When the Whig Party split over slavery in the 1850s, there was an open position for the main rival of the Democrats. The “radical” Republican Party beat out the Know Nothings to fill the void. Their mere existence led to secession and Civil War. From humble beginnings, the Republican Party became the dominant political force of the late Nineteenth Century. The “Third Party System,” ranging from 1856-1894, encompasses the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Gilded Age. Even though these are the same two major political parties that we have today, their voter bases have changed drastically throughout the years. As Civil War politicians died out, Democrats split over silver and Republicans ushered in the Progressive Era. Before we reach the turn of the century, here are my take-aways from the Third Party System.
1856 – JAMES BUCHANAN VS JOHN C. FRÉMONT VS MILLARD FILLMORE
1860 – ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS STEPHEN DOUGLAS VS JOHN C. BRECKINRIDGE VS JOHN BELL
1864 – ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN – CIVIL WAR!
1868 – ULYSSES S. GRANT VS HORATIO SEYMOUR
1872 – ULYSSES S. GRANT VS HORACE GREELEY
1876 – SAMUEL TILDEN VS RUTHERFORD B. HAYES – THE COMPROMISE OF 1877
1880 – WINFIELD SCOTT HANCOCK VS JAMES A. GARFIELD
1884 – GROVER CLEVELAND VS JAMES BLAINE – ALSO FEATURING: ARTHUR’S REDEMPTION!
1888 – GROVER CLEVELAND VS BENJAMIN HARRISON
1892 – GROVER CLEVELAND VS BENJAMIN HARRISON, pt. II (ALSO VS JAMES WEAVER)
Partisanship Was At An All Time High!
It’s easy to say that partisanship is worse than ever today. But the country has been far more divided. We had a Civil War, after all! Even before war was declared, lots of violence took place during Bloody Kansas, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and even on the floor of the Senate with Preston Brooks’ caning of Charles Sumner. In the Gilded Age, not often considered a particularly interesting time period in American history, there was intense party loyalty, high voter turnout, vicious campaign tactics, and several close elections. Even though Republicans won the majority of the era’s contests, there was a lot of national division underneath the surface.
Lincoln And The Republicans Weren’t Perfect
Abraham Lincoln is widely considered to be one of the best presidents ever. But that status was only granted years after the Civil War. During his lifetime, many people saw Lincoln as a flawed candidate and president. In 1860, he was considered the moderate choice for a Republican Party that was desperate to prove they only wanted to prevent slavery in new states, not total abolition. As Southern states started seceding, Republicans even offered the South a Constitutional Amendment to protect slavery. Once the war was in full swing, it really wasn’t going well for the Union. The Radical Republicans split from the rest of the party to endorse John C. Frémont for president in 1864. It wasn’t until General Sherman captured Atlanta that the tide of the war turned, and Republicans truly united behind Lincoln. In the end, it was Lincoln’s own personal journey on the issue of slavery that makes him such an interesting historical figure. He certainly did not enter office intending to end slavery in America for good.
People Didn’t Think The Civil War Would Be That Bad
The slavery debate had been a powder keg in the US for decades. But when the South actually seceded, most Northerners thought the Union would be brought back together quickly. After all, could the unindustrialized South really put up a fight against the federal government? Richmond, their capital, was only a hundred miles away! Surely the Union Army could take a leisurely stroll into Virginia and put an end the rebel government. It wasn’t until the Battle of Bull Run that the public, and most politicians, realized that this would be a years-long, bloody conflict. Spectators even came down from Washington, DC, to picnic while watching the first battle of the war! Despite the Union initially having the upper hand, it was clear that both sides were untrained and ill-prepared. The Confederates stood their ground and the Union was forced to retreat. The battle was a huge embarrassment for the Union and set the stage for a grueling war.
Republicans Traded African American Rights For The Presidency
After the Civil War, there was a small window for meaningful Civil Rights policy, specifically for voting protections in the South. Republicans controlled Congress while the Democratic Party had to rebuild. Unfortunately, years were wasted fighting with Democratic President Johnson, their ill-advised unity-ticket running mate for Lincoln. Republicans clearly did not read my 2nd Party System Recap, which detailed why you should not pick someone who should not be president as your vice president. You would think, of all presidents, people would realize that Abraham Lincoln was very likely to die in office. Johnson wanted to re-admit Southern states quickly and let them be responsible for their own “Reconstruction.” He was also eager to use his veto power against Congress. While Johnson faced an (unsuccessful) impeachment, one has to wonder what could have been done with four more years of Lincoln. For his sake, Ulysses S. Grant passed a lot of voting enforcement laws. Unfortunately, his good deeds were overshadowed by the rampant corruption in his administration. The fate of Reconstruction was sealed with the Compromise of 1877. The election between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes was too close to call and voter meddling was widely suspected. To settle the issue, Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction in exchange for the presidency. In fairness, the American public, even in the North, had grown tired of fighting the South. Even without the compromise, public interest would likely have ended Reconstruction anyways. By the beginning of the next century, the South was rife with Jim Crow laws.
It Was A Really Good Time To Be A Bearded, Midwestern, Veteran, Republican
After the Civil War, the Republicans had a grip on the presidency, and they had a type. Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Harrison all had beards, all came from the Midwest, and all (except Lincoln, kind of) served in the Civil War. The remaining Republican president of this era, Arthur, was instead from New York, but did serve in the war and had mutton chops. The Democrats who split them up, Johnson and Cleveland, did not serve. Johnson was clean shaven and was the lone Southern president of the group. Cleveland was also from New York, but he did have a mustache. This was truly the era of facial hair. In fact, no presidents before Lincoln or after Taft (who left office in 1913) sported facial hair.
A Clean Record Meant Everything
After Reconstruction, both parties really didn’t have many platform differences. In general, Republicans were more likely to support liberal economic policies and high tariffs, but these issues were minor compared to the political debates of other eras. This might be why most people consider the Gilded Age to be boring (not me!). But in the absence of policy debate came intense personal scrutiny. The legacy of the corrupt Grant Administration meant that the next few presidential elections focused heavily on integrity. Democrats tried to exploit this weakness in the Republican Party, but the GOP was able to overcome its Stalwarts to nominate several morally upstanding candidates. When they didn’t, with James Blaine, they lost to Grover Cleveland. When it came to his personal life, Cleveland had his own share of skeletons in his closet, but voters still determined that he was an honest politician.
Farmers and Laborers Were On The Rise!
Workers during the Gilded Age struggled to adapt to industrialization. As a result, the end of the Nineteenth Century saw the rise of several new political movements for the working class. In the West and South, poor farmers called for the increased acceptance of paper money and silver. Their thinking was that the increase in currency would make it easier for them to pay banks for the loans they used to get new farming equipment. In cities, manufacturing labor unions held strikes that often turned violent. Although working class life was grim, these movements served as the impetus for the upcoming Progressive Era.