Third Party System

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The Third Party System was the political universe in United States politics from about 1854 to the mid 1890s (see Second Party System, Fourth Party System). In terms of issues, the main concerns were nationalism, Civil War, modernization, prohibition, and race. In terms of parties, the Third Party System was dominated by the new Republican Party, which claimed success in saving the Union, abolishing slavery, enfranchising the freedmen, and adopting as well many of the Whig Party's modernization programs such as national banks, railroads, high tariffs, homesteads and aid to land grant colleges. It includes the politics of the Gilded Age. The Democratic party was highly competitive in most states, but won the presidency only in 1856, 1884 and 1892. In 1892, the Populist Party made a remarkable showing, winning 22 electoral votes and one million popular votes.

In terms of elections, the GOP was dominant 1860-1872, and most elections from 1874 through 1892 were close. However the main opposition party, the Democrats won only the 1856, 1884 and 1892 presidential elections; however, from 1874 to 1892 it usually controlled the House of Representatives. The northern and western states were largely Republican, save for closely balanced New York and Indiana. After 1874 the Democrats took control of the "Solid South." [1]

1856 Democratic winning ticket

In terms of voter coalitions, the main groups involved ethnic/racial, and religious (or "ethnoreligious") affiliations, which closely tracked moral issues in politics. In a nutshell, the South was split between the white Democrats and the black Republicans. In the North pietistic evangelical Protestants (such as Methodists and Congregationalists, Scandinavian Lutheran) dominated the GOP and pushed it toward anti-slavery and anti-liquor positions. Liturgical voters (Catholic, Episcopalian, German Lutheran) supported the Democrats. Irish Catholics emerged as a major leadership group in the Democratic party. Class differences also existed, with the middle class Republican and the working class Democratic. Farmers split.

In terms of rules, a central issue involved the right to vote of Freedmen (former slaves), which they had from 1867 to about 1890, when they were disfranchised.

Complex origins

Gienapp (1987) is the most complex analysis of the formation of the system. His has six basic findings. First, the realignment of the 1850s began before the Whig party's collapse, not as a consequence of it. It was instigated, not by national politicians, but by the electorate at the state and local levels who lost faith in Whiggery. Second, what destroyed the Second Party System was an upheaval among the masses that mobilized ethnocultural concerns reegarding the paramount cultural issues of temperance, nativism, anti-Catholicism in protest against the major parties, and especially in protest against the Democrats who were forming close links with the Irish Catholics. Third, the Know-Nothing party was the organizational embodiment of this eruption. and in Eastern states the Republicans were a secondary force unable to take advantage of anti-Nebraska and antislavery sentiment because those issues were simply less salient among available voters who were troubled by the culture wars. Gienapp's fifth point is that the realignment of the 1850s was far more sweeping than those of the 1890s and 1930s, for it required voters in some states to shift twice, first toward the Know Nothings then second toward the Republicans in a "two step" process. And finally the role of party leadership was decisive. The Whigs lost their leaders; the Know-Nothings never had powerful or experienced men at the helm. The new Republican party had both, and was swept along with an enthusiasm that proved irresistible in every northern state.

Voter behavior

As with the preceding Second Party System era, the Third was characterized by intense voter interest, routine high turnout, unflinching party loyalty, dependence on nominating conventions, hierarchical party organizations, and the systematic use of government jobs as patronage for party workers. Cities of 50,000 or more developed ward and citywide "bosses," who could depend on the votes of clients, especially recent immigrants. Newspapers continued to be the primary communication system, with the great majority closely linked to one party or the other. [2]

Broad coalitions form each party

Both parties comprised broad-based voting coalitions. Throughout the North, businessmen, shop owners, skilled craftsmen, clerks and professionals favored the Republicans as did more modern, commercially-oriented farmers. In the South, the Republicans won strong support from the Freedmen (newly enfranchised African Americans), but the party was usually controlled by local whites ("scalawags") and opportunistic Yankees ("carpetbaggers.") The race issue pulled the great majority of white southerners into the Democratic Party as Redeemers. The Democratic Party comprised conservative pro-business Bourbon Democrats, who usually controlled the national convention from 1868 until their great defeat by William Jennings Bryan in 1896. The Democratic coalition comprised traditional Democrats in the North (many of them former Copperheads). They were joined by the Redeemers in the South and by Catholic immigrants, especially Irish American and German Americans. In addition the party attracted unskilled laborers, and hard-scrabble old-stock farmers in remote areas of New England and along the Ohio River valley.[3]

Religion: pietistic Republicans versus liturgical Democrats

Religious lines were sharply drawn [Kleppner 1979]. Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Scandinavian Lutherans and other pietists in the North were tightly linked to the GOP, as typified by presidents James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison In sharp contrast, liturgical groups, especially the Catholics, Episcopalians, and German Lutherans, looked to the Democratic Party for protection from pietistic moralism, especially prohibition. Both parties cut across the class structure, with the Democrats more bottom-heavy.

Cultural issues, especially prohibition and foreign language schools, became important because of the sharp religious divisions in the electorate. In the North, about 50% of the voters were pietistic Protestants who believed the government should be used to reduce social sins, such as drinking. Liturgical churches comprised over a quarter of the vote and wanted the government to stay out of the morality business. Prohibition debates and referenda heated up politics in most states over a period of decades, as national prohibition was finally passed in 1918 (and repealed in 1932), serving as a major issue between the wet Democrats and the dry GOP. [4]

Voting Behavior by Religion, Northern USA Late 19th century
Religion % Dem % GOP
Irish Catholics 80 20
All Catholics 70 30
Confessional German Lutherans 65 35
German Reformed 60 40
French Canadian Catholics 50 50
Less Confessional German Lutherans 45 55
English Canadians 40 60
British Stock 35 65
German Sectarians 30 70
Norwegian Lutherans 20 80
Swedish Lutherans 15 85
Haugean Norwegians 5 95
Northern Stock
Quakers 5 95
Free Will Baptists 20 80
Congregational 25 75
Methodists 25 75
Regular Baptists 35 65
Blacks 40 60
Presbyterians 40 60
Episcopalians 45 55
Southern Stock
Disciples 50 50
Presbyterians 70 30
Baptists 75 25
Methodists 90 10
Source: Paul Kleppner, The Third Electoral System 1853-1892 (1979) p. 182

Realignment in the 1850s

The collapse of the Whigs after 1852 left political chaos. Various prohibitionist and nativist movements emerged, especially the American Party, based originally on the secret Know Nothing lodges. It was a moralistic party that appealed to the middle class fear of corruption, which it identified with Catholics, especially the recent Irish immigrants who seemed to bring crime, corruption, poverty and bossism as soon as they arrived. The Republican Party was more driven, in terms of ideology and talent; it surpassed the hapless American Party in 1856. By 1858 the Republicans controlled majorities in every Northern state, and hence controlled the electoral votes for president in 1860.[5]

Ideology and Politics in the 1850s

The ideological forces driving the new party were modernization and opposition to the anti-modern threat of slavery. By 1856 the Republicans were crusading for "Free Soil, Free Labor, Fremont and Victory." Their main argument was that a "Slave Power" had seized control of the federal government and would try to make slavery legal in the territories and perhaps even in the northern states. If successful, obnoxiously rich slave owners would have the chance to go anywhere and buy up the best land, thus undercutting the wages of free labor and destroying the foundations of civil society and equal opportunity. The Democratic response was to counter-crusade in 1856, warning that the election of Republican candidate John C. Frémont would produce civil war. The outstanding leader of the Democrats was Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas who believed that the democratic process in each state or territory should settle the slavery question (see Popular Sovereignty). When President James Buchanan tried to rig politics in Kansas Territory to approve slavery (see Bleeding Kansas), Douglas broke with him, presaging the split that ruined the party in 1860.

In 1860, Northern Democrats nominated Douglas as their candidate, while the southern wing put up John Breckenridge as the upholder of the rights of property and of states rights, which in this context meant slavery. In the South, ex-Whigs organized an ad-hoc "Constitutional Union" Party, pledging to keep the nation united on the basis of the Constitution, regardless of democracy, states rights, property, or liberty. The Republicans played it safe in 1860, passing over better-known radicals in favor of a moderate politician known to be an articulate advocate of liberty. Abraham Lincoln made no speeches, letting the party apparatus march the armies to the polls. Even if all three of Lincoln's opponents had formed a common ticket—quite impossible in view of their ideological differences—his 40 percent of the vote was enough to carry the North and thus win the Electoral College.[6]

The Civil War

It was the measure of genius of President Lincoln not only that he won his war but that he did so by drawing upon and synthesizing the strengths of anti-slavery, free soil, democracy, and nationalism. The Confederacy abandoned all party activity, and thereby forfeited the advantages of a nationwide organization committed to support of the administration. In the Union the Republican Party unanimously supported the war effort, finding officers, enlisted men, enlistment bonuses, aid to wives and widows, war supplies, bond purchases, and the enthusiasm that was critical to victory. The Democrats at first supported a war for Union, and in 1861 many Democratic politicians became colonels and generals. Announced by Lincoln in September 1862, emancipation was designed primarily to destroy the economic base of the Slave Power. It initially alienated many northern Democrats and even moderate Republicans. They were reluctant to support a war for the benefit of what they considered an inferior race. In the 1862 midterm elections, the Democrats made significant gains, but the Republicans remained in control with the support of the Unionist Party. Success on the battlefield (especially the fall of Atlanta) significantly bolstered the Republicans in the election of 1864. The Democrats attempted to capitalize on negative reactions to the Emancipation, but by 1864, these had faded somewhat due its success in undermining the South. Additionally, the Republicans made “Copperhead” treason a successful campaign issue. Increasingly the Union Army became the more and more Republican; probably a majority of Democrats who enlisted marched home Republican, including such key leaders as John Logan and Ben Butler.[7]


Civil War and Reconstruction issues polarized the parties until the Compromise of 1877 finally ended the political warfare. War issues resonated for a quarter century, as Republicans waved the "bloody shirt" (of dead union soldiers), and Democrats warned against Black supremacy in the South and plutocracy in the North. The modernizing Republicans who had founded the party in 1854 looked askance at the undisguised corruption of Ulysses S. Grant and his war veterans, bolstered by the solid vote of freedmen. The dissenters formed a "Liberal Republican" Party in 1872, only to have it smashed by Grant's reelection. By the mid 1870s it was clear that Confederate nationalism was dead; all but the most ardent Republican “Stalwarts” agreed that the southern Republican coalition of African American Freedmen, scalawags and carpetbaggers was helpless and hopeless. In 1874 the Democrats won big majorities in Congress, with economic depression a major issue. People asked how much longer could the Republicans use the Army to impose control in the South. [8]

1869 cartoon attacks imperial splendor of Grant's inauguration in contrast to Jefferson's republican simplicity (upper left)

Rutherford Hayes became President after a highly controversial electoral count, demonstrating that the corruption of Southern politics threatened the legitimacy of the presidency itself. After Hayes removed the last federal troops in 1877, the Republican Party in the South sank into oblivion, kept alive only by the crumbs of federal patronage.[9]

Climax and Collapse, 1890-1896

New issues emerged in the late 1880s, as Grover Cleveland and the Bourbon Democrats made the low tariff "for revenue only" a rallying cry for Democrats in the 1888 election, and the Republican Congress in 1890 legislated high tariffs and high spending. At the state level moralistic pietists pushed hard for prohibition, and in some states for the elimination of foreign-language schools serving German immigrants. The Bennett Law in Wisconsin produced a bruising ethnocultural battle in Wisconsin in 1890, which the Democrats won. The millions of postwar immigrants divided politically along ethnic and religious lines, with enough Germans moving into the Democratic Party to give the Democrats a national majority in 1892. Party loyalties were starting to weaken, as evidenced by the movement back and forth of the German vote and the sudden rise of the Populists. Army-style campaigns of necessity had to be supplemented by “campaigns of education,” which focused more on the swing voters.[10]

Democratic magazine ridicules GOP use of "bloody shirt" memories of war

Cleveland's second term was ruined by a major depression, the Panic of 1893, which also undercut the appeal of the loosely-organized Populist coalitions in the south and west. A stunning Republican triumph in 1894 nearly wiped out the Democratic Party north of the Mason-Dixon line. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan and the radical silverites seized control of the Democratic Party, denounced their own president, and called for a return to Jeffersonian agrarianism. Bryan, in his Cross of Gold speech, talked about workers and farmers crucified by big business, evil bankers and the gold standard. With Bryan giving from 5 to 35 speeches a day throughout the Midwest, straw polls showed his crusade forging a lead in the critical Midwest. Then William McKinley and Mark Hanna seized control of the situation; their countercrusade was a campaign of education making lavish use of new advertising techniques. McKinley warned that Bryan’s Bimetallism would wreck the economy and achieve equality by making everyone poor. McKinley promised prosperity through strong economic growth based on sound money and business confidence, and an abundance of high-paying industrial jobs. Farmers would benefit by selling to a rich home market. Every racial, ethnic and religious group would prosper, and the government would never be used by one group to attack another. In particular McKinley reassured the German Americans, alarmed on the one hand by Bryan's inflation and on the other by prohibition. McKinley’s landslide victory combined city and farm, Northeast and Midwest, businessmen and factory workers. He carried nearly every city of 50,000 population, while Bryan swept the rural South and Mountain states. McKinley’s victory, ratified by a landslide reelection in 1900, thus galvanized one of the central ideologies of twentieth century American politics, pluralism.[11]

Populist debate

Since the 1890s historians have vigorously debated the nature of Populism, especially the Populist Party that in 180-92-94 carried Plains states (notably Kansas and Nebraska), silver states (Colorado), and made a strong showing in the Deep South (Alabama and North Carolina).

Frederick Jackson Turner and a succession of western historians depicted the Populist as responding to the closure of the frontier. Turner explained:

The Farmers' Alliance and the Populist demand for government ownership of the railroad is a phase of the same effort of the pioneer farmer, on his latest frontier. The proposals have taken increasing proportions in each region of Western Advance. Taken as a whole, Populism is a manifestation of the old pioneer ideals of the native American, with the added element of increasing readiness to utilize the national government to effect its ends.[12]

In the 1930s C. Vann Woodward stressed the southern base, seeing the possibility of a black-and-white coalition of poor against the overbearing rich. Georgia politician Tom Watson served as Woodward's hero.[13] In the 1950s, however, scholars such as Richard Hofstadter portrayed the Populist movement as an irrational response of backward-looking farmers to the challenges of modernity. The antithesis of anti-modern Populism was modernizing Progressivism in this model, with such leading progressives as Theodore Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette and Woodrow Wilson had been vehement enemies of Populism, though William Jennings Bryan did cooperate with them and accepted the Populist nomination in 1896.[14]

In 2007 Charles Postel rejected the notion that the Populists were traditionalistic and anti-modern. Quite the reverse, he argued, the Populists aggressively sought self-consciously progressive goals. They sought diffusion of scientific and technical knowledge, formed highly centralized organizations, launched large-scale incorporated businesses, and pressed for an array of state-centered reforms. Hundreds of thousands of women committed to Populism seeking a more modern life, education, and employment in schools and offices. A large section of the labor movement looked to Populism for answers, forging a political coalition with farmers that gave impetus to the regulatory state. Progress, however, was also menacing and inhumane, Postel notes. White Populists, embraced social-Darwinist notions of racial improvement, Chinese exclusion and the humiliation and brutality of separate-but-equal.[15]

Rules changes

The 1896 election changed the rules of the game. By campaigning tirelessly with over 500 speeches in 100 days, William Jennings Bryan seized control of the headlines. It no longer mattered as much what the editorial page said—most newspapers opposed him—as long as his speeches made the front page. Financing likewise changed radically. Under the Second and Third Party Systems, parties financed their campaigns through patronage; now civil service reform was undercutting that revenue, and entirely new, outside sources of funding became critical. Mark Hanna systematically told nervous businessmen and financiers that he had a business plan to win the election, and then billed them for their share of the cost. Hanna spent $3.5 million in three months for speakers, pamphlets posters and rallies that all warned of doom and anarchy if Bryan should win, and offered prosperity and pluralism under William McKinley. Party loyalty itself weakened as voters were switching between parties much more often. It became respectable to declare oneself an “independent.”[16]

Third Parties

Throughout the nineteenth century, third parties such as the Prohibition Party, Greenback Party and the Populist Party evolved from widespread antiparty sentiment and a belief that governance should attend to the public good rather than partisan agendas. Because this position was based more on social experiences than any political ideology, nonpartisan activity was generally most effective on the local level. As third-party candidates tried to assert themselves in mainstream politics, however, they were forced to betray the antiparty foundations of the movement by allying with major partisan leaders. These alliances and the factionalism they engendered discouraged nonpartisan supporters and undermined the third-party movement by the end of the nineteenth century. Many reformers and nonpartisans subsequently lent support to the Republican Party, which promised to attend to issues important to them, such as anti-slavery or prohibition.[17]

Fourth Party System, 1896-1932

For more information, see: Fourth Party System.

The overwhelming Republican victory, repeated in 1900, restored business confidence, inaugurated a long epoch of prosperity, and swept away the issues and personalities of the Third Party System. The period 1896-1932 can be called the Fourth Party System. Most voting blocs continued unchanged, but others realigned themselves, giving a strong Republican dominance in the industrial Northeast, though the way was clear for the Progressive Era to impose a new way of thinking and a new agenda for politics. [18]

Alarmed at the new rules of the game for campaign funding, the Progressives launched investigations and exposures (by the "muckraker" journalists) into corrupt links between party bosses and business. New laws and constitutional amendments weakened the party bosses by installing primaries and directly electing senators. Theodore Roosevelt shared the growing concern with business influence on government. When William Howard Taft appeared to be too cozy with pro-business conservatives in terms of tariff and conservation issues, Roosevelt broke with his old friend and his old party. After losing the 1912 Republican nomination to Taft, he founded a new "Bull Moose" Progressive Party and ran as a third candidate. Although he outpolled Taft (who won only two states) in both the popular vote and the electoral college, the Republican split elected Woodrow Wilson and made pro-business conservatives the dominant force in the GOP.[19]


  1. Foner (1988)
  2. Kleppner (1979) gives detailed reports on voter behavior in every region.
  3. Kleppner (1979); Jensen (1971)
  4. Kleppner (1979)
  5. Gienapp (1987); Holt (1978)
  6. Foner (1995); Silbey (1991)
  7. Silbey (1991); Hansen (1980)
  8. Foner (1988)
  9. Vincent P. De Santis, Republicans Face the Southern Question (1969)
  10. Jensen (1971)
  11. Jensen (1971)
  12. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History, (1920) p. 148; online edition
  13. C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938); Woodward, "Tom Watson and the Negro in Agrarian Politics," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Feb., 1938), pp. 14-33
  14. Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (1955
  15. Charles Postel, The Populist Vision (2007)
  16. Jensen (1971) ch 10; Keller (1977)
  17. See Voss-Hubbard (1999); Keller (1977)
  18. Keller (1977); McGerr (2003)
  19. McGerr (2003)