The Democratic and Republican Parties can trace their roots back to the 1800s, but some of the most interesting stories in American political history spring from parties which enjoyed flashes of glory before fading away for good.
The extinct political parties of the 1800s include organizations which were successful enough to put candidates in the White House. And there were also others that were just doomed to inevitable obscurity.
Here is a listing of some significant political parties who are no longer with us, in roughly chronological order:
The Federalist Party is considered the first American political party. It advocated a strong national government, and prominent Federalists included John Adams and Alexander Hamilton.
The Federalists did not build a sustaining party apparatus, and the party’s defeat in the election of 1800 led to its decline. It essentially ceased to be a national party after 1816.
(Jeffersonian) Republican Party
The Jeffersonian Republican Party, which, of course, supported Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800, was formed in opposition to the Federalists. The Jeffersonians tended to be more egalitarian than the Federalists.
Following Jefferson’s two terms in office, James Madison won the presidency on the Republican ticket in 1808 and 1812, followed by James Monroe in 1816 and 1820.
The Jeffersonian Republican Party then faded away. The party was not a forerunner of the present day Republican Party. At times it was even called a name which seems contradictory today, the Democratic-Republican Party.
National Republican Party
The National Republican Party supported John Quincy Adams in his unsuccessful bid for reelection in 1828 (there had been no party designations in the election of 1824). The party also supported Henry Clay in 1832.
The general theme of the National Republican Party was opposition to Andrew Jackson and his policies. The National Republicans generally joined the Whig Party in 1834.
The National Republican Party was not a forerunner of the Republican Party, which formed in the mid-1850s.
The Anti-Masonic Party formed in upstate New York in the late 1820s, following the mysterious death of a member of the masonic order, William Morgan. It was believed that Morgan was killed before he could reveal secrets about the masons and their suspected influence in American politics.
The party, while seemingly based on conspiracy theory, gained adherents. And the Anti-Masonic Party actually held the first national political convention in America. Its convention in 1831 nominated William Wirt as its presidential candidate in 1832. Wirt was an odd choice, having once been a mason. And while his candidacy was not successful, he did carry one state, Vermont, in the electoral college.
Part of the appeal of the Anti-Masonic Party was its fiery opposition to Andrew Jackson, who happened to be a mason.
The Anti-Masonic Party faded into obscurity by 1836 and its members drifted into the Whig Party, which also opposed the policies of Andrew Jackson.
The Whig Party was formed to oppose Andrew Jackson’s policies and came together in 1834. The party took its name from a British political party which had opposed the King, as the American Whigs said they were opposing “King Andrew.”
The Whigs candidate in 1836, William Henry Harrison, lost to the Democrat Martin Van Buren. But Harrison, with his log cabin and hard cider campaign of 1840, won the presidency (though he would only serve for a month).
The Whigs remained a major party throughout the 1840s, winning the White House again with Zachary Taylor in 1848. But the party splintered, mainly over the issue of slavery. Some Whigs joined the Know-Nothing Party, and others, most notably Abraham Lincoln, joined the new Republican party in the 1850s.
The Liberty Party was organized in 1839 by anti-slavery activists who wanted to take the abolitionist movement and make it a political movement. As most leading abolitionists were adamant about being outside politics, this was a novel concept.
The party ran a presidential ticket in 1840 and 1844, with James G. Birney, a former slaveholder from Kentucky as their candidate. The Liberty Party drew meager numbers, garnering only two percent of the popular vote in 1844.
It has been speculated that the Liberty Party was responsible for splitting the anti-slavery vote in New York state in 1844, thereby denying the state’s electoral vote to Henry Clay, the Whig candidate and assuring the election of the slave-owning James Knox Polk. But that assumes Clay would have drawn all the votes cast for the Liberty Party.
The Free-Soil Party came into being in 1848, and was organized to oppose the spread of slavery. The party’s candidate for president in 1848 was former president Martin Van Buren.
Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party won the 1848 presidential election, but the Free-Soil Party did elect two senators and 14 members of the House of Representatives.
The motto of the Free-Soil Party was “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men.” After Van Buren’s defeat in 1848 the party faded and members were eventually absorbed into the Republican Party when it formed in the 1850s.
The Know-Nothing Party
The Know-Nothing Party emerged in the late 1840s as a reaction to immigration to America. After some success in local elections with campaigns rife with bigotry, former president Millard Fillmore ran as the Know-Nothing candidate for president in 1856. Fillmore’s campaign was a disaster and the party soon dissolved.
The Greenback Party was organized at a national convention held in Cleveland, Ohio in 1875. The formation of the party was prompted by difficult economic decisions, and the party advocated the issuing of paper money not backed by gold. Farmers and workers were the party’s natural constituency.
The Greenbacks ran presidential candidates in 1876, 1880, and 1884, all of whom were unsuccessful.
When economic conditions improved, the Greenback Party faded into history.