The Evolving Political Parties of the 1850s

Panoramic View of Washington, DC in 1856. Courtesy: E. Sachse & Co.

The Democratic Party and Whig Party were the dominant political parties from the early 1830s up until the mid-1850s. Both were institutions in national politics despite not having a coherent national organization by cobbling together a diverse group of states to win elections. While the Democrats had a more populist agenda, the Whigs were more focused on pursuing industrialization and development of the country. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 226. While the Democratic Party would survive to the present day, the Whig Party would not survive the mid-1850s, not as a result of its own ineptness but because of the changing political landscape of that era.

Whigs and Democrats were not separated so much by their ideology as much as their ability to build consensus sufficient to enact their policies. See id. Rather than take principled, firm positions on issues that confronted the public, both parties tended to either evade the issue or ambiguously speak to it for fear of alienating any portion of the electorate. By way of example, when slavery became a public issue, Whigs and Democrats alike sensed its divisiveness and “vigorously resisted its introduction into politics.” Id. at 227. Nonetheless, by the 1840s, slavery had become a political issue, and a Free Soil movement had emerged seeking to harness antislavery sentiment. See id. at 228-29. The movement blossomed, and the Whigs and Democrats relished not having the antislavery pressures boil up in their own parties. See id. at 229. When the Free Soilers got a paltry 6.6% showing in the Election of 1852, the party collapsed, and the Whigs and Democrats were left to absorb the defeated former Free Soilers. See id.

Illustration of Whig Daniel Webster Addressing Boston Crowd.

As slavery became an issue that divided the country between the North and the South, the Whigs could not unify around one candidate. For example, in the Whig convention in the Election of 1852, Millard Fillmore received 133 votes, 115 of which came from slave states, and Winfield Scott received 132, 128 of which came from free states. See id. at 233. After 52 rounds of balloting, Scott took the nomination in one of the most lukewarm nominating conventions in the history of American politics. In the election, he was unable to garner support in the South sufficient to win the election. Meanwhile, the Democrat, Franklin Pierce, enjoyed widespread support throughout the country, taking advantage of established fondness for preceding Democrats Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and James Polk. See id. at 235. Prominent Whigs Henry Clay and Daniel Webster attracted a certain part of the electorate, as they were cherished for their oratorical abilities, but even they paled in comparison to the more fervent followers of the former Democratic presidents.

Winfield Scott.

With the dissolution of the Free Soilers, both the Democratic Party and Whig Party factionalized based on the levels of support or opposition to slavery. Much of that factionalizing was simply an illustration of the sectionalism already prevalent throughout the country. In the Northeast, the Whigs enjoyed more vigorous support, with Massachusetts and Vermont voting for the Whig presidential candidate in each election from 1836 through 1852. Id. at 237 citing Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case (Princeton, 1961), 177-79; see also Wilfred E. Binkley, American Political Parties: Their Natural History (2nd ed.; New York, 1945) 163-65. Overall, however, the Whig Party’s loose national organization precluded it from thriving even after a defeat like the one in the Election of 1852. Meanwhile, the Democrats had more support in the South, after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 238. In the 1854 midterm elections, the southern wing of the Democratic Party came to dominate party politics, as 58 of the 83 Democratic Representatives in the House were from the South. See id. at 239. Antislavery sentiment in the North began strengthening the unity in the Whig Party, as individuals like William Seward and Abraham Lincoln were beginning to shape the antislavery rhetoric in New York and Illinois respectively. See id. at 241.

Political Cartoon Depicting Tension Between Irish and German Immigrants.

A contributing factor to the changing political parties in the early 1850s was mass immigration from Europe. From 1845 to 1854, America experienced the largest influx of immigrants before or since as 2,939,000 immigrants came into the country, a 14.5% increase in the overall population. See id. at 241 citing Historical Statistics of the United States; Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration (Chicago, 1960) 92-116. The tension that emerged between Protestants and Catholics boiled over as religious tolerance did not extend far outside of being Protestant. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 243. The Democratic Party attracted a majority of immigrants as it was the party that was “more cosmopolitan, less sectarian, and more concerned about the welfare of ordinary people.” Id. at 244. One reaction to the influx of immigrants was the development of nativist sentiments in some segments of the country.

The Whigs and Democrats were far from the only political parties in American political discourse in the early 1850s, however. Following the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the organization of antislavery forces came a new party, in some areas known as the Fusion Party, in other areas known as the Anti-Nebraska Party, and ultimately rallied under the name the Republican Party. See id. at 248. A less antislavery party emanated from the Whig Party called the Know-Nothing Party as they took a vow of secrecy and when questioned about the organization, they responded, “I know nothing.” Id. Other smaller factions emerged during this time as well, reflecting the wide variation of beliefs of the era. Those factions included the “Know-Somethings (antislavery nativists), Maine Lawites, Temperance men, Rum Democrats, Silver Gray Whigs, Hindoos, Hard Shell Democrats, Soft Shells, Half Shells, Adopted Citizens, and assorted others.” Id. at 249.

All of the factions and parties grappled with antislavery and nativist sentiments. Abraham Lincoln, during this time, said:

Abraham Lincoln.

“How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? . . . As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘All men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.'” Lincoln to Joshua Speed, Aug. 24, 1855, Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols.; New Brunswick, N.J., 1953), II, 320-23.

Even ardent antislavery activists had to cater toward nativist sentiment, often reluctantly as they disagreed with the principles. The sentiment was prevalent throughout American society and difficult for responsive politicians to ignore.

The Election of 1856 brought the tensions in the political parties to a head, with the Know-Nothing Party putting forward Millard Fillmore as candidate for president, which would prove to be an unsuccessful bid. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 255-56. However, the Know-Nothing Party served as an intermediary between the Whig Party era and the Republican Party era, at least partially because the Know-Nothings so closely embraced nativism. See id. at 258. The Republicans focused on being antislavery, which in retrospect proved to be the more significant, lasting issue. Id. at 259. It was the paramount issue in the Election of 1856. Both Republicans and Know-Nothings were disappointed with the Election of 1856, as the Democrat James Buchanan was victorious. Id. A former representative, Senator, Secretary of State, and diplomat, Buchanan was an experienced politician but unlikely to depart from the conventional thinking in political discourse at the time. See id. at 260.

Illustration of the Polls in New York City on Election Day 1856.

While John Fremont, the Republican candidate, took much of the North, Buchanan won the South, giving him the victory for the Democrats. See id. at 265. Buchanan, the Democrat, built a coalition of support as he advocated preserving the Union. He wrote, “I consider that all incidental questions are comparatively of little importance . . . when compared with the grand and appalling issue of Union or Disunion. . . . In this region, the battle is fought mainly on this issue.” Buchanan to Nahum Capen, Aug. 27, 1856, in George Ticknor Curtis, Life of James Buchanan (2 vols.; New York, 1883), II, 180-81.

The evolution of the political parties in the early-to-mid-1850s shaped the political landscape in a way that facilitated the issue of slavery becoming the preeminent issue in the country. The Whig Party was the most obvious casualty from this evolution as its competitors outmaneuvered it in embracing and advocating the policies that more Americans valued. Out of the ashes of the Whig Party emerged the Republican Party, which in a matter of a few short years would elevate Lincoln to win an election on the eve of the Civil War.

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