Eight U.S. Political Parties That Withered Away

It could happen to your favorite party, too.


L to R: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson. | Photos via Wikimedia

The voters have spoken, the winner’s been decided — and pundits are saying the biggest loser of all in this election could be our two time-honored political parties. (Then again, what do pundits know, right?) Before the election, the talk was of a Republican schism; now, there’s speculation the Democrats may split apart. Though the occasional outlier (the Green Party, the Socialist Party) crops up, the U.S. has been ruled by either the GOP or the Dems my entire life, and I just turned 60, so I’m, like, practically dead. That said, shit happens. Political parties do morph. They even expire. Here are quite a few that now are gone with the wind.

The Federalist Party

This was the first U.S. political party, the intellectual home of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, among others. It was birthed in the 1790s by a coalition of — wait for it — businessmen and bankers, and favored Hamilton’s fiscal policies, a strong federal government, a national bank, and Constitutional powers that could be implied but weren’t necessarily outright stated. Popular in the Northeast and New England, it ruled for a decade but faded after the election of 1800.

The Democratic-Republican Party

Confusing, right? The party of Thomas Jefferson, the DRP, also known as the Jeffersonian Republicans, opposed the Federalists (Jefferson thought they were elitist) and won that 1800 election. Jefferson became the first DRP president, followed (not in order) by James Madison, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson. Monroe’s election set off the quaintly named “Era of Good Feelings,” when — get this — everybody got along. The DRP was strong in the South but weak in the Northeast, and within a few decades it splintered into four factions, one of which became the Democratic Party.

The National Republican Party

This offshoot of the Democratic-Republican Party, also known as the Anti-Jacksonians, opposed the policies of Andrew Jackson, who was elected in 1828. Led by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, it favored infrastructure improvements and protective tariffs and joined hands with the Anti-Masonic Party to become the Whigs.

The Anti-Masonic Party

This party, the first “third party” in the U.S., was formed in upstate New York in 1828 and opposed — duh — Freemasonry, believing that Masons were engaged in an anti-democratic cabal to control the government. They weren’t alone; a number of Protestant churches also opposed the Masons. (You could sort of see their point; at least 14 U.S. presidents have been Freemasons, including George Washington, James Monroe, Teddy and F.D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Gerald Ford. That’s almost a third.) Members hoped to convince Henry Clay to join them — after he renounced his membership in the Masons, that is. The highest elected office held by a member of the party was the governorship of, yep, Pennsylvania, won by Berks County native Joseph Ritner in 1835. The party held a presidential nominating convention in Philly in 1838 but soon merged into the Whigs.

The Whig Party

This party, under the leadership of Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, opposed the policies of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party. Formed in 1833 via a merger of the National Republican Party and the Anti-Masonic Party, by 1835 it had been renamed the Whigs, in a nod to the Whigs who’d favored independence in the American Revolution. It wanted more power to the people, meaning Congress, and less to the presidency. Alas, the two Whig presidents who got elected, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, both died in office. John Tyler succeeded Harrison, who expired in 1841 after a mere month in office, supposedly because he attended his inauguration — and delivered an 8,000-word speech there — without an overcoat or hat. But Tyler got kicked out of the party for vetoing Whig bills. Millard Fillmore, who became president when Taylor died in 1850 (of a gastrointestinal illness, having consumed raw fruit and ice milk at a Fourth of July celebration) after just 17 months in office, was the last Whig president; the party dissolved over the question of expanding slavery to new American territories.

The Native American Party

This bunch, also known as the Know-Nothings, ran on promises to “purify the nation” by cracking down on the immigration and naturalization of Roman Catholic immigrants, who they suspected of being under the control of the Pope. (Why the weird nickname? When asked about their anti-immigrant activities, members would say, “I know nothing.”) They nominated former prez Millard Fillmore, no Know-Nothing, for a re-up in 1856 while he was out of the country, to his surprise. The Know-Nothings rejected the elite and favored the workingman; only white Protestants could belong, so, yeah, it didn’t work out so well in the end, though one mayor of Philly, Robert T. Conrad, was a member, as was the governor of California and, in Congress, a Speaker of the House. Abraham Lincoln derided the Know-Nothings’ policies but didn’t openly oppose them because he needed their votes in Illinois to combat slavery. Their nativist movement (which led to riots in Philly in 1844) was widespread but short-lived; after the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision holding that black people of African descent weren’t citizens under the Constitution, anti-slavery members drifted to the Republican Party.

The Constitutional Union Party

Former Whigs opposed to secession over the issue of slavery formed this one-year-only party in 1860, joined by Know-Nothings who couldn’t stomach the Democrats or the Republicans. When secession began following the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, the CUP gradually faded away. Which reminds us of a joke from childhood: Say “lettuce” and then spell “cup.”

The Reform Party

Finally, modern times! The Reform Party of the United States of America, a.k.a. RPUSA (terrible acronym), was founded in 1995 by Ross Perot, who’d snagged a whole 19 percent of the vote when he ran for president as an Independent in 1992. He plugged it as a real alternative to the Republicans and Democrats; over the years, Donald Trump and the KKK’s David Duke were members. Though RPUSA presented such diverse candidates as Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, no Reform presidential hopeful since 2000 has garnered even 1 percent of the popular vote. RPUSA’s high point was the election of pro wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota in 1998. (He promptly left the party.) Trump actually mounted a brief Reform campaign for the 2000 presidential election before withdrawing, noting, “So the Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. Buchanan, and a communist, Ms. [Lenora] Fulani. This is not company I wish to keep.” Man, those were the days.

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