The First Third Political Party

Thurlow Weed. Photograph by: Mathew Brady.

In the late 1820s, a third political party, the Antimasons, were formed, which would change the course of American political history.


The Antimasons were formed as a result of the events surrounding the arrest, and disappearance, of William Morgan. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 266-67. Morgan was held in Canandaigua, New York jail on a two-dollar debt when he learned that someone had paid his bail and he was released into a crowd of strangers with a waiting carriage. Id. He was never seen alive again. Id. at 267. The investigation into his disappearance was hindered by Freemasons, at every juncture, ultimately discrediting Freemasonry and creating a backlash throughout American society. Id.

This backlash culminated in the formation of an Antimasonic movement. President John Quincy Adams and Thurlow Weed, then President Adams’ New York campaign manager, showed support for the Antimasons. Id. at 268 citing Michael Holt, Political Parties and American Political Development (Baton Rouge, 1992, 90-94; Donald Ratcliffe, “Antimasonry and Partisanship in Greater New England,” JER 15 (1995): 199-239.

The Antimasons “became the first third party in American history.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 268. The political party sought to restore “moral order and transparent democracy, defending the little people against a secret cabal with ties to machine politics.” Id. As Masonry was popular in cities, Antimasons were prominent in rural areas, who were suspicious of metropolitan and “upper-class values.” Id. at 269. Notably, many of the same individuals who gravitated toward Antimasonry would eventually move into antislavery positions in subsequent years. Id.

In 1831, the “Antimasons would be the first political party to hold a national convention.” Id. As this seemed a more democratic way of selecting a party’s nominee, “the other political parties quickly adopted it.” Id. Often, Martin Van Buren gets credited with the creation of the modern political party, however, his rivals, the Antimasons, made this important contribution to the American political system. Id. at 269-70. While Van Buren encouraged “organization and patronage,” the Antimasons contributed the combination of “popular participation with moral passion.” Id. at 270.

The Antimasons would be the precursor to the Republican Party that would not emerge until the 1850s and in some ways, the spiritual predecessor to the progressives of the early Twentieth Century. Id.

The formation of the first third political party perhaps was solely symptomatic of the times. However, it represented a change in American politics. The parties, henceforth, would meet in national conventions to select their nominees, fostering a sense of party unity and a theater for politics.

Further, it shows the dynamic nature of politics in the early-to-mid-1800s, as just one event, the mystery surrounding William Morgan, led to the formation of a vast, nationwide political party. Naturally, it formed in response to the pervasive Freemason influence throughout the country, but it would be difficult to imagine the formation of a new political party with such influence in modern America.

This raises a question worth reflection: should Americans be comfortable and satisfied with the two major political parties, given that they have effectively dominated politics for such an extended period of time? Is more dynamism needed, to keep the political discourse healthy and active? While there are no clear answers to these questions, they are valuable questions to ask oneself generally but especially so in an election year.

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