The incessant TV commercials, debates, mailings and headlines make it clear there's an election looming.

We have grown accustomed not only to the two-party system but also to the two major political parties in the United States today.

The Democratic Party, in one form or another, has been around since the early 1800s. The Republicans have been trying to elect a president every four years since 1856.

With the current parties around for so long, some might assume things have been the same since the country was founded. Of course, that's not the case.

In the earliest years of our country, our first president, George Washington, cautioned the country in his farewell address to avoid "faction" in our politics. The father of our country had spent most of his adult life trying to break us free from British rule, while also trying to bring together a large group of people who often did not agree about the major issues affecting their lives. Those issues included states' rights, the role of commerce and industry in a new nation, and the institution of chattel slavery.

Washington strongly believed that if we did not hold ourselves together by what united us and ignore the desire to break into factions or groups, we eventually would find ourselves in conflict one with another.

Of course, that is exactly what happened.

The temptation to come together with people who shared our views proved to be strong and soon our politics became the politics of caucus.

A caucus is nothing more than a gathering of people supporting a particular political party or movement. The word has passed into our common conversation and has come to mean a number of different things: a gathering of people of the same party, the same social or economic movement or the same set of beliefs.

If there was a time when the caucus was king in American politics, that time was probably in the 1820s and 1830s in middle America. The previous coalitions of Federalists, such as Washington, had seen their Anti-Federalist opponents fade away only to be replaced by the Democratic Republicans of Thomas Jefferson and his supporters. By the 1820s, the coalition of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe had led to the Era of Good Feelings, with no major parties in conflict one with another.

But that illusion of harmony soon would come to an end. The rise of Jacksonian Democracy and its standard bearer, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, would be complemented by the rise of the Whig Party, exemplified in the person of Henry Clay of Kentucky. By the early 1830s, caucus politics was beginning to emerge once again, and the battleground of these diverse movement would be the American Midwest.

Clay was a frequent visitor to Columbus as an attorney and often stayed with friends and clients when he came to argue a case in the courts of the capital city. As far as I know, Andrew Jackson never spent any significant amount of time in Columbus, but he had a lot of friends who did.

In 1831, a recent arrival from New England to Columbus, Isaac Appleton Jewett, wrote home and described in some detail the political landscape of the state capital:

"The dislike of 'caucuses' is so violent in this section as almost to verge on abhorrence. The 'independent electors' have been taught to avoid them as political monsters. I have never seen such violent personal importunity in the solicitation of voters as was presented at the polls at our last election. The fact is if the candidate for office do not humbly and anxiously beg for the support of the people, they immediately conclude he does not desire it and will extend their aid to a more eager, not to say more obsequious candidate."

All this soon would change. The arrival of the Ohio Canal and the National Road would double the population of the capital, and the borough of Columbus by 1834 would be the city of Columbus. With that growth and prosperity came caucus politics.

By the late 1830s, Whigs and Democrats would mobilize huge numbers of supporters for massive rallies in support of their candidates. In an era before radio, movies, television, the internet or professional athletics, participation in politics became the greatest spectator sport in the U.S.

Even with all of the sporting and entertainment diversions of our own day, some might say it still is.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.