Third-Party Matters: Politics, Presidents, and Third Parties in American History

Third-Party Matters: Politics, Presidents, and Third Parties in American History

Third-Party Matters: Politics, Presidents, and Third Parties in American History

Third-Party Matters: Politics, Presidents, and Third Parties in American History

Synopsis

In the critical 1860 election, Tennessee slave owner John Bell stood for a newly formed third party, the Constitutional Unionists. Concerned about the future of the Union, he took a moderate position he hoped would tamp down sectional passions. Bell won 40 percent of the vote in the South, belying the belief that all Southerners favored an immediate rush into secession-and demonstrating that third parties have valuable lessons to teach about American history.

Excerpt

The presidential election of 1860 roused my interest in third-party politics. In the most critical political contest in American history, the underlying issue was the future of slavery, but the candidates’ more immediate concern was whether slavery should remain legal in the western territories, which had not been organized for statehood. The four nominees adopted different positions on the question. Abraham Lincoln, the Republican, opposed slavery’s extension westward. The Democrats split into northern and southern factions. Illinois senator Stephen Douglas, the candidate of the northern wing, favored a policy called popular sovereignty, which would allow residents of a territory to decide for themselves, whereas Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky, representing southern interests, insisted that slavery remain legal in the West. Tennessee slave owner John Bell stood for the newly formed third party, the Constitutional Unionists. Bell was concerned about the future of the Union, so he took a moderate position that he hoped would tamp down sectional passions, urging his countrymen to follow the Constitution and the law.

Of course, the winner was Abraham Lincoln. His popular vote was an unimpressive 39.9 percent, but he swept the northern states and overwhelmed the Electoral College, with 180 votes out of 303 or 59 percent. Within three months of election day, by February 1, 1861, seven southern states seceded from the Union and two months later, in April, the war was on. This realized Bell’s worst fears. His neglected candidacy caught my eye because so little has been written about him and his party. I wondered just who was this man? What did his party want to achieve, and how many votes did he . . .

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