Gentle Readers, I don’t intend today’s post as a commentary on the election come Tuesday. Anybody who reads me for any length of time can figure out who I think you should also support. But I do hope you vote, even if you vote differently. Refraining from exercising your franchise does not make you innocent of any consequences, upon yourself or others. When one doesn’t act to stop something, one has acquiesced in its happening. That’s true no matter how you would cast your ballot.
That said, you often hear that Lincoln ran as a third party candidate or that the Republicans constitute the nation’s only successful third party. These two claims rely on largely the same facts, so I shall treat them together.
When we refer to a third party, we mean a party beyond the big two of the Democrats and Republicans. Every other party counts as a third and just which of the big two holds the top spot can vary from cycle to cycle. The same definition would hold for the nineteenth century, which had its own plethora of small political movements. Lincoln and his generation came of age during the Second Party System, which pitted the Democrats against the Whigs. Most of the time, the Democrats had the upper hand and the Whigs had a remarkably poor run of luck with their presidential candidates. They elected two presidents, both of whom died in office and thus gave way to a vice-president of rather different ideological cast.
Knowing about the Democrats and the Whigs, and knowing Lincoln and many other Republicans as former Whigs, we might assume we have found a third party movement. A closer look reveals something different. The Whig coalition collapses over the course of the early 1850s. They elected a president, Zachary Taylor, in 1848. They tried to elect another, Winfield Scott, in 1852. Come 1856, no one runs for the White House on the Whig ticket.
The end of a movement always involves endless complexities and we can find old school Whigs holding on or trying to revive conservative Whiggery (by no means the only form) in various ways up through 1860. The Republicans themselves thought they had a chance at it during Reconstruction. But as a practical matter, the national party dies at some point between 1854 and 1856. Slavery in the territories killed it. The prolonged crisis over slavery in the Mexican Cession demonstrated to the Lower South that Southern Whigs could not control or restrain their antislavery counterparts in the North, gravely wounding a party that already had a northward tilt. The Kansas-Nebraska Act extended the process to the Upper South, if not quite so completely, and produced the nation’s first lasting and avowedly antislavery party: the Republicans.
The process by which that party came together involves quite a bit more than old Whigs just changing names. Former Democrats came over into the party, as did many supporters of the much more fringe Liberty Party. Together with northern Whigs, generally but not always those more to the left than the rest, they created a party which had plenty of Whiggery in it but also important infusions of Democratic antislavery thought. In the South, most ex-Whigs either quit politics or went into the Democracy, Alexander Stephens’ path, or joined with more conservative Whigs in the Know-Nothing movement in the middle years of the decade. Northern Know-Nothings usually ended up Republicans a bit further down the line. During the transition, a confusing morass of political labels abounded and it seemed for a time that the Know-Nothings might take the Whigs’ place as the nation’s second party. In the end, antislavery proved a more potent platform than nativism.
That leaves us with the Republicans, arguably as of 1856 and definitely by 1860, at least the nation’s second party. That they formed out of fragments of prior coalitions doesn’t materially change that. The GOP contended with the Democrats for control of the nation’s course, possessing as they did sufficient influence to shoulder aside and consign other competitors to marginal status, precisely as the principals in a two-party system do.
Of course, none of those means we should overlook the complexity of the 1860 election. Four men won electoral votes in that race, or rather two each won votes in two parallel races. In the free states, Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas of the northern Democracy. In the slave states, where for the most part Lincoln didn’t even appear on the ballot, John C. Breckinridge competed against John Bell of the Constitutional Union party. If one wants to find third party candidates in the race, then all three of Lincoln’s opponents have a case for them.
Stephen Douglas went to the Democratic National Convention at Charleston, South Carolina as the favorite for the nomination. However, he had turned against the proslavery government in Kansas and split from the national party over the issue. In order to prove his bona fides, southern delegates wanted Douglas to sign on to a slave code for the territories. Douglas refused and they walked out. Attempts to get the southerners back into the room failed, which eventually left a rump to nominate Douglas as arguably the regular Democratic candidate. His supporters didn’t walk out, after all. Douglas came in dead last in the electoral vote, winning only Missouri and part of New Jersey’s slate, a decidedly third party sort of performance. But Douglas did represent the ordinary Democracy and garnered second in the popular vote.
The Democrats who seceded from the party, most of them soon to secede from the Union too, nominated John C. Breckinridge. As a splinter of a still-extant party, Breckinridge’s looks like a third party movement. He came in third in the popular vote, but second in the electoral college. However, Breckinridge also represents the long-dominant constituency within the Democracy. If Douglas came to the polls at the head of the institutionally regular Democracy, then Breckinridge represented the beating heart of the coalition: Southerners committed to slavery’s perpetuation and expansion.
Which leaves us with John Bell. Bell, like Lincoln, hailed from the Whig Party back in the day. His Constitutional Union party aimed to revitalize conservative Whiggery and its platform as an alternative to the slavery question, containing and frustrating agitation on, and functionally against, the issue through a kind of revitalized Second Party System. Bell won his own Tennessee, as well as Virginia and Kentucky. Both of the latter had long Whiggish associations. While Bell would surely have liked to see a president in the mirror come March of 1861, the realistic hope of his movement involved denying both Lincoln and Breckinridge an electoral college majority. That would have thrown the presidency into the House, where his candidacy might seem like the best compromise to keep the Union together by the skin of its teeth rather than burst it asunder. If we consider third parties oriented around disruption of the dominant political system and aimed at reorienting it from its dominant issues, Bell makes the best third party candidate in the race.
Abraham Lincoln ran as and considered himself a Whig until the Whigs expired. He then made himself a Republican and remained with the party until Ford’s Theater. In both cases, he consciously chose a position as a regular, loyal party man for one of the two dominant parties of the era. Of all the men who sought the nation’s highest office in 1860, Lincoln deserves the third party title least of all. If a third party designation means anything useful at all and we care about understanding the past through it, then it must mean the opposite of Lincoln.