van buren

Life Cycles of Third Parties

The Constitution does not specifically address political parties, as the Founding Fathers idealistically hoped that politics wouldn’t necessarily become partisan in nature. In spite of this, the two-party political system quickly emerged as the de facto structure for American democracy.

The original “two major parties” arose in the 1790s, as ideological differences regarding the proper role of the federal government gave rise to The Federalist Party — which believed in a strong centralized government — and the Democratic-Republican Party, comprised of those with more of a state’s rights bent.

The early centuries of American democracy witnessed a lot of evolution of the “two major parties” with changing moods and party rifts creating new parties, most of which became mere footnotes in the annals of American history, while others survived and ultimately morphed into those parties which dominate political discourse to this day.

While national politics has largely been a two-party affair since the beginning, there have always been challengers seeking to disrupt the status quo. Many times these third parties come and go without leaving much impact. In other instances, third-party candidates made deeply lasting impact on the country by tilting elections in one of the major party candidates. In many ways, the current major parties had their inception as upstart challengers themselves.

Let’s explore some of the now-forgotten third-parties of the 18th century:

1832 Anti-Masonic

The first “third-party” to impact a Presidential election is now mostly forgotten, but the unique single-issue party dubbed the Anti-Masons made a significant impact on the 1832 Presidential election.

As its moniker suggests, the party was dedicated solely — at least at its inception — to the opposition of the Freemasons, a powerful fraternal organization who the Anti-Masons contended were unduly influencing American politics and society.

The unlikely party started in the wake of the disappearance (and probable murder) of an ex-Mason named William Morgan, but despite that inauspicious beginning the Anti-Masonic Party would ultimately make a stamp on the fabric of American politics. They pioneered the process of selecting a presidential candidate via a nominating convention, when 111 delegates from 13 states met in September 1831 to nominate William Wirt for President of the United States. Former President John Quincy Adams was considered for the nomination, but was thought to be too unpopular at the time to compete.

Though the Anti-Masons made their stamp on the political landscape of the 1830s and beyond, they failed to achieve their goals in the 1832 Presidential election. Incumbent Democrat Andrew Jackson coasted to reelection with a 54.23% majority of the popular vote, with National Republican nominee Henry Clay tallying only 37% of the popular vote. The landslide Electoral College victory for Jackson (219 to Clay’s 49) rendered Wirt’s modest 7.8% popular vote showing relatively meaningless.

Failing to swing the presidential election did not spell the end of the Anti-Mason party, however, as they remained an influential player in many state governments, even securing the governorship of Pennsylvania in 1835. The Anti-Masonic Party also sent several members to the US House of Representatives, among them a young assemblyman named Millard Fillmore, who would one day go on to become President.

Meanwhile, the 1832 election marked the end of the party then known as the National Republicans, and by 1836 the newly formed Whig party had emerged as the chief rival to the Democratic Party, a distinction they would hold until the Civil War, when the new Republican Party was formed.

The Anti-Masonic Party opted not to nominate a Presidential Candidate in 1836, and by 1840 the Anti-Masons were co-opted into the Whig Party and ceased to function forevermore.

1848 Free Soil

The political climate in the decades leading up to the Civil War was marked by an unprecedented level of tumult and regional discord. The delicate union between northern and southern states began to crumble amidst tension that primarily stemmed from the question of slavery, and its expansion westward as new states were admitted to the union.

With this turmoil as the backdrop, the single-issue Free-Soil Party was established in 1848, and drew from the anti-slavery wings of both establishment parties at the time, the Democrats and Whigs.

The Free Soil Party’s base was in upstate New York and in other western portions of New England states. Though the party was solely dedicated to the containment of slavery, they distanced themselves from the radical abolitionists (as more vocal anti-slavery groups were known at the time) by focusing less on the moral outrage of slavery’s existence, in favor of a more pragmatic approach to dealing with the most contentious issue in the nation’s history.

The Free Soil Party attracted many moderate northern Democrats, who were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their party’s “soft” stance on the slavery issue, and in the 1848 Presidential the upstart party proved to be a tremendous thorn in the Democratic Party’s side.

The Free Soil Party nominated former President Martin Van Buren for the 1848 Presidency. Van Buren, himself, had been a lifelong member of the Democratic Party but had defected following a rift with party leaders. Though Van Buren likely knew he had little chance to actually win the election, the Free Soil Party syphoned off enough Democratic Party support to throw the election in favor of the Whig candidate, war hero Zachary Taylor.

Democrat Lewis Cass, who had been considered a strong favorite leading up to the election, secured 42.5% of the popular vote to Taylor’s 47.3%, with Van Buren playing the role of the spoiler with just over 10% of the popular vote.

The election of 1848 was the last Presidential victory for the Whig Party, which began crumbling in the 1850s. Though the Free Soil Party elected 16 members to Congress in the late 1840s, the Compromise of 1850 temporarily abated the sectional tensions that had given rise to the party, and it began dissolving.

The tenuous Compromise didn’t last long, however, and the remnants of the Free Soil Party would soon coalesce with other disaffected factions to form the Republican Party.

1856 The Know-Nothings and The Republican Party

Most third parties rise to prominence following a rift in one of the two major parties, and the rapid rise of The Republican Party from third-party upstart to establishment party was made possible because of the seismic rifts caused by slavery and sectionalism in antebellum America.

The Republican Party sprang to life in the wake of Kansas-Nebraska Act, an 1854 law that officially created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and opened their lands to settlement and westward migration.

More crucially, the Kansas-Nebraska Act contained a crucial clause that allowed the question of slavery moving into the territories to be determined by “popular sovereignty”. This had the unintended effect of causing streams of abolitionist and pro-slavery advocates to descend on the new territories in support of their respective causes. The resulting powder keg was quickly ignited and a violent period known as “Bleeding Kansas” began.

With the nation’s eyes turned toward Kansas and Nebraska, the Whig Party already self-imploding, and anti-slavery Democrats in the north questioning their party loyalty, the newly formed Republican Party was in a historical position to seize a significant piece of the national political landscape. Drawing its power base from disaffected Whigs, leftover Free Soilers and antislavery Democrats, the Republican Party had already built a powerful coalition by the 1856 Presidential Election.

There was essentially only one established party in the 1856 Presidential election, as the Whig Party’s disintegration left the Democratic Party, and their nominee James Buchanan, fending off the challenges from two upstart parties, the Republicans and the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party (because of the secret nature of the organization, members were always said to be replying ‘I know nothing’ when asked about party activities).

Like the Republican Party, the Know-Nothings were largely comprised of ex-Whigs; unlike the Republican Party, the Know-Nothings largely ignored the question of slavery and instead focused on the other contentious issues of the era, building their party platform on the basis of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic philosophies.

The Republican Party had emerged almost entirely because of the issue of slavery. But unlike their Free Soil predecessors, the Republican Party quickly expanded their platform beyond the single-issue, and began promoting a more “modernized” future with expansions in railroads, banking and other free-market virtues.

Despite the momentum built up during the party’s first years of existence, Republican Candidate John C Fremont failed in his bid to defeat Democratic challenger James Buchanan in the November 1856 election. Fremont carried 11 states and 33.1%, while Buchanan achieved a victorious plurality with 45.3% of the vote. Millard Fillmore, the former Whig President now with the American/Know-Nothing Party, received 21.5% of the vote, and the Know-Nothings soon dissolved.

There would be no such dissolution of the Republican Party, however, as four years later Abraham Lincoln became the first member of the so-called Grand Old Party (GOP) to become president, in an election that ushered in the American Civil War. By the time the last blood of the war was spilled in 1865, the Republican Party was firmly entrenched as one of the two major parties in American politics, where they have remained to this day.

Learn More

Norwich University takes the utmost pride in the education and curriculum provided to our online students. We encourage all students to take learning beyond the classroom and evaluate the status quo with a constructive eye to help you advance your career as a public servant.

You will have the opportunity to create better communities and improve upon current government systems. A successful career in a government agency or the private sector requires a strong foundation in the history of our political institutions, the election process, and public servant sector. Students enrolling in Norwich University’s online master’s programs have the opportunity to achieve this foundation through their selection of one of the eight concentrations offered as part of their public administration studies.


Political Parties in the United States, About the USA

The Morgan Affair, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

United States Presidential Election of 1832, Encyclopedia Britannica

United States Presidential Election of 1848, Encyclopedia Britannica

United States Presidential Election of 1856, Encyclopedia Britannica

Anti-Masonic Movement, Encyclopedia Britannica

Free-Soil Party, Encyclopedia Britannica

Kansas-Nebraska Act, Encyclopedia Britannica

How the 19th Century Know Nothing Party Reshaped American Politics, Smithsonian Magazine

Learn More Today

Complete the form on the next page to request more information about our online programs.

Request Info