Abraham Lincoln began his political career as a Whig. In 1854, a new party was formed, and Lincoln became its first successful candidate in 1860.
Abraham Lincoln was a lifelong Whig. The Whigs were a major American political party until the 1850s, when their leaders began to die out. In 1854, the Republican Party was formed, and Lincoln joined it in 1856. He became the Republicans’ first victorious presidential candidate four years later.
The Whig Party Platform
By the 1830s, the Whig Party had become a dominating force on the American political scene. Members of the party, including 1840s Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln, believed in certain unifying principles, such as a high tariff, government funding for infrastructural improvements, an active federal government, and opposition to slavery. By the 1850s, however, the country was changing, and the Whigs were becoming irrelevant.
Reasons for the Demise of the Whigs
One reason the Whig Party ran out of steam is that its leaders were becoming elderly and dying in the 1840s and 50s. For example, Whig candidate William Henry Harrison won the 1840 election but died after serving only one month in office. Later, Whig Zachary Taylor, a Mexican War hero, became the twelfth president in 1848. He, too, died in office. Finally, the last Whig president, Millard Fillmore– who succeeded Taylor– became very unpopular after agreeing to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which was a part of the Compromise of 1850. Fillmore’s signing of the Fugitive Slave Act split the Whig Party. (Most Whigs strongly opposed the Fugitive Slave Act.)
When the Whig Party split, the Democratic Party split into Northern and Southern branches. As for the Whigs, younger voters simply lost interest in them. The last Whig presidential candidate, Mexican War hero General Winfield Scott, was defeated by Democrat Franklin Pierce in 1852.
The Formation of the Republican Party
A group of former Whigs convened and decided to form a new political party. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Eventually, Whigs and members of fringe parties, like the Free Soilers and Know-Nothings, would become Republicans. Republicans differed among themselves in regards to the major issues of the day; for instance, some opposed slavery’s extension but not its existence. Meanwhile, others supported complete abolition of slavery. The one thing all Republicans stood for was progress. This meant the party supported urbanization, new technologies, and free homesteads for farmers.
The Rise of Abraham Lincoln
One former Whig who supported the Republican platform was one-time Illinois congressman and noted attorney Abraham Lincoln. He attended the party’s first meeting in 1856 and liked what he heard and saw. The Republicans nominated Western explorer John C. Fremont as their first presidential candidate for the 1856 election. Fremont was defeated by Democrat James Buchanan. Over the next four years, Lincoln became a party leader, both at the state and national level. In 1860, he became the second Republican candidate. In November of that year, he became the first Republican president.
- Various Authors. “Grand New Party,” excerpted from Abraham Lincoln: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times, p. 66. New York: TIME Books, Time, Inc., 2009.