Nativist and Antislavery Third Parties

By Michael F. Holt, Ph.D.

Although the vast majority of Americans who went to the polls between 1834 and 1854 remained loyal to the Democratic or Whig parties, those major parties did not go totally unchallenged in those years. In the 1830s and 1840s small anti-immigrant or nativist American Republican or Native American parties appeared in northeastern cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and they proved a particular headache for Whigs, whom most immigrants and Catholics already distrusted. Starting in 1839 a small abolitionist Liberty Party appeared in the North, and it would run James G. Birney for President in 1840 and 1844, when Birney won about 63,000 votes, enough to help stop Henry Clay from winning. Far more significant was the Free Soil Party which emerged in 1848. Pledged to ban slavery from all federal territories, it drew northern voters from both Democrats and Whigs in that year's presidential election, but it hurt Democrats more, helping the Whigs' Zachary Taylor, for whose nomination Lincoln had worked indefatigably, to win. But equally important, the Free Soil party was a harbinger of the exclusively northern and overtly antislavery, antisouthern Republican Party.