Lincoln, the “Third Party” President

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. … corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

— U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864 (letter to Col. William F. Elkins)1

The dramatic power and magnificent acting of the movie Lincoln have generated a great deal of commentary, criticism and articles about that period of our history. But I’ve seen no one mention, much less explore, the inconvenient truth, for some, that Abraham Lincoln was elected as a Presidential candidate of what would be seen today as a *third* party.

There was no Republican Party in the United States until 1854. At that time the two dominant parties were the Democrats and the Whigs.

The third Republican Party didn’t come from out of the sky. Its origins go back to the anti-slavery Liberty Party formed in 1840, succeeded by the Free Soil Party in 1848 and then by the Republicans six years later. What all had in common was their opposition to the spread of slavery as the nation grew.

By the 1860 election, as the issue of slavery became the dominant, and highly divisive, issue facing the country, the Whig Party, deeply split on the slavery issue throughout the 1850’s, no longer existed. In that election Lincoln won with a plurality of the popular vote, 39.8%. The Democratic candidate received 29.5% of the vote, the Southern Democrat candidate (a split-off from the Democrats) got 18.1% and the Constitutional Union candidate got 12.6%.

Four years later, with the southern confederate states not taking part, Lincoln defeated his sole challenger, George McClellan of the Democratic Party, 55-45%.

Does this history, briefly sketched above, have any relevance to our situation today?

One way that it might is to appreciate how the Republican Party which eventually elected Lincoln came to exist. It was created as result of more traditional, as they’re understood today, “third parties,” the Liberty and Free Soil parties. The highest Presidential vote total of the Liberty Party was 2.3%, in 1844. The highest Presidential vote total for the Free Soil Party was 10% in 1848. Four years later, in 1852, it shrank to 5%. Before the next Presidential election the Republican Party came into existence.

The highest vote total for any third party candidate of the political Left since the 1950’s was the 2.8% of the vote won by Ralph Nader on the Green Party line in 2000. Since then, however, as distinct from what happened a century and a half ago, Green Party Presidential candidates have received no more than 0.5% of the vote.

Clearly, the power of corporate money over our modern electoral system, including over the mass media, as well as restrictive ballot access laws and other road blocks, have had much to do with the weaknesses of the Greens and other progressive third party efforts. But it may also be because there has not been one overarching, all-consuming issue that the existing two-party system is unable to make progress in solving.

Slavery was such an issue in the 1840’s and 50’s. It was a huge, paramount issue, and the political structure of the still-young country had a very difficult time dealing with it. The ultimate resolution, its abolition, was accomplished only as a result of a highly destructive and bloody civil war, following upon the break-up of the political system into four parties in the 1860 elections which allowed Lincoln to win.

It seems to me that we have an issue, or an intertwined set of issues, that is analogous to slavery: the climate crisis, or the combination of that crisis with an economic and inequality crisis. Given the dominance of fossil fuel companies over energy policy and the dominance of the corporatocracy, within which oil and gas companies are very powerful, over both political parties, it is very hard to see how we, the people will have any chance of solving these deep, systemic crises without a new, vibrant, unified and strong independent political movement that challenges corporate power straight-up.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a political party per se. Given the structural obstacles in the way of non-corporate parties, I continue to believe that what is needed is not so much an alternative party as an alternative, party-like but more flexible, electoral organization which combines non-sectarian alternative party proponents with genuinely progressive Democrats, and maybe some Republicans. We would be united behind a platform which prioritized a rapid shift from oil, coal and gas to renewable energy, conservation and efficiency, a just transition for those currently working in the fossil fuel and war industries, affirmative action to ensure jobs and a decent income for those historically locked out of them, and a green new deal which creates millions and millions of socially-useful, important and peace-enhancing jobs.

Lincoln, in his November 1864 letter, had it right. Much too late, hopefully not too late, let’s keep the earth livable by winning the struggle for democracy and human rights he strove for during his life.

  1. Source: The Lincoln Encyclopedia: The Spoken and Written Words of A. Lincoln. Arranged for Ready Reference, Archer H. Shaw (NY, NY: Macmillan, 1950) []

Ted Glick is the National Campaign Coordinator of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. He can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick. Read other articles by Ted, or visit Ted's website.