THE AMERICAN THIRD PARTY TRADITION
Here we go again; Joe Scarborough is starting his own party, the No-Label Party. I don’t know why that makes me laugh, but it does make me chuckle a little on the inside. I love that Gawker has labeled his endeavor the “most boring political movement of all time”, essentially, they are correct, and what Joe Scarborough is doing isn’t new either, just like the Tea Party, they all have one thing in common, they are typically American! This is the American tradition and philosophy! Political parties are widely believed to be “the problem” with the system. Certainly, this is a provable fact, most often the entrenched political parties most often seem to protect those at the very top of the pyramid. It is interesting however, and should be noted, that the very arguments that are used today to justify third parties is the rhetoric of populism which is a very 19th argument, I don’t write this as a slam, but to illustrate the idea that all this rhetoric we hear about the strength of third parties in America are recycled ideals from the 19th century! In fact this seems to be the very tradition of America and is the mechanism Americans seem to use to influence the major parties. Deep within these movements, however ironic (in general they are founded by disgruntled former politicians), but as of yet, they’ve been unable to capture the Presidency.
Third Parties were all the rage in 19th Century. The country was experience a massive change in economies, moving from an agrarian society to one that survived through industrialization. It’s a story we all know, it is the story of America. It was economically, politically, and even on the smallest scale, the family, a chaotic period. As the changes America was experiencing was due to her industrialization. Moving from a largely agrarian nation to an industrialized nation, certainly changed the very face of America, then of course the expansion westward, America was changing, and she seemed to be changing quickly. Agrarianism to Industrialization, I believe that our current economic hardships have more to do with the ripples of change felt because system is moving from industrialization to post- industrialization, and change is always scary. Most certainly what we are experiencing is uncertainty, just as our 19th century relatives were experiencing. The late 19th century is known as the Party Era in American political history, because there were so many third parties while at the same time people were voting more heavily for the two main parties at election time. There certainly was a common element in the history of third party uprisings in the nineteenth century, and the rhetoric was most often anti-party. (Voss-Hubbard 123).
In fact in the 1830’s there were many third parties, for example there were the Antimasons, which is said to have reacted against the culture of party politic by taking aim at professional politicians who scrambled shamelessly after the spoils of office, cynically manipulating the public agenda, and denying the “supremacy of the people. (Voss-Hubbard 129)” There was the Workingmen’s movement in New York City, they advocated public education, debtor relief policies, a ten-hour working day and aligned itself against those terrible politicians running Tammany Hall (Voss-Hubbard 129). A few years later, there was the Locofoco party, it had a platform that was against monopolies, paper money along with other concerns. And most certainly these folks always lead an attack of those parties they saw as entrenched in running government, in order to gain credibility with the voting population. “The antebellum nativist parties for instance, had framed their agendas with calls to overthrow selfish politicians who unpatriotically vied for the immigrant vote. (Voss-Hubbard 123)”
I believe our last election, Nov. 2010, has many examples of people running under the Tea Party, Republican, and Democratic mantles who used exactly the same rhetoric against their opponents. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We hear much of the same rhetoric today, let’s considered the platform of the Pennsylvania Native American party of 1846 (no it had nothing to do with Native American’s), they asserted; “….American birthright”, to be represented by men who “love their country more than their party” (Voss-Hubbard 123). All this, before the 14th Amendment! Some things in America truly never change... yes Steve King I am looking at you.
Of course there are other examples of this even recently. Just the other day the president of Tea Party Nation, Judson Phillips said:
The Founding Fathers originally said, they put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn't you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you're a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you're not a property owner, you know, I'm sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.
Wow, I was wondering when we would get back to the founders again! Phillips doesn’t sound much different than those in the Pennsylvania Native American party, who of course were not what we now know as “Native Americans”.
This is just another in the list of things that the Tea Parties want to get back to, they want to do away with the 14th and 17th Amendments, now they want to return to only property owners voting, yet they still manage to convince a good number of Americans that they are a serious relevant and can become a major party, at the same time they seem to be just a more conservative part of the Republican Party. They are relevant though, because they are affecting politics today, as they are having an impact on the Republican Party. Mitch McConnell just today says, Republicans will block all legislation from Democrats. This is because of the pressure they are feeling from those in the Tea Party and they are having an impact on government.
Let’s take a look at some of the political cartoons from the 1856 Presidential Election, one that was impacted heavily by the Know-Nothing movement. By targeting parties and politicians, antipartyism folded the Know-Nothings many issues and grievances into a more pointed political critique of late antebellum society. Back then “Antipartyism spun a narrative of failed governance. Political and governmental failure made it imperative to jettison party loyalty and identify with the anti-party cause. (Voss-Hubbard 133)” And of course some of their arguments at the time and currently are not without merit and when used with a bludgeon, sprinkled with misinformation, you have the possibility of seizing power, if at least for a short time. This brings us to the Know-Nothing movement, which was a rather large movement prior to the civil war.
Look at this cartoon, from 1856, Millard Fillmore, American Party presidential candidate in 1856, prepares to save the government from “party rats”.
a collection of the cartoons:
This one is by far one of my favorites. The Democratic Party has long been a target of third parties and has evolved over the past couple of centuries because of pressure from third parties. Fillmore had already been President 1850-53 after the death of Zachary Taylor, and he was the last to serve as a member of the Whig party. Most of the members of the Whigs had moved to this new party, the Republican Party, the extension of the Whigs and the Federalists, but Fillmore moved to the American Party the political arm of the Know-Nothing movement. The American Party is best known as an anti-Catholic, Antimasonic party; Antipartyism provided a unifying populist message that resonated among the general population. So he ran in the 1856 Presidential election under the American Party label. He did so because the Know-Nothings had some political power, as they had swept some elections in 1854: “it filled the legislatures with new men; in the national House of Representatives a majority was claimed by the believers in the new dispensation, and the Senate was not with- out witnesses to their faith (Haynes 67)”
Currently, the Tea Party is wielding some power and having an impact on how Republicans behave, what legislation they put forward in the House and what investigations there might be due to the pressure they feel from those who identify themselves as members of the Tea Party. But the question remains, will their power wane as quickly as it came? These are things we have yet to know, but the next installment will be a discussion of the two more powerful their party movements, the Know-Nothings, and the Progressives Party, 1912. And the bibliography will remain this one, unless I add more readings.
Haynes, George F. "The Causes of Know-Nothing Success in Massachussetts." The American Historical Review 3.1 (Oct 1897): 67-82.
Ickes, Harold L. "Who Killed the Progressive Party." The American Historical Review 46.2 (1941): 306-337.
Redding, Kent. "Failed Populism: Movement-Party Disjuncture in North Carolina, 1890 to 1900." American Sociological Review 57.3 (1992): 340-352.
Ryan, Mary P. "Party Formation in the United States Congress, 1789 to 1796: A Quantitative Analysis." The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 28.4 (1971): 523-542.
Voss-Hubbard, Mark. "The "Third Party Tradition" Reconsidered: Third Parties and American Public Life, 1830-1900." The Journal of American History 86.1 (1999): 121-150.