America has been a two-party, Democrat-and-Republican system for so long that it sometimes feels like they’re the only political parties we’ve ever had. But throughout our history, other parties found their way into the spotlight—with mixed results. We take a look back at some of the most successful third parties in our country’s history.
The first third party in American history, the Anti-Masonic Party was exactly what it sounds like: Their sole issue was opposition to the Freemasons, a secret society that was widely blamed for the disappearance of William Morgan, a New Yorker who had planned to publish a book of the fraternity’s secrets. Starting in New York in 1827, they managed to elect 15 members to the New York Assembly (compared to 12 for candidates aligned to then-president John Quincy Adams). However, they were unable to get a senator elected because it turned out the movement’s candidate in their strongest district was actually a Mason. In 1828, the movement went national, drawing support from the sweeping animosity toward Masons holding public office.
What Party Members Stood For: Opposition to the Freemason fraternity for its elitism and secrecy, which they considered un-American.
Notable Members: Attorney General William Wirt
Why They Disappeared: Though the Anti-Masons introduced the practice of nominating conventions and party platforms, they didn’t have enough momentum to get them past their first presidential election. Wirt, their 1832 nominee, only won Vermont, and soon they were gradually absorbed by the newly-established Whig Party, before fully disappearing before the 1840 election.
John C. Calhoun, then the vice president, started this short-lived party in 1828 under the banner of states’ rights. However, the party didn’t have much reach beyond its base in South Carolina.
What Party Members Stood For: The view that states could nullify federal laws within their own borders.
Notable Members: Vice President John C. Calhoun, Senator Stephen Decatur Miller
Why They Disappeared: After putting Virginia Governor John Floyd at the top of their 1832 ticket against his will, the party only won South Carolina’s 11 electoral votes, and petered out as a national organization. Though Nullifiers served in the U.S. Senate and House throughout the 1830s, the last party member left the House in 1839.
Formed in 1834, the Whigs weren’t united under any core beliefs or value system. Instead, they came together in their common hatred of President Andrew Jackson, whom they dubbed “King Andrew” for what they saw as his totalitarianism in office. In an attempt to throw the election to the House of Representatives, they ran a number of candidates in 1836—one each for the East, South, and West, as well as an unexpected fourth candidate in South Carolina—and in 1840 won the White House by nominating military hero William Henry Harrison.
What Party Members Stood For: Though they began with a unifying hostility for Jackson, they never developed a common party platform, and were driven mostly by their ambition—meaning, whatever would win them an election.
Notable Members: Presidents William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, and Abraham Lincoln (who was elected to the House of Representatives as a Whig in 1846).
Why They Disappeared: By the end of the 1840s, the Whigs had separated into factions over slavery: The Conscience Whigs were against it, while the Cotton Whigs supported it. The Whigs were unable to bridge the gap, and they effectively disappeared by 1854, when the Republican party formed.
4. FREE SOIL
Calling for “free soil, free speech, free labor and free men,” the Free Soil Party was united by a single issue: keeping slavery out of the new territories that had been acquired from Mexico in 1848. For many party members, though, the problem with slavery wasn’t moral; it was rooted in eliminating competition from black laborers—enslaved or free—in the new territories.
What Party Members Stood For: Opposing the extension of slavery.
Notable Members: Former President Martin Van Buren, U.S. Senator John P. Hale
Why They Disappeared: Despite putting Van Buren, a former president, at the top of their ticket in the 1848 election, the party only nabbed 10 percent of the vote. When nominee John P. Hale got just 5 percent four years later, the national party fell into disarray, and in 1854, was subsumed by the Republican Party, who shared Free Soilers’ opposition to slavery.
5. KNOW NOTHING
Much like today, immigration was a hotbutton issue throughout the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. As millions of people poured in from Germany, Ireland, China, and other countries, some Americans felt threatened, and nativist groups began to flourish in secret. Officially known as the American Party, the Know Nothings Party got its nickname when members, wary of any attention and looking for deniability, told curious reporters: “I know nothing.”
What Party Members Stood For: Vast restrictions on immigration, including a up to 21-year residency requirement for citizenship, excluding anyone not born in the U.S. from voting or holding public office, and general hostility to foreigners.
Notable Members: Former President Millard Fillmore, U.S. Representative Nathaniel Banks, U.S. Representative Lewis Levin
Why They Disappeared: At the party’s convention in 1856, delegates quarreled over whether to support slavery: When Southern Know-Nothings argued for a pro-slavery plank, the Northerners left to join forces with the Republican party. Though they nominated Fillmore, he carried only one state—Maryland—in the election, and the party crumbled shortly after.
Inspired by the movements for agricultural reforms in the South and Midwest in the 1880s, the Populist Party, also known as the People’s Party, officially launched in 1892. The group pushed for reforms that would put farmers on equal economic footing with industry and business. Though the national party was relatively short-lived, its left-wing ideas found new life a few decades later in Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party.
What Party Members Stood For: Increasing the circulating currency to offset economic depression, a graduated income tax, banking reform, and more federal intervention to prevent poverty among the poor and working class.
Notable Members: U.S. Representative James B. Weaver, U.S. Senator Marion Butler, U.S. Senator Tom Watson
Why They Disappeared: Weaver, the Populists’ 1892 presidential candidate, won over one million votes, but in the years before the next election the party experienced division amongst its ranks. Fusion Populists argued that the party should join with the Democrats to pull the latter further to the left; mid-roaders advocated that they remain in the sweet spot in between the two major parties. What remained of the party fell apart when Populists endorsed the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, at their 1896 convention. The party organization—but not its ideas—soon went extinct.
7. BULL MOOSE
After failing to clinch the Republican nomination in 1912 because of what he felt was a stolen election, former President Theodore Roosevelt threw out his GOP membership card in favor of a splinter party: the Progressives. The party, which formed later that summer, was unofficially dubbed the Bull Moose Party, after its willful standard-bearer.
What Party Members Stood For: Many liberal reforms, including women’s suffrage, the beginnings of a national healthcare system, and an eight-hour workday for women and children.
Notable Members: Former President Theodore Roosevelt, California Governor Hiram Johnson
Why They Disappeared: Though the Roosevelt-led ticket earned 25 percent of the vote in November, the party machinery didn’t have the momentum to continue on much longer. In 1916, delegates again nominated their Bull Moose, but he refused to accept, and the Progressive faction dissolved.
Also known as the States’ Rights Party, the Dixiecrats were exasperated Southern Democrats who’d had enough of their Northern counterparts’ civil rights agenda and, in 1948, split off to form a new party. The group was only active for that presidential election, nominating South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond in the hopes of splitting the vote, creating a stalemate, and strongarming one of the major parties into dropping their civil rights plank.
What Party Members Stood For: Opposition to federal regulations that, in their opinion, interfered with states’ rights, as well as to the Democrats’ civil rights push.
Notable Members: South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, Mississippi Governor Fielding L. Wright
Why They Disappeared: When their political strategy failed, leaving them with just 39 electoral votes—not enough to alter the election—the Dixiecrats were left without a unifying aim, and ultimately disbanded.