Start a New Party the Way Lincoln Did?

By Mark Ortiz

Revision 1, August 8, 2017

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Did you know that Abraham Lincoln left the party he had previously been a leader of, ran for president as the first nominee of a new party, and won the presidency? It’s true. And I bet you knew. And you may have heard recent calls for Bernie Sanders to do the same thing Lincoln did, because that’s the proven method of launching a new party that can win and endure.

But I bet you thought the party Lincoln was previously a leader of was the Whig Party, the new party was the Republican Party, and the year was 1860, right?

Nope. The party he was previously a leader of was the Republican Party, the new party was the National Union Party, and the year was 1864. And his running mate was a Democrat!

Far from unifying the less than a decade old Republican Party and making it a lasting force in American politics, Lincoln as President precipitated a split in the Republican Party that led to it nominating a different candidate in 1864. Yet the Republican Party survived and did become a lasting force in American politics, while the new party that formed around Lincoln rapidly collapsed and is so obscure that most people have never heard of it, even though it had two presidents.

Lincoln was not a leader in the Whig Party. He was a member, and served one term in the US House of Representatives as a Whig (1847–49). But he was not a leader, and had no significant following.

Lincoln was not a founder of the Republican Party. He was not at its founding convention in Ripon, WI. He was not an early leader of it, although he did join within two years of its founding. He was not its first presidential nominee. The party had considerable electoral success before it ever ran Lincoln for anything, and the first time it ran Lincoln for office, he lost.

The Republican Party was founded in 1854, mainly by former Whigs but not exclusively. Lincoln had not held public office for five years at that point, and was not involved. The Republican Party’s first presidential candidate was John C. Fremont, in 1856. He carried 11 of 31 states. Three parties carried states in that election. The third one, the American Party, ran a former president, and carried only Maryland.

Fremont was also the Republican Party’s third presidential nominee, in 1864. Or more properly, he would have been, if there had been any Republican nominee. The faction backing Fremont renamed itself the Radical Democracy Party, and there was officially no Republican presidential nominee on the ballot. Fremont withdrew in September as part of a backroom deal with Lincoln that involved removal of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair.

Lincoln’s first run for office as a Republican was in 1858, for US Senate in Illinois. He lost. (It should be noted that in those days we didn’t have popular election of Senators. Lincoln lost in the Illinois legislature.)

Lincoln won in 1860 not because he was a charismatic leader with a following, but because he was the abolitionist candidate of a party formed around abolitionism, in an election that was to a large degree a referendum on slavery.

Prior to the 1860 election, the Republican Party already had a plurality in Congress and was able to pass things by coalition with two other parties. Four parties were represented in Congress at that time. The Republican Party got to this level of success without Lincoln. Earlier than that, it even had a majority — sort of. Its congressional candidates then ran under the name of still another party, the Opposition Party.

A large number of Republicans did follow Lincoln in bolting the Republican Party in 1864, and a large number of them won election, along with Lincoln, in an election that didn’t include any of the Confederate states. But they ran under a variety of party names, as the National Union Party never had a presence at the state level in its own right. But in 1868 the National Union Party collapsed, and they all went back to the Republicans.

So if you think you want a new Lincoln to form a new party the way Lincoln did, really study the history, and be careful what you wish for.

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