Splintering of the American Second Party System


By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia

It was during the 1850s that the national political parties, the great second party system—the Whigs and the Democrats—also fractured. Historians have argued about the precise causes of the demise of the Whig Party as a national power, but issues relating to slavery certainly provided an immensely important part.

US map
The American second party system underwent a rupture during the 1850s. (Image: Johan Opperman/Shutterstock)

National Parties

For over 30 years, national parties had helped keep the nation together. They had helped pound out the compromises relating to Missouri in 1820, and over nullification in South Carolina in the early 1830s, the Whigs had elected presidents in 1840 and 1848, and the Democrats had elected presidents in 1836 and 1844. Both parties had strength in the North and South.

They were national parties, true national parties who campaigned throughout the United States, although the Whigs were not very strong in the Lower South.

Fragments within the Whigs

The Whigs had begun to unravel even before 1852. The presidential election of that year, however, delivered a serious blow to the party as a national institution.

The Whigs in the South backed Millard Fillmore. He was a northern man of southern principles, a “Doughface”, as they were called at that time, a northern Democrat who simply voted the way southern Democrat, slaveholding Democrats would want them to.

Northern Whigs, in contrast, backed Winfield Scott, the military hero of the Mexican War. The southern wing of the party was very upset, and Scott went down to crushing defeat in the Electoral College. His opponent was Franklin Pierce, a Doughface Democrat from New Hampshire. Pierce carried 254 electoral votes, and Winfield Scott just 42 votes.

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Whigs Get No Support from Immigrants

The party was further disoriented, because the flood of new immigrants coming into the United States posed another grave threat. Mostly Irish and German Catholics, these immigrants went in very large numbers to the Democratic Party.

Historians are not exactly sure why they did this, but certainly one element was that the Whigs, in many ways, expressed displeasure and intolerance of Catholics and immigrants both, and the Irish picked up on this especially very early. Very few of them went toward the Whigs.

Whigs pushed anti-immigrant legislation, and in a number of ways alienated these newcomers to American shores. By the early 1850s, Whigs and immigrants were almost mutually exclusive, and after the election of 1852, many Whigs, North and South, began looking for a party affiliation that had a brighter future.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May of 1854 had enormous consequences for both parties, and for sectional relations to be more broadly defined.

The Act played havoc with the already reeling Whig Party. Every northern Whig in Congress voted against it, and there was not much chance afterward that the Whigs would do well in the South.

As for the Democrats, after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, many of them, especially the Free-Soilers, also began to look for a new political home. The Democratic Party seemed to many in the North to be absolutely controlled by slaveholding interests in the South, and that was not a party that many white northerners could be comfortable in.

A Political Crisis

There were 91 northern Democrats in the House of Representatives before the Kansas-Nebraska Act vote. After the elections of 1854, and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, there were just 25 free-state Democrats in the House. Northern voters had registered their disapproval by voting out many of these northern Democrats. The North clearly had seen repeal of the Missouri Compromise line and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act as proof that there was too much power in the hands of slaveholders.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act thus precipitated a political crisis that brought the death to one national party—the already-weak Whigs—and the realignment of the other—the Democrats—into a very strongly pro-southern party.

Emergence of the Republicans

The question was who might replace the Whigs in the wake of this bad period of decline for them, and a couple of parties seemed to have a chance.

road sign with democrats and republicans written
The Republican Party emerged to replace the Whigs, giving a tough competition to the Democrats as well. (Image: Jane0606/Shutterstock)

The first was the Know-Nothing Party, which really had its focus on anti-immigrant policies and anti-Catholic sentiment. They had some success in the mid-1850s, but by 1856 the Know-Nothings began to break up because they couldn’t control the sectional splits. There was a northern and a southern wing of the Know-Nothing Party, and slavery proved destructive to them as well.

The party that did become the major opposing party was the Republican Party, founded by Free-Soilers in Wisconsin in 1854; its principal issue being opposition to the extension of slavery.

The Presidential Elections

The Republicans nominated John C. Frémont as their first presidential candidate. The Democrats, in 1856, dumped Franklin Pierce, who was their sitting president, and nominated James Buchanan, who’d been in the party forever. There was a third candidate in the field, Millard Fillmore, who had filled out Zachary Taylor’s term after his death.

Fillmore and Buchanan, then, were running against the first Republican, John C. Frémont, who was staunchly against the extension of slavery into the territories. The campaign played out as really two separate contests: Buchanan against Frémont in the North, and Buchanan against Fillmore in the slave states. The vote was completely sectional: Republicans in the Northeast and other parts of the North, Democrats in the South and some of the lower northern states.

Sectional Fracturing of National Political System

The second-party system of Whigs and Democrats, of two national parties with strong northern and southern wings, was gone, and in its place was a third party system made up of largely sectional parties that would become even more sectional in the future.

The national political system, once a strong bond of union and a force for compromise when necessary, was in a shambles.

Common Questions about Splintering of the American Second Party System

Q: What caused fragments within the Whigs?

The southern Whigs backed Millard Fillmore, a northern Democrat who simply voted the way southern Democrats would want them to. Northern Whigs, in contrast, backed Winfield Scott, the military hero of the Mexican War.

Q: Which political parties emerged to replace the Whigs?

The Know-Nothing party and the Republican party sprang up to replace the Whigs.

Q: What were the political repercussions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act?

The Kansas-Nebraska Act precipitated a political crisis that brought the death to one national party—the already-weak Whigs—and the realignment of the other—the Democrats—into a very strongly pro-southern party.

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