In addition to his other duties, the President of the United States is also the leader of his political party. A number of our Presidents have changed parties, either because their current party died out, or because of opportunity or changing philosophies. History textbooks mention only the party they led as President, not offering much information on their contributions as members or leaders of other parties. These differences have often had the most dramatic effect on our history and are worth further examination.
The first to change political allegiance was James Madison. Madison was one of the original Federalists. As a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he authored much of the document and was called “The Father of the Constitution.” During the ratification fight, he co-authored the Federalist Papers, a series of essays supporting the new Constitution and encouraging people to vote in favor of ratification. Yet, as the new government began operation, Madison became alarmed at what he considered the unhealthy growth of federal power. He joined the Anti-Federalists, which later became the Democratic-Republican Party. Madison became the leader of the Democratic-Republicans in Congress, and a chief lieutenant to Thomas Jefferson. He followed Jefferson in the White House. Still, Madison may not really belong on this list, since he never actually changed parties, but rather changed his position as the first parties formed.
John Quincy Adams might therefore be the first to have actually belonged to more than one official political party. In fact, John Quincy Adams holds the record for the largest number of parties joined by any President. He began his career in his father’s party, the Federalists. As a Federalist, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. While there, he voted in favor of Jefferson’s Embargo Act. This act of political courage, doing what he felt was good for the country, was also political suicide. The Embargo Act hurt his New England state, and he was not re-elected.
Adams then joined the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson, the party that had defeated his father for re-election in 1800. In this party, Adams served as minister to several nations, and then Secretary of State under President James Monroe. When Monroe retired, Adams won the closely contested election to succeed him, being elected by the House of Representatives when no one won a majority in the Electoral College.
The Democratic-Republican Party split into the Democratic Party and the National Republican Party. Adams and his followers formed the National Republican Party, but were defeated for re-election at the end of his first term. Two years later, John Quincy Adams became the only President to date to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives after his Presidency ended. He was first elected as a National Republican.
When the National Republican Party finally died out, Adams then became a Whig. He remained a Whig for the rest of his life, earning the title “Old Man Eloquent” for his vocal and vigorous opposition to slavery and dying in his beloved House of Representatives following a stroke. His membership in four political parties remains the record for a President.
Another President to change Parties was Martin Van Buren. He began his career as a Democratic-Republican, and was a state senator in New York and state attorney general. When the party broke up, he joined the Democrats, working for Andrew Jackson. As a Democrat, he was elected U.S. Senator, governor of New York, and was then appointed Secretary of State. Jackson then chose him for Vice President, and he followed Jackson in the White House as a Democrat. But Van Buren was defeated for re-election in 1840, and failed to win the nomination in 1844. In 1848, he ran for President on the Free Soil Party ticket, winning no states but taking enough Democratic votes in his home state of New York to throw it to the Whigs, and giving them the election.
John Tyler was a life-long Democrat who broke with the Jacksonian faction of his party. This made him a perfect Vice Presidential candidate for the new Whig Party. Unfortunately for the Whigs, the President died and Tyler became President. Although elected as a Whig, he was still a life-long Democrat at heart, and opposed the Whig legislative program. After his second veto of the Whig Bank Bill, they expelled him from the Party. At the end of his term, Tyler began a re-election campaign as an Independent Democratic candidate, but withdrew in favor of the regular Democratic candidate who was eventually elected.
Millard Fillmore started his career as an Anti-Mason, serving in the New York legislature. He helped to found the Whig Party in New York, and served Congress as a Whig. While in the House of Representatives, he was the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, making him one of the most powerful politicians in the country. He was the successful Whig candidate for Vice President in 1848, and succeeded to the Presidency when President Taylor died in 1850. He failed to get the nomination to a full term of his own in 1852 because of his enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1856, he ran as the American Party, or Know-Nothing, candidate for President, but carried only Maryland. (He was also the nominal Whig candidate in that election, but the Whig Party was only a shell of a party by that time, and died out shortly thereafter.)
Abraham Lincoln began his career as a Whig. He served in the Illinois state legislature, and served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives where he opposed the Mexican War. When the Whig Party dissolved, he joined the new Republican Party, and was elected President in 1860 as a Republican. In 1864, he ran for re-election on the National Union Party ticket. The National Union Party was a temporary wartime coalition of the Republicans and pro-war Democrats. Lincoln was successfully re-elected, but was assassinated shortly after his second term began.
The man who succeeded Lincoln was Vice President Andrew Johnson. Johnson had been a life-long Democrat who as Senator had refused to secede with his state, Tennessee, and remained loyal to the Union and supported the war effort. As military governor of Tennessee during the war, he rehabilitated the state which saved it from the worst of Reconstruction. His war record led to his selection as Vice President on the coalition National Union ticket. When he became President and tried to carry out Lincoln’s moderate Reconstruction policies, he was impeached and missed being removed from office by one vote. At the end of his term, neither major party would nominate him. Later, just before he died, he was re-elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat.
Teddy Roosevelt was a popular Republican President. He retired at the end of his second term, but four years later tried to regain the Republican nomination. When he failed, he formed the Bull Moose Party, officially called the Progressive Party, and ran for re-election. He split the regular Republican vote, allowing the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to win with a plurality of the popular vote. This was the only time in our history that a third party candidate has come in second ahead of one of the major party candidates.
More recently, Ronald Reagan began as a Democrat, but by 1964 was supporting Barry Goldwater and making television commercials for him. In 1966, he was elected Republican governor of California, and in 1980 and 1984 won the Presidential race as a Republican.
Although he never won the race for President, this list would not be complete without a mention of Strom Thurmond, Senator from South Carolina. As a states rights conservative Democrat, he first was elected governor of South Carolina, then Senator from South Carolina. In 1948, he opposed Democratic candidate Truman as the candidate of the States Rights Democratic Party, known as the Dixiecrats. Although he won four states and 39 electoral votes, he did not affect the outcome of the election. During the Nixon Administration, he switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, and today is the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate. As President Pro Tem, he is third in line for the Presidency, behind the Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.