As filming begins on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic, modern Americans should recall that our 16th president was the only chief executive to lead a third party to power.
To be sure, some students of history might quibble with calling the Republicans of 1860 a third party. By the time voters went to the polls in 1860, the Republicans were almost certainly the most powerful political organization in America.
That said, the GOP had only been in existence for six years. Beginning with widespread Northern revulsion at the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which erased the historic line excluding slavery from the territories, the Republican Party sprang rapidly into being. In state after state, anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs abandoned lifelong rivalries to form “fusion” or “anti-Nebraska” parties. Within two years, these local efforts had coalesced as a new national party.
But for several years, the Republicans were clearly a third party. While the Whigs imploded, their position as America’s second party was filled by the American Party — the so-called Know Nothings — whose anti-immigrant stance appealed to citizens looking for a distraction from endless political warfare over slavery.
The Know-Nothings could not last. Like today’s tea party movement, their weakness lay in a refusal to address the most important issue confronting the nation. Voters could be temporarily distracted by a negative agenda, but the real problem facing the country – slavery — would not go away. The Know-Nothings vanished as quickly as they had appeared, leaving the field clear for a new party to challenge the Democrats.
So, if the Republicans of 1860 were no longer a third party, they certainly were six years earlier, when men like Lincoln abandoned old loyalties to start something new.
In today’s America, the case for another third party is as strong as it was in 1854. In Washington, interparty bickering has paralyzed government’s ability to respond to a dire economic crisis — much less to address huge, long-term challenges such as energy independence, global climate change, and the aging of the population.
And the American people have taken note. Both the tea partiers and the new occupation movement express discontents that neither major party is prepared to address. The two-party system is broken, as evidenced by the Pew Center’s recent finding that, for the first time, 34 percent of Americans consider themselves independents — as many as identify with either party.
Distrust of government is widespread, demand for change, nearly universal.
In a century, conditions have never been better for the rise of a third party to challenge the existing duopoly. Yet many with only a superficial understanding of American history repeat the old saw that third parties have never succeeded in American politics.
To that establishment wisdom, Mr. Lincoln’s party is the exception which tests the rule.
Americans fed up with the choices offered by the two-party system might well ask: What was different about the Republicans of the 1850s?
Three things: First, the early Republicans did not define their goals in terms of winning the next election. True, they were practical politicians, but their pragmatism yielded to a greater, moral imperative — ending the expansion of slavery into the territories.
Impelled by this overarching cause, career politicians who had defined their ambitions in terms of rising within an existing party cast their fates to the winds by joining a new organization with an uncertain future. Unusual acts of individual self-sacrifice, such as Lincoln’s support of former Democrat Lyman Trumbull for a Senate seat Lincoln himself coveted, were surprisingly common.
Their cause was greater than short-term considerations of personal or partisan advantage, and this fact gave the Republicans a moral force impossible in an established party.
Second, the Republicans represented a new vision of American economic life. As the party of America’s emerging industrial movement — supported by a transportation revolution and fed by millions of small, family farms — the Republicans offered a free-market alternative to a system that included human slavery.
Finally, the Republicans offered a vision of the future that no established party could embrace. While their official platform eschewed outright abolition, their forthright opposition to slavery held the promise of revolutionary change. In simple terms, the Republicans offered the prospect of something bolder than cautious politics of the Washington establishment.
Americans disenchanted with today’s two-party system should carefully study the lessons of Lincoln’s third party. A successful third party is possible, if it is incorporates three ideas: a definition of success that does not include immediate electoral success; the combination of a moral imperative with a new vision for America’s economic future; and a strong stand for changes which, while popular, cannot be embraced by either existing party.
Washington is in gridlock. One-third of Americans reject both major parties. Left and right, Americans are marching in the streets.
This opportunity may never come again. S
‘Rick Gray taught history at Midlothian High School, the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, and writes a column for the Village News in Chester.
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