Lesson Plan 13: Parties and Their Politics: Analyzing Political Party Platforms, 1840-1860

By Tara L. Dirst


  • Students will deduce from reading political party platforms from the 1840s-1860s which party and what year the platform is from.
  • Students will analyze the foundations and political philosophies underlying the platforms and the parties.
  • Students will explain the demise of the Whig Party.
  • Students will explain the impact of third parties on national party politics.

Time Required:

Two 50-minute class periods are needed to complete the reporting of the students answers to the class. If time is a problem, one solution may be to simply allow for as many reports as possible in one class period and to not have the rest of the groups report to the rest of the class, although the other students would lose out on the benefits of hearing the interpretations and importance of specific events to the parties during this time period. An alternative is to reduce the number of groups (to keep group size small, double-up groups on given platforms.) For the reduced number of groups, the recommended platforms are: C, D, E, G, and H.

If the textbook you are using does not discuss the Liberty Party, do not use Platform D.

Student Preparation:

Students should review the important political events and political party developments between 1840 and 1860. This lesson is a good way to synthesize many chapters worth of study. Sample textbook readings are:

  • Danzer, Gerald A., et al. The Americans. "Manifest Destiny." Evanston, IL: McDougall Littell, 2003. 280-285.
  • Danzer, Gerald A., et al. The Americans. "Expansion in Texas." Evanston, IL: McDougall Littell, 2003. 288-292.
  • Danzer, Gerald A., et al. The Americans. "The War with Mexico." Evanston, IL: McDougall Littell, 2003. 293-299.
  • Danzer, Gerald A., et al. The Americans. "The Divisive Politics of Slavery." Evanston, IL: McDougall Littell, 2003. 304-309.
  • Danzer, Gerald A., et al. The Americans. "The Birth of the Republican Party." Evanston, IL: McDougall Littell, 2003. 318-321.
  • Danzer, Gerald A., et al. The Americans. "Slavery and Secession." Evanston, IL: McDougall Littell, 2003. 324-330

Materials Needed:


Ask the students what the purpose of a party platform is. Tell them today their job will be to determine from a given platform, what party it represents and what year the platform is from (between 1840-1860.)

Group Analysis and Reporting (remainder of the class period and the following day):

Split the students into 8 groups and hand out the packets and the worksheet to the groups. Over the next 20 minutes, they will read the platform and use their prior knowledge and textbook consultation to make educated guesses on the following questions:

  • Which political party does this platform seem to represent?
  • What year might this platform be from (between 1840-1860)?
  • What specifically led you to the answers given for the previous questions? (Specific policies, references to particular events, broad themes and their relation to the party stance)

After the students have finished discussing and recording their findings, bring the class back together and have them report their answers to the rest of the class. The following provides the answers for the given platform, possible clues from the platform that the students could have used to determine the answer, some additional questions to stimulate class discussion, and some possible responses to those questions.

Platform A: 1840 Democratic Party Platform

Indicators and Discussion Questions:

  • The resolves about "limited powers" of the federal government (1st resolve), that it is "inexpedient and dangerous" for the federal government to "exercise doubtful constitutional powers (1st resolve), that it is unconstitutional for the government to financial provide for "internal improvement" (2nd resolve), are all indicative of the Democratic party.
  • The 6th resolve — "Congress has no power to charter a United States Bank" — provides a good indicator of an early Democratic party platform.
  • In the 7th resolve, they declare the abolitionist movement a danger to the "stability and permanency of the Union" which is a good indicator that this is not the Democratic party of 1860, but earlier (because of the declaration that they want the Union at all.)

Platform B: 1844 Democratic Party Platform

Indicators and Discussion Questions:

  • All the same as above, with the addition of the 11th resolve about the territories of Oregon and Texas. This resolve indicates that this platform is from 1844 because that was the year the Democrats pushed for annexation of the entire Oregon Territory.
  • Ask the students about the issues surrounding the Oregon Territory and the admittance of Texas into the union. Why was this an important issue to the Democrats? [The slogan "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" referred to the northern latitude wanted by the United States for the border of Oregon. Also the reference to Texas indicates that this was from 1844 because Democrats strongly advocated the admission of Texas to the Union (because slavery was already established in the Republic of Texas).]

Platform C: 1848 Democratic Party Platform

Indicators and Discussion Questions:

  • All the same as above, with the addition of the 12th resolve about the Mexican War. This resolve indicates that this platform is from 1848. How is the war represented? [As the United States responding to a invasion force.] How does this differ from what the textbooks tell us? [Polk adamantly supported U.S. expansion and believed in Texas' defined border with Mexico and not what Mexico believed. He set events in motion to trigger a military response from Mexico so he could justify the war on grounds of Mexican aggression.] Why does this tell us that it is likely from the Democratic Party? [Viewing the Mexican War as the United States responding to Mexican aggression was the objective of the Democratic Party, to further their agenda of expanding slave territory.]
  • Students should take particular note of the claim of morality for government by popular will (2nd resolve). What doctrine does this claim support? [Popular sovereignty]

Platform D: 1844 Liberty Party Platform

Indicators and Discussion Questions:

  • The language consistently used throughout this platform is that of "liberty" and "freedom." The best candidate and year for this platform would be the Liberty Party in 1844. The Liberty Party did run a presidential candidate in 1848, but its influence was greatest in 1844.
  • How does the Liberty Party explain the unconstitutionality of slavery? [They base it on the Northwest Ordinance's prohibition against slavery in the territories.]

Platform E: 1848 Free-Soil Party Platform

Indicators and Discussion Questions:

  • This is an anti-slavery party, but not one that is grounded in freedom and liberty for enslaved blacks, rather, it rails against the slave power. That infers that it is the Free Soil Party platform, which must be in 1848.
  • The reference to California and New Mexico also assist with the dating of this document.
  • The reference to the conventions held at Baltimore and Philadelphia and critiques of them insinuates that this is platform is not for one of the main two parties.
  • What is the difference between the Free-Soil Party and the Liberty Party — both are against slavery, so is there a difference? [The Liberty Party is morally opposed to slavery and sees it as anti-Christian to hold people in bonds. The Free-Soil Party is opposed to "Slave Power" and sees powerful slave-owners as being detrimental to smaller farmers' and other laborers' economic and political interests.]

Platform F: 1852 Whig Party Platform

Indicators and Discussion Questions:

  • The fact that this platform doesn't take a firm stance on the future of slavery, but in the eighth resolution talks about upholding the Fugitive Slave Act, albeit somewhat reluctantly, infers that this is the Whig Party, post-1850 (when the Fugitive Slave Act came into being). Since the Whig Party's last real hurrah was in 1852 (largely because of the slavery question), this must be the 1852 platform. A guess that this was the 1856 election wouldn't be that incorrect, though, because in that platform they state that they have "no new principles to announce; no new platform to establish."
  • The many references to the federal government having the power to promote economic development and the building of infrastructure infers that this is the Whig Party.

Platform G: 1856 Republican Party Platform

Indicators and Discussion Questions:

  • This platform's first statement gives the best clues with its vehement anti-slavery sentiments and references to the Missouri Compromise — this must be the Republican Party of 1856 (the first year the Republicans ran a presidential candidate).
  • There are many other references to slavery and Kansas throughout the document. Ask the students to summarize the events in Kansas during 1855-1856.
  • Ask the students what the "twin relics of barbarism" are. [Polygamy and slavery]Who is the reference about polygamy about? [Mormons] Why were the Republicans (and earlier the Whigs) opposed to polygamy?

Platform H: 1856 Know-Nothing (American) Party Platform

Indicators and Discussion Questions:

  • The nativist language used almost immediately indicates that this is the Know-Nothing Party, which competed heavily in the 1856 election.
  • The demand for the repeal of the Compromise of 1850 also helps indicate the time period.

Platform I: 1860 Republican Party Platform

Indicators and Discussion Questions:

  • The references to the problems in Kansas and the Lecompton Constitution (resolution 10) implies that this is post 1857, so it must be for the election of 1860.
  • The anti-slavery sentiments (without a lot of criticism of a "slave power"), the references to the unconstitutionality of slavery, the stress of the importance of railroad and commercial expansion all lead to the conclusion that this is the Republican Party.
  • Resolution Number 10: " That in the recent votes, by their Federal Government of the acts of the Legislatures of Kansas and Nebraska prohibiting Slavery in those Territories, we find a practical illustration of the boasted Democratic principle of intervention and Popular Sovereignty embodied in the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and a demonstration of the deception and fraud involved therein" refers to what? [This refers to Kansas's pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution that was defeated by popular vote, yet endorsed by the President Buchanan in 1857, and resulted in an extended conflict between Northern Democrats (those that favored popular sovereignty) and Southern Democrats (those who supported the expansion of slavery).]
  • The Republicans argument against slavery is similar to which previous platforms discussed today? [The Liberty Party and the Free-Soil Party also stated that slavery could not be constitutionally allowed in the territories.]


Ask the students if they can identify any changes that the parties went through over time based on the answers given by the other groups. What are some of the issues other than slavery, that stand out as important to the parties in this time period? [Role of the government in promoting economic development and infrastructure, political corruption.] Are any of these issues still relevant to today's political parties? Do today's parties split on those issues as well? Can you give any examples?

Assessment: Rubric for Grading the Worksheet:

Total points available for work: 20

Correctly determining the party: 5 points
Incorrectly determining the party, but having a legitimate rationale for doing so: 3 points
Incorrectly determining the party: 0 points

Correctly determining the year of the platform: 5 points
Incorrectly determining the year of the platform, but having a legitimate rationale for doing so: 4 points
Incorrectly determining the year, and attributing incorrect rationales for doing so: 0 points

Providing 3 or more reasons from the platform to justify the answer: 9 points
Providing 2 reasons from the platform to justify the answer: 6 points
Providing 1 reason from the platform to justify the answer: 3 points
Providing no reasons from the platform to justify the answer: 0 points

Used justifications from the textbook: 1 point
Did not use the textbook: 0 points

State Standards Addressed:

  • 14.D.4 Analyze roles and influences of individuals, groups and media in shaping current debates on state and national policies.
  • 14.F.4a Determine the historical events and processes that brought about changes in United States political ideas and traditions (e.g., the New Deal, Civil War).
  • 16.A.5a Analyze historical and contemporary developments using methods of historical inquiry (pose questions, collect and analyze data, make and support inferences with evidence, report findings).


All platform excerpts come from: Greeley, Horace. A Political Text-book for 1860. New York: Tribune Association, 1860. Click the title to access the complete text.


Boller, Paul F., Jr. Presidential Campaigns. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Acknowledgments: The Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this lesson plan under the We the People Project.