, are to be found in the 19th century. The emergence of party-organized politics was an unanticipated, and even unwanted, side-effect of the liberalization and democratization of politics in that century. Although countries took varied routes to the modern party era, by the beginning of the 20th century recognizably modern parties had begun to play an important role in many places, structuring electoral choices, coordinating legislative and executive action, mobilizing the electorate, and recruiting candidates. The study of political parties developed largely in the wake of these changes. The attitude towards parties changed as well. For much of the 19th century, many who wrote about political parties approvingly quoted Burke’s late-18th-century definition, according to which parties were groups united in pursuit of the national interest. By the end of the 19th century, however, some analysts had begun to question Burke’s emphasis on parties’ pursuit of the national interest, arguing that competing parties served the national welfare precisely because they pursued particular (as opposed to national) interests: as the American Anson Morse (1896: 80) put it, ‘the true end of party … is, in ordinary times, to promote not the general interest, but the interest of a class, a section or some one of the many groups of citizens which are to be found in every state’ This kind of emerging acceptance of the inevitability and necessity of party competition laid the groundwork for a view of parties that was to become dominant in much of the 20th century, a pluralist view that saw parties as beneficial mediators of individual and group demands. It is only by appreciating the views of parties that preceded this pluralist conception that we can understand how big a shift this new vision of politics represented.