19th Century US History

A look at the American Political Parties of the 1850s



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The 1850's were a period of significant social and political upheaval in the United States, which led to the destruction of the previously existing two party system of government. Much of this political unrest was brought about by the changing views regarding the major social issues of the day, these being related to slavery, immigration and temperance. This actually resulted in a situation where, during the decade being discussed, there were six political parties in existence at some stage during the decade.

Democratic Party

The democrats are the oldest party in American politics. Originally founded by Thomas Jefferson and others as the Democratic-Republican Party, it dropped the republican name in 1840. In the 1850's, the democrats based their ideology upon the rights of the workers and individual states, together with firm allegiance to the constitution. They opposed the power of wealth and the formation of a National Bank.

Liberty Party

The Liberty, or Libertarian Party, was formed by those in favour of the abolition of slavery and attracted votes from former Whigs' supporters (see below) during the pursuit of this aim. Although James Bimey ran for the Presidency of the US on this abortionist ticket in 1844, he only managed to achieve around 2% of the vote. However, despite their lack of success in terms of national office, the party has weathered the test of time by evolving in tune with political and social changes, and is still in existence today.

Whigs Party

The Whigs came into being in 1934 following disagreement with the way in which the Demographic-Republican party politics was developing, particularly in respect of the question of slavery. Thus, it was not surprising to find that the party's main supporters were drawn from the large commercial organisations of the time, particularly those who had an interest in slavery operations, both in the north and south of the country. However, during the 1850', the Whigs themselves became divided over the issue, with many leaving the party to join the Republican's and others. Following the fragmenting effects of these divisions, the party was dissolved in 1852.

Free Soil Party

Whilst stopping short of outright abolition of slavery, the Free Soil party became popular because of its demands that the current extension of this abhorent trade should not be allowed. This position saw their Presidential candidate of 1848, Martin Van Buren, attract ten percent of the popular vote. However, when the party refused to agree to the introduction of a compromise bill in 1850, this popularity waned, with support falling to half its previous levels during the 1852 elections.

American Party

Perhaps the American Party was the one which most stood out from the others in terms of policy. In essence, this party was the forerunner of what would now be known as a nationalist party, because of their opposition to immigration and temperance. The popularity of the American Party views led to their Presidential candidate, Millard Fillmore, securing 21% of the election votes in 1856, although this was still not enough to defeat the Democrats. Following this election the party was absorbed within the Republican movement.

Republican Party

In reality, the Republican Party was formed to create the only credible alternative to the Democrats. Its success was based upon the fact that the Party managed to combine many of the common views from fragments of other parties into one cohesive policy. Running on a policy of free labour, although again stopping short of abolition of current slavery, the Republicans managed to achieve a consensus of opinion that convinced large numbers of US citizens. Although John C Friedmont was the first Presidential candidate to stand for the republicans, the party is best known for the term that Abraham Lincoln spent in the White House. From this position, the party has grown to become the only serious competition to the Democrats.

Whilst in other nations, politics has a more varied flavour with a wider range of parties vying for leadership and involved in the formation of coalitions, apart from the 1850's period of political history in the US, as outlined above, the two party division seems to have become the dominant focus of the county's social and political culture.

More about this author: Paul Lines

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