How a third party helped to abolish slavery

Are third parties irresponsible "spoilers"? Or a necessary part of challenging a spoiled system? Keith Rosenthal and Alan Maass look back at history for some answers.

A Republican campaign newspaper celebrates Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860A Republican campaign newspaper celebrates Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860

FOR MANY people, third-party politics in the contemporary U.S. is a nonstarter at best and downright irresponsible at worst.

One need only observe the torrent of invective currently being leveled against supporters of the Green Party's Jill Stein, who is running a left-wing third-party challenge against both the "lesser evil" Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the "greater evil" Republican Donald Trump.

The overlooked truth, however, is that third-party election efforts historically played an important part in advancing progressive causes in the U.S. The most obvious example is the abolition of slavery. It was arguably the single-most significant social advance in U.S. history--and it was catalyzed in part by third-party initiatives.

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IN THE decades preceding the Civil War, the two ruling-class political parties that dominated the U.S. system were the Democrats and the Whigs.

The Democrats were the party of slavery. They were dominated by the Southern slave-owning master class and consistently advocated the expansion of slavery into newly organized Western states--every issue was viewed through the lens of what would defend and extend the institution of slavery. The Northern wing of the Democrats were built around urban political machines that depended on votes from working people, but the Southern slaveocracy called the shots within the party.

The Whigs were the second main party from 1833 onward, appealing primarily to the Northern ruling class that was becoming more powerful on the basis of industrial production. But while the Northern industrialists clashed with the Southern slave power over a range of political issues, from trade and tariffs to spending on infrastructure development, the Whigs stood for a "measured" policy of compromise and conciliation, prizing national unity above all else.

Probably the best-known national leader of the Whigs was Henry Clay--who was even known as the "Great Compromiser" for his role in brokering a series of legislative compromises that papered over the divisions between North and South.

On the all-important question of whether slavery should be legal in new Western territories as they became states, the Democrats were unreservedly in favor of the expansion of slavery, while the Whigs at most argued that the question of whether a state should be slave or free should be decided by popular vote.

Still, if you apply the logic of the current liberal scolders that anyone who questions a vote for Hillary Clinton is helping the Republicans, the Whigs would still represent the "lesser evil" compared to the Democrats.

But the most determined opponents of slavery in this era viewed the Whigs as one wing of a political system that was completely committed to upholding the institution of slavery.

In fact, abolitionist sentiment in the Northern states was sharpened most of all by the compromises negotiated by the Whigs to hold the North and South together. For example, the Compromise of 1850 curbed some of the South's ambitions for slavery's Western expansion, but the cost was a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act that essentially made the federal government responsible for capturing and transporting free Blacks to any Southerner who claimed to have owned them as slaves.

Far from viewing the Whigs as the "lesser evil," the dominant attitude among abolitionists in this era was to reject any participation in the U.S. political system. They believed that the Constitution itself was "infected with the pestilence of slavery," as the abolitionist agitator William Lloyd Garrison put it, and any involvement in politics would corrupt the participants and turn them into compromisers, too.

Gradually, though, some opponents of slavery--Frederick Douglass among them--started moving toward a different strategy. They wouldn't choose between the two evils, Democrats and Whigs, but would support independent parties committed to confronting the slave power more directly.

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THE FIRST such challenge came in the 1840 presidential election, and the results were modest. Abolitionist James Birney, running as the candidate of the newly formed Liberty Party, won 0.3 percent of the popular vote.

Undeterred, Birney ran again for the Liberty Party ticket in 1844--this time with Douglass a vocal supporter. He won only 2.3 percent of the popular vote, but the contest between the Whig candidate, Henry Clay, and the Democratic candidate, James Polk, was very close. Polk won the popular vote by less than 40,000 votes.

Birney and the Liberty Party were accused of winning enough support in New York that would have otherwise to Clay to swing that state to Polk--and its 36 electoral votes at the time were the margin of victory for Polk in the Electoral College.

Did that make the abolitionists election "spoilers"? There's no doubt that James Polk was one of the most rabidly pro-slavery Democratic presidents. He launched the U.S. into the Mexican-American War on the strength of the slaveocracy's fantasy of annexing an entire nation's worth of territory where slavery would be legal. The justices he nominated to the Supreme Court were reliably pro-slavery, responsible for such obscenities as the Dred Scott decision in 1857.

But the Whigs, with their compromises, were just as responsible for admitting new slave states into the union. And the pro-slavery laws that the Supreme Court was upholding had been passed by Congress with support from the Whigs.

So those who wanted to see an end to slavery continued to support third party efforts that would actually challenge slavery--first the Free Soil Party formed in the wake of the 1844 election, and finally the Republican Party, founded in 1854.

The Republican Party, like the Free Soil Party before it, was firmly opposed to the expansion of slavery westward, but it didn't stand for abolition.

Much of the party leadership was more moderate than the abolitionists on the question of slavery itself. Their opposition to expansion of slavery was about challenging the power of the Southern ruling class, which, through its control of the federal government, pursued policies that hampered the development of Northern industry and agriculture.

The third party challenges over several decades contributed to a political crisis for the Whigs. By 1856, now running under the name American Party, they fell behind the Republicans in the presidential election, winning just 21 percent of the popular vote to the Republicans' 33 percent.

A more clearly anti-slavery third party had beaten the Whigs and taken its place in the two-party system. But many abolitionists were disappointed in what they saw as compromise and conciliation among Republicans, like their presidential nominee for the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln.

As Frederick Douglass wrote:

The Republican opposed to the political power of slavery, rather than to slavery itself. It would arrest the spread of the slave system...and defeat all plans for giving slavery any further guarantee of permanence. This is very desirable, but it leaves the great work of abolishing slavery...still to be accomplished. The triumph of the Republican Party will only open the way for this great work.

Nevertheless, Douglass challenged abolitionists who called for boycotting the 1860 election to set aside their doubts. His argument was that a victory for Lincoln and the Republicans really would "open the way for this great work"--by putting the federal government in the hands of a party that would stop the expansion of slavery into new territories, and thereby fatally undermine the power of the South.

As Douglass wrote a few months before the election, "The slaveholders know that the day of their power is over when a Republican president is elected."

Douglass was exactly right. Lincoln won the 1860 election with a 39 percent plurality of the popular vote. The Democratic vote was split between two candidates, one representing the Southern wing of the party, and the other representing the Northern wing. Lincoln won easily in the Electoral College.

Before he had even taken the oath of office, the secession of Southern slave states from the union had begun. The slave power did indeed understand "that the day of their power is over when a Republican president is elected."

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LINCOLN, OF course, didn't "free the slaves" by himself. Primary credit goes to the resistance of slaves themselves in carrying out countless revolts, escape plots, confrontations with "fugitive slave" catchers and building up the Underground Railroad.

Blacks in the North were, in turn, leaders of an abolitionist movement that began small, but grew in influence and political strength because of the determination of its supporters to accept no compromise in the struggle to end slavery.

And ultimately, the slave system was only demolished after a four-year-long Civil War--still the deadliest military conflict in U.S. history. Lincoln deserves credit as the commander-in-chief, but the North's victory depended on the sacrifice and commitment of the more than 2 million Union soldiers--10 percent of whom were Black by the war's end--and their families and communities.

Still, Lincoln and the Republicans were a part of the struggle that ended slavery. Their victory in 1860 was both a signal of the strong influence of abolitionist ideas after decades of organizing and a ripening of the deeper conflict between North and South past the point of no return.

Abolitionists were only one factor in the third-party challenges in the decade before the Civil War, but their understanding of what they were fighting for and how they should conduct the struggle holds lessons today. They understood that organizing a political challenge to slavery might mean temporarily tipping the balance in favor of the "greater evil" against the "lesser evil"--but that retreating in the face of this threat would only perpetuate the pro-slavery duopoly.

As the late socialist and veteran Green Party candidate Peter Camejo wrote of the Liberty Party in the 1840s:

[A]mazing as it may sound, the Liberty Party received some of its most hostile reception from people who claimed to oppose slavery, including some committed and active abolitionists. They attacked the new party because of what they perceived as a "spoiler" factor that could take votes from the Whigs, allowing the Democrats to win in close elections.

The Liberty Party responded by saying it was a matter of principle not to vote for political parties that supported slavery. They dared to raise the idea that abolitionists should seek to win control of the U.S. government to abolish slavery.