Rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s Brings Victory in 1860

Kansas-Nebraska Political Cartoon

Political realignments began after the Whigs lost the 1852 presidential election and Stephen Douglas crafted the unpopular Kansas-Nebraska Act.

At the end of President Andrew Jackson’s first term in office there were two political parties, the National Republican and the Democrats. The Whigs, formed in opposition to Jackson, would become the American Whig Party. By the mid-term elections of 1854, the political landscape changed dramatically as old allegiances were dissolved over the questions of expanding slavery into the newly acquired lands from Mexico and the results of Stephen Douglas’ ill-fated Kansas-Nebraska Act. By 1860, four parties competed for the presidency, an election won by Abraham Lincoln.

Political Changes Began in 1848

Unable to capture the Democratic Party nomination in 1848 because of the prevailing two-thirds rule, Martin Van Buren left the convention to lead the newly formed Free Soil Party. The two-thirds rule stipulated that party candidates had to achieve a two-thirds majority of the delegate count. Van Buren did not have crucial Southern support.

The Free Soil Party was supported by former Liberty Party members. In 1844, Liberty Party candidate James Birney helped deny Henry Clay victory. An abolitionist-oriented third party, it opposed Texas annexation. Northerners that supported the Wilmot Proviso also gravitated to the Free Soilers, as did some Northern Whigs disenchanted by the Whig Party’s nomination of Zachary Taylor, a Southern slave-owner and part of the elite Southern Slaveocracy.

Immigration and the Know-Nothing Party

The Whig Party dissolved as a national force following their failed attempt in 1852 to elect General Winfield Scott. Out of the ashes of the Whig Party, several new parties emerged. Although the Free Soil Party was still active in 1854, the so-called “Know-Nothing” Party had reemerged, targeting the large numbers of immigrants entering the United States. This was a virulent nativist party that in 1856 received 8 electoral votes as the American Party, led by Millard Fillmore.

In the 1854 mid-term election, the American Party sent 62 members to the House of Representatives, just two more than the waning Whig Party. The newly formed Republican Party sent 46 representatives. By the 1858 mid-term election, the Whigs survived only in parts of New England, eastern Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

The Democrats and the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Stephen Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act was pivotal in splitting the Democratic Party. Anti-Nebraska Democrats gravitated to the American Party and then the Republicans. Nebraska Democrats would divide in 1860 into Breckinridge Democrats and Douglas Democrats. The Kansas-Nebraska Act also had the effect of uniting disparate Northern constituencies under the Republican banner.

By 1860 the efforts to unify Northern parties under the Republican platform were complete. Republicans drew strength from former Free Soilers, Northern Whigs, the now defunct American Party, and Anti-Nebraska Democrats. Democrats split at their 1860 Charleston Convention, resulting in two separate candidates: John C. Breckinridge whose faction favored secession, and Illinois “Little Giant” Stephen Douglas whose adherence to the doctrine of popular sovereignty alienated Southerners as well as Republicans.

The fourth party, led by John Bell, called itself the Constitutional Union Party, deriving its support from Southern pro-union Whigs and Southern Know-Nothings. Ironically, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had been a major catalyst in these political changes, yet by 1860 there were only two slaves in all of Kansas.

Parties and Issues in the 1850s

The on-going issue of expanding slavery was a chief cause of political realignments in the decade preceding the Civil War. It was the issue that ultimately led South Carolina to conclude it was no longer safe to remain in the Union. Failure to compromise led to a Civil War and the ascendancy of the Republican Party. Not until the election of 1884 would a Democrat again win the Presidency.


  1. Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2001)
  2. Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1995)
  3. Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1999)
  4. Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (Basic Books, 2000)
  5. Frederick Merk, History of the Westward Movement (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978)