Opposition Party (United States)

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This article is about a particular political group in the 19th century. For the generic term "Opposition party", see Opposition (parliamentary).

The Opposition Party in the United States is a label with two different applications in Congressional history, first occurring as a plurality in Congress (c. 1854–58), and as a third party in the South (c. 1858–60).

The late 1850s saw political chaos during the fragmenting of the Second Party System of Jackson Democrats and Clay Whigs. The Democratic efforts to expand slavery into western territories, particularly Kansas, led to organized political opposition, which coalesced in Congress as the "Opposition Party."

As the Whig Party disintegrated, many local and regional parties grew up, some ideological, some geographic. When they realized their numbers in Congress, they began to caucus in the same way US political parties had arisen before the Jacksonian national party conventions. Scholars such as Kenneth C. Martis have adopted a convention to explain the Congressional coordination of anti-Pierce and anti-Buchanan factions as the “Opposition Party”.

The Opposition Party as a third party in the South was made up of political activists who organized, held party conventions and elected members to Congress.

"Opposition Party" (c. 1854-1858)[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives chamber until 1858 when it moved to the New House Chamber currently in use

In the Congressional election of 1854 for the 34th United States Congress, the new Republican Party was not fully formed, and significant numbers of politicians, mostly former Whigs, ran for office under the Opposition label. The administration of Democratic President Franklin Pierce had been marred by Bleeding Kansas. Northerners began to coalesce around resistance to Kansas entering the Union as a slave state. The ongoing violence made any election results from that territory suspect by standards of democracy.

The Opposition Party was the name adopted by several former Whig politicians in the period 1854-1858. In 1860, the party was encouraged by the remaining Whig leadership to effectively merge with the Constitutional Union Party.[1]

It represented a brief but significant transitional period in American politics from approximately 1854 to 1858. For the preceding 80 years, one of the major political issues had been the battle between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the United States, which had been fought more on the basis of regional and class affiliations than strictly along party lines. However, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 fractured the Whig Party along pro- and anti-slavery lines, and led ultimately to the formation of the Republican Party, which strongly attracted the abolitionist Whigs and Democrats. For many, the Opposition Party served as a successor to, or a continuation of, the Whig Party.

The party was seen as offering a compromise position between the Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans.[2]

The Whig name had been discredited and abandoned, but former Whigs still needed to advertise that they were opposed to the Democrats. The Know Nothings had found that its appeals to anti-immigrant prejudice was faltering and their secrecy was made suspect, so they sought more open and more inclusive appeals to broaden a candidate's chances at the polls.[3]

The "confounding party labels among all those who opposed the Democrats" have led to scholars of U.S. political parties in Congress to adopt the convention "Opposition Party" for the 34th and 35th Congresses. This term encompasses Independent, Anti-know-nothing, Fusion, Anti-Nebraska, Anti-Administration, Whig, Free Soil and Unionist.[4]

Following the 1854 election, the Opposition Party actually was the largest party in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the resulting 34th United States Congress, the U.S. House's 234 Representatives were made up of 100 Oppositionists, 83 Democrats, and 51 Americans (Know Nothing).[5] That was a very dramatic shift from the makeup of the 33rd United States Congress (157 Democrats, 71 Whigs, 4 Free Soilers, 1 Independent, 1 Independent Democrat). Being the largest party did not lead to control of Congress; the new Speaker of the House was Nathaniel Prentice Banks, a former Democrat from Massachusetts who campaigned as a Know Nothing in 1854 and as a Republican in 1856.

By the 1856 elections, the Republican Party had formally organized itself, and the makeup of the 35th United States Congress was 132 Democrats, 90 Republicans, 14 Americans, 1 Independent Democrat.[6]

Opposition Party in the South (c. 1858-1860)[edit]

In 1858, 19 candidates were elected to the 36th United States Congress as members of the Opposition Party from several states, including Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. After 1858, the party did not win seats in Congress and effectively ceased to exist.

To qualify as a third party by Kenneth C. Martis’ analysis, a political party must meet one of four criteria, including (a) run clearly identifiable congressional candidates, many times in three-way contests; and/or (b) they represent a clearly identifiable historical political movement or sentiment that is regional or national in scope.[7] Elements of the pro-Union American Party and the Whig Party in the south needed to organize a political party which could not be accused of disloyalty to Southern institutions (slavery).[8]

In March 1859 the Opposition Party held its Tennessee convention to nominate a gubernatorial candidate (John Netherland) and set up a statewide party organization. It won seven of the nine Congressional districts (see chart below). Kentucky followed in February 1859, winning five of the ten districts. Georgia’s election was in July 1859, winning two of eight districts. In North Carolina, the anti-Democratic parties won four of the eight seats, and caucused with the Opposition party in the House. “These elections were the last gasp…in the South to stand up to the Democrats in the emerging sharp sectional confrontation."[9]

“Opposition Party” in the 36th Congress, 1859–1861[10]
State Georgia Kentucky North Carolina Tennessee Virginia
Representative, (Congressional District Number)
1. Thomas Hardeman Jr. (3rd) Francis M. Bristow (3rd) William N. H. Smith (1st) Thomas A.R. Nelson (1st) Alexander R. Boteler (8th)
2. Joshua Hill (7th) William C. Anderson (4th) John A. Gilmer (5th) Horace Maynard (2nd)
3. Green Adams (6th) James Madison Leach (6th) Reese B. Brabson (3rd)
4. Robert Mallory (7th) Zebulon B. Vance (8th) William B. Stokes (4th)
5. Laban T. Moore (9th) Robert H. Hatton (5th)
6. James M. Quarles (8th)
7. Emerson Etheridge (9th)

In North Carolina, a Republican organization did not develop until after the Civil War, and many former Whigs such as John Pool called themselves either the Whig Party or the Opposition Party through the election of 1860. This "new" Whig Party was actually just the state's affiliate of the American (Know-Nothing) Party with a new name, according to Folk and Shaw's W.W. Holden: a Political Biography. This party ceased to exist after the onset of the Civil War, but many of its members joined the loosely organized "Conservative Party" of Zebulon B. Vance.

Opposition Party (Illinois, 1874)[edit]

The name "Opposition Party" was resuscitated in Illinois in 1874, when it was adopted by a coalition of all groups opposed to Republican Party rule in Chicago and Cook County.[11] The Opposition Party opposed temperance laws and the alleged corruption of the Republican machine[12] and incorporated both Democrats and more radical political elements.[11] Several members were elected to the 29th Illinois General Assembly on the Opposition Party ticket in the election of 1874; these included Moses Wentworth in the 1st district, William H. Stickney in the 6th district, and William H. Skelly in the 7th district.[13] The coalition was not successful at the local level, and did not appear in subsequent elections.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ James Alex Baggett (2003). The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-3014-1. 
  2. ^ Brian Dallas McKnight (2006). Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-2389-5. 
  3. ^ Martis, Kenneth C., et al., ‘The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789-1989’, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY, 1989, p. 32–34, ISBN 0-02-920170-5.
  4. ^ Martis, Kenneth C., et al., ‘The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789-1989’, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY, 1989, p.385-392, ISBN 0-02-920170-5.
  5. ^ Martis, Kenneth C., et al., ‘The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789-1989’, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY, 1989, p. 108–109, ISBN 0-02-920170-5.
  6. ^ Martis, Kenneth C., et al., ‘The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789-1989’, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY, 1989, p. 110–111, ISBN 0-02-920170-5.
  7. ^ Martis, Kenneth C., op. cit., p. 39
  8. ^ Freehling, William W., ‘The Road to Disunion vol.ii: Secessionists Triumphant’ Oxford U. Pr. 2007. ISBN 978-0-19-505815-4, P. 267
  9. ^ Martis, Kenneth C., op. cit., p. 43
  10. ^ Martis, Kenneth C., op. cit., p. 112
  11. ^ a b c Weston Arthur Goodspeed & Daniel David Healy, eds. (1909). History of Cook County, Illinois. p. 569. 
  12. ^ "The Opposition in the 17th Ward". Illinois Staats-Zeitung. 1874-10-27. 
  13. ^ Illinois Legislative Manual–1875. 1875. pp. 84–88.