Abraham Lincoln Was Not a Third Party Candidate

-->
American History

I keep seeing a really stupid meme showing Abraham Lincoln’s face with the words, “In 1860 I was third party. Was your vote wasted?” Obviously, this is meant to encourage people to vote for fringe candidates Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. It’s also the kind of derp that comes from people not being taught history.

In the 1860 elections, the Republicans not only took the White House; they also won a majority of seats in both the Senate and the House. That’s a third party?

Yes, the Republican Party was relatively new, but it was never really a “third” party. Here’s the history:

Let’s go back to 1850. We aleady were locked into a two-party system, and the two major parties were the Democrats and the Whigs.

The Whig party imploded in 1854 over the issue of slavery. Pro-slavery Whigs mostly joined the Democrats. Anti-slavery Whigs and some other factions met later that year to form the beginning of the Republican Party.

In the 1856 elections the Republicans won 90 out of 237 seats in the U.S. House, and they held 15 seats in the Senate, so the Republican Party very quickly took the place of the defunct Whigs to become one of the two major parties. It was never really a “third” party.

In 1860, the Republicans nominated Lincoln and the Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas. But Democrats in slave states were pissed off at Douglas for supporting the statehood of Kansas as a non-slave state, so the southern Democrats met separately to nominate John Breckinridge. The Democratic Party split in half, in other words. And finally there was a party of “third way” types who were anti-secession but didn’t take a position on slavery; this was the Constitutional Union party, which nominated John Bell. There were some other parties in the running but they didn’t win any electoral votes.

Historians today consider Breckinridge and Bell to be the “third party” candidates in that election, and Lincoln and Douglas were the major party candidates. Any freshman-level American history textbook would tell you this.

With the votes split four ways, Lincoln won 39.8 percent of the popular vote and 180 out of 303 electoral college votes, which at the time was enough to give him the victory without it going to the House. Douglas came in second in the popular vote but fourth in the electoral college.

Once again, in 1860 the Republicans also won the majority of seats in both the House and Senate, which is one of the things that triggered the secession crisis. In 1860, the GOP wasn’t just one of the two major parties; it was the dominant party.

On the other hand, a party that’s been around for many years but has never elected anyone to Congress and is (currently) running at about 4 percent in national presidential polls — yeah, I’m talking about the Greens — really is a third party and in no way, shape or form is in the same position as the Republicans in 1860. I hope that’s clear.

Yes, this record shows us a new party becoming very successful, but note that the Whig Party had to die first. As long as the two major parties we have now are both intact, third parties are not likely to achieve the same success.

Update: For some of you not catching on — We’re locked into a two-party system because of the way we hold elections. Our political system supports only two major parties at a time, period, especially at the national level. This article explains why that is pretty well, and also explains why it would probably require amending the Constitution before third parties can become viable. People have been trying to establish successful third parties since the 1830s, and not one has lasted very long. See also a blog post I wrote about this awhile back.

So you started off with the Whigs and Democrats; the Whigs fell apart, and a portion of the Whigs re-formed into the Republicans, while most of the rest of the Whigs joined the Democrats. The Republican Party was basically an update of the Whig Party. Because of those circumstances, the Republicans were able to step into the niche formerly occupied by the Whigs and become one of the two major parties fairly quickly. Most of the guys elected in 1860, including Lincoln himself, were well known to the public as former Whigs.

Share Button
32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Bill Bush  •  Aug 2, 2016 @6:17 pm

    Thank you. I have referred people to Snopes on several things lately, but am glad to see this one straightened out. I had not known the facts, but high school American History was in 1966, so I sorta-kinda have an excuse.

  2. Michael  •  Aug 2, 2016 @6:35 pm

    So if the Republican or Democratic party implodes just before the election , will you NOT consider the Green Party as a 3rd Party? Just curious…

  3. maha  •  Aug 2, 2016 @8:57 pm

    Michael — “So if the Republican or Democratic party implodes just before the election , will you NOT consider the Green Party as a 3rd Party? Just curious…” If a major party dismembers itself before the election, and all of its members running for office are abducted by space aliens, and then meanwhile the Green Party goes back in time and wins several seats in Congress in the 2014 midterms, then maybe the Greens would be in a position to replace that party as a major party in November. Or maybe not. Let me know if you can arrange that.

  4. paradoctor  •  Aug 2, 2016 @9:21 pm

    Wait for after the election for the Republican party to fragment; then the Libertarians will assimilate and/or be taken over by fleeing Republicans. The Greens will have to wait for the Democratic party to break up; that might take awhile.

  5. c u n d gulag  •  Aug 3, 2016 @8:56 am

    Oy…
    How could people not know this?

    Please read Shelby Foote’s great Civil War trilogy, where he brought a novelists’s eye to the war. It’s massively long, but makes for very informative and enjoyable reading!

  6. JBM  •  Aug 3, 2016 @10:09 am

    I suspect that some folks posting that meme know their history quite well, but believe that their cause justifies the lie.

    I also suspect that we are not witnessing the end of the Republican party. The mainstay leaders will not be made irrelevant by the likes of Trump. They’ll stick together, offer themselves as a “sane” salvation of the party, and rally the troops, both the disappointed and incensed, after their November debacle. (Once again, they just picked the wrong guy to run–it’s isn’t their ideas that are flawed, no, never their ideas.) I’m pretty sure that they cannot feel shame, however, so they have no real reason to change their constant-campaign tactics and put the country’s interest over their own. I feel utterly cynical writing that, but it’s been so long since I could recognize any moral or ethical center in the GOP that I can’t feel hopeful about their becoming the “loyal opposition.” They’ll continue to undermine the country and blame the Democrats for the damage the GOP does.

    Perhaps the best I can hope for (in such a cynical mood) is that the FCC reinstates the Fairness Doctrine so that the audience of Fox News, et. al., might hear something other than misinformation.

    Please.

  7. goatherd  •  Aug 3, 2016 @10:54 am

    As I’ve said before, when the fairness Doctrine was scrapped, it was an important step towards creating the mess we have today.

    Politicians used to brag about being able to “make the tough decisions.” Sure it was just a handy CYA, public relations device, but, voters have to make tough decisions too. A third party candidate might reflect your concerns better than either the Democrat of Republican candidate. But, if their chances of winning are slim at best, then a vote for them is most likely to increase the chances of the candidate who least reflects your concerns. I wish I could believe otherwise, but, I can’t.

    By the way, on the subject of psychopathy, this is a good primer, and it’s actually less than an hour long.

    https://youtu.be/PVRg4Xgo7Pc

  8. Brandon  •  Aug 3, 2016 @5:34 pm

    At that time the Republican Party was a third party. The Whigs and the Democrats had the majorities. Stopped meme is correct, so called fact checking Web site= propaganda to keep their distorted version of history alive,

    What’s next, Columbus brought the Indians to America?

  9. maha  •  Aug 3, 2016 @5:57 pm

    Brandon — Read the article before you comment. The Whigs no longer existed in 1860.

  10. Brandon  •  Aug 3, 2016 @5:36 pm
  11. maha  •  Aug 3, 2016 @5:58 pm

    Brandon — I’m sorry, but the person who wrote the article for the Bill Moyers site was wrong. Again, the Whigs no longer existed. The Whig party dissolved in 1854, and then a large portion of it reformed as the Republican Party. Read the article.

  12. ed gunn  •  Aug 4, 2016 @8:35 am

    propaganda here and nothing else. so it was never really a third party?? based on the definition that in the usa the third party has never held seats worthy of substantiating it a worthy party??? This article is propaganda at its best. The meme is correct- although maybe not at face value- and we could say at this time the republican party is imploding – who knows- let history play out rather than fear people out of their third party vote.

  13. maha  •  Aug 4, 2016 @8:50 am

    I am leaving Ed Gunn’s comment here as proof that the Right has no copyright on derp.

  14. Jon  •  Aug 4, 2016 @4:51 pm

    You’re missing the point entirely. If people had not started to support another party, an alternate to the current major parties, then there would be no republican party and possibly no Lincoln (or possibly as a whig if they had survived; or some other party). The meme is not semantically correct, but I’m quite sure you understand the idea behind it: without people supporting new parties we might not have had Lincoln.

  15. maha  •  Aug 4, 2016 @5:26 pm

    Jon — We’re locked into a two-party box because of the way we hold elections. Our system supports two major parties at a time, period, especially at the national level. This article explains that pretty well. It would probably require amending the Constitution to opening up the system to allow third parties to be viable. So you started off with the Whigs and Democrats; the Whigs fell apart, and a portion of the Whigs re-formed into the Republicans, while most of the rest of the Whigs joined the Democrats. Because of those circumstances, the Republicans were able to step into the niche formerly occupied by the Whigs and become a major party fairly quickly. Most of the guys elected in 1860, including Lincoln himself, were well known as former Whigs.

  16. Jon  •  Aug 4, 2016 @5:42 pm

    By that definition, if the democrats or republicans fall apart and defect to one of alternative parties (ones we currently call ‘third party’), then the replacing party would be one of the two major parties and any reference to it as a third party would be false.

    Like it or not, the republican party is an example that alternative parties can become one of the major parties.

  17. maha  •  Aug 4, 2016 @6:36 pm

    //By that definition, if the democrats or republicans fall apart and defect to one of alternative parties (ones we currently call ‘third party’), then the replacing party would be one of the two major parties and any reference to it as a third party would be false.//

    Only if it really is a major party. There are lots of fringe parties out there, such as the Greens, with no representation whatsoever in Congress. I believe the only Green party members holding office are at a local level. So even if the Dems were to disappear tomorrow, that wouldn’t make the Greens a major party. It might, however, allow them to grow into one in a few years.

    //Like it or not, the republican party is an example that alternative parties can become one of the major parties.//

    Well yes, it happened once, but only because one of the Big Two dissolved and left an opening. But the fact remains that Abraham Lincoln was not a “third” party candidate in 1860, because by 1860 the Republicans were well established as one of the Big Two. So Lincoln was not a third party candidate. He was a major party candidate.

  18. Jon  •  Aug 4, 2016 @7:19 pm

    “Well yes, it happened once, but only because one of the Big Two dissolved and left an opening.” And that is exactly the point. Lincoln ran in what had been a third party just a few years earlier. Third parties can’t grow without votes and can’t become one of the major parties without votes. If you think that one (or both) of our major parties is imploding by nominating a candidate that more than half of the population views as unfavorable, then you might look to the time of antebellum south and start to see similarities and start to question the “third party votes are wasted” idea that we’re fed.

  19. maha  •  Aug 4, 2016 @9:13 pm

    Jon, our current circumstance in no way resembles the United States in the 1850s. That was a very unique time in which slavery was tearing the country apart; what we’re experiencing now is downright complacent in comparison. In the 1850s there was a bloody border war between Missouri and Kansas, for example. We are no where close to that circumstance now, and if anything (thanks to the campaign finance situation) the two major parties are more powerful and entrenched than ever. Minor parties have no hope on a national level. So, yeah, third party votes are wasted in a presidential election.

  20. Jon  •  Aug 4, 2016 @7:21 pm

    errrr….sorry, time of the antebellum, not just of the antebellum south.

  21. Jon  •  Aug 5, 2016 @1:03 am

    You are making the assumption that because they are powerful and entrenched they will always be there. While it is almost certain we will always have a two-party system, it is by no means as certain that the two we have now are the ones that will always be there. The fact that both parties nominated a candidate that is very unpopular (no major party nominee before Clinton or Trump had a double-digit net negative “strong favorability” rating. Clinton’s would be the lowest ever, except for Trump) shows that both parties are losing touch with the voters; the voters want to end corporate politics and what we get is a stream of corporate representatives. You may be convinced that they are both here to stay, but plenty of us are not convinced. And if history teaches us anything, it’s that things change and we often don’t realize they were changing until after it’s done.

  22. maha  •  Aug 5, 2016 @10:48 am

    “You are making the assumption that because they are powerful and entrenched they will always be there. While it is almost certain we will always have a two-party system, it is by no means as certain that the two we have now are the ones that will always be there.”

    As someone else said, several weeks ago we already discussed the breakup of the parties and how that might work. Of course the current parties won’t last forever. But they aren’t going to disappear before November.

    If the Democrats do implode someday, it’s nearly certain the party taking its place would be formed from a coalition of former Democrats, and the new party would be a continuation of the Democrats in the same way that the Republicans were a continuation of the Whigs. Depending on the composition of the new party the Greens might be invited to join them, in which case they wouldn’t be the Greens any more, either.

    But the Greens are in no position to step into the place of a second party; they have no representation in the U.S. Congress at all, and I don’t believe (I’d have to spend more time than I have to look for that) they have any officer holders on a state level. They’ve had some success at city/county level, but that appears to be it.

    Frankly, a party that runs someone for POTUS but which has never elected anyone to the U.S. Congress is not a serious party and is not in contention for taking over anything. If somehow a Green candidate were elected POTUS, with no Green party members in Congress that person wouldn’t even rise to the level of ineffectual. You might as well elect a sock.

    Let’s get back to the potential breakup of the Dems. What might we be doing now to prepare in case that happened? The answer is simple — elect as many progressive, NOT neoliberal Dems to Congress and to state offices as possible. And this is do-able, if we stop scattering our energies and stay focused on achievable goals. Eventually the progressives will displace the neolibs in the party, which will either save it or allow progressives to be the largest surviving faction if it falls apart. But supporting the Greens won’t achieve anything.

    “It should also be obvious that there are ways in which our current circumstances resemble the United States in the 1850s”

    Only in about the same way a head cold resembles stage 4 cancer. No one with any appreciation of American history would make that comparison.

    Now, this discussion is over. We’ve both made our points, and continuing to beat the dead horse will get you banned.

  23. Jon  •  Aug 5, 2016 @1:09 am

    It should also be obvious that there are ways in which our current circumstances resemble the United States in the 1850s or you would not be seeing the meme that seems to bother you so much. It sounds disingenuous to claim to see no similarities.

  24. c u n d gulag  •  Aug 5, 2016 @9:16 am

    Jon,
    Maha and we regular commenters discussed the probably break-up of the 2 parties months ago, so you’re not telling us something we didn’t already discuss in depth.

    You’re just beating a dead horse, trying to prove yourself right, and everyone here, including this blog’s host wrong.

    Drop it, please.
    There are other posts, other topics. And future ones coming, FSM willing. Perhaps you might have something enlightening to say on them.

  25. Jon  •  Aug 5, 2016 @1:11 pm

    If you wouldn’t be so disingenuous about why you’re seeing that meme then I wouldn’t need to reply. The similarities are about effect, not magnitude, 2-alarm fires can burn down a house, it doesn’t need to be five alarms.

    The statements that a ‘third party vote is wasted’ and ‘supporting the greens won’t achieve anything’ is offensive. Voting one of the major party candidates is throwing away your vote as they are corporate representatives.

    People are fed up, they’re pissed, and they don’t want any more corporate representatives. Third parties are the only way out of this.

  26. maha  •  Aug 5, 2016 @1:16 pm

    Jon — Yes, people are fed up, they’re pissed, and they don’t want any more corporate representatives. One of our long-time regulars is currently in a federal detention center for protesting the corporate takeover of our government, so we really do know about these things. Where you and I disagree is on methodology. How do we fight back? Since we’ve established you don’t know history from prunes, I understand why you might assume that third parties are an effective way to fight back, but they aren’t. People have been dancing this dance in the U.S. since the 1830s. Third parties occasionally have influenced policies, but their ability to effect systemic change is extremely limited in our system. And now that you’re over your time limit here, good bye.

  27. Jon  •  Aug 5, 2016 @1:13 pm

    No democrat or republican ever again. That sentiment is being echoes by many that I know. But I guess you need to push a corporate agenda.

  28. elkern  •  Aug 5, 2016 @2:54 pm

    Long-time Green here (since 1986-7, not exactly sure).

    There have been a small number of Greens elected to State Legislature (ME, at least); not sure of current status, but Maha is exactly right about the Green Party not being ready to run the USA. The GP tends to attract people who think (& talk) big but haven’t done the drudge work. Or, people join when they get pissed at the Democratic Party (post-Nader / post-Bernie), and assume that we’re really just what they think the Dems SHOULD be.

    Maha, I think you’re wrong about one thing: the process of voting for Federal offices is still controlled at the State level, with only high-level oversight (FEC) by the Feds. State rules for running for office are surprisingly different; for example, the difficulty of getting a 3rd Party presidential candidate varies widely from state to state.

    This implies that we – Greens, other 3rd Parties, and just reg’lur folk – could change the voting rules. All it would take is majorities in each State legislature…

    Greens (and Libertarians, too) have been talking about Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for years. But first, we need to get elected…

  29. maha  •  Aug 5, 2016 @3:04 pm

    Runoff elections and campaign finance reform would help a lot, but short of switching to a parliamentary system I suspect we’re stuck with two parties.

  30. elkern  •  Aug 8, 2016 @12:13 pm

    Instant Runoff ( = “Ranked Choice”) voting is a good first step:
    – it’s an easy sell to voters (Vote FOR your favorite without Spoiling!)
    – can be done State-by-State, which is where elections are controlled
    – doesn’t require (Fed) Constitutional Amendment (Parliamentary system would)
    – start with State/Local elections, then Fed offices?
    – already in use in some local elections so it’s Constitutional
    – minority party in each State would be for it
    – ALL third parties would be for it
    – might be possible to shame enough legislators from majority party to pass?

    Bonus side-effect of IRV would (could? should) be more civil elections, with candidates avoiding insults to win 2nd-place votes. But negative campaigns are often run by “outside/unaffiliated” groups, which will be very hard to stop.

    BUT the layered Runoff system that CA went with actually suppresses third parties.

  31. Juju  •  Aug 9, 2016 @11:38 pm

    Making the world safe for ridiculous false accusations and assumptions that keep everything as it is always… It doesn’t matter if the Republicans were mostly Whigs… they were a third party. They were not Whigs…they were not Dems… Many big names disagree with your need for insulting backlash over the topic…http://billmoyers.com/content/third-party-candidates-from-lincoln-to-nader/ There are literally 100s of articles…stating exactly what you have, but exactly what you are insulted by as well… because this is more about you being a cry baby than it is about logic, fact, or having any significance other than to shame people.

  32. maha  •  Aug 10, 2016 @11:31 am

    Juju — I saw the post at BillMoyers.com. It is just plain wrong, as any halfway knowledgeable historian would tell you. It says that The Whigs and the Republicans were rivals; they were not. The Whigs no longer existed as a separate party when Lincoln ran in 1860. Lincoln’s Republican Party WAS the Whig Party, or the part that was left after the pro-slavery Whigs bailed and defected to the Democrats in 1854.

    So, once again, I suggest finding a good freshman-level American history textbook and reading it. There’s nothing virtuous about ignorance.



    About this blog

    About Maha
    Comment Policy

    Vintage Mahablog
    Email Me
















    eXTReMe Tracker













      Technorati Profile