Looking back at the 19th century, it seems like everyone was insane. From the Occult to imperialism, people back then were into all sorts of bizarre things. Combine that with human nature and you’ve got some truly interesting political parties. The enlightenment opened the door to millions of Europeans to engage in politics – and what better way to engage in politics than to start your own political party. Many 19th century political parties were not bizarre at all, but noble and grand. They pushed for reform in the direction of their chosen ideology. That’s the thing about the past – political tribalism wasn’t as visible as it is today. People in Britain and America had no problem competing with the two largest parties. Most 19th century political parties are now extinct as they failed to achieve anything much. Here are 10 interesting examples of such 19th century political parties.
Anti-Masonic Party – USA
It’s not difficult to work out what this party was all about. They hated freemasonry, and wanted it outlawed. As they were absolutely a single issue party, the political establishment didn’t expect much from them. But their formation in 1828 just so happened to be met by a huge wave of anti-masonic feeling among large segments of the American people. In the year of their founding, they gained 5 seats in the house of representatives. This was, as it still would be, groundbreaking as America is a two party system. From there, their membership grew rapidly. Back then the two major parties weren’t the Democrats and the Republicans – it was the Jacksonian party and the Anti-Jacksonian party. The Anti-Masonic went on to merge with the Whig party, which later became the Republian party.
Crofters Party – UK
The Crofters party was the direct political arm of a movement called the Highland Land League. The Highland Land League wanted land reform in the Scottish highlands. It’s hard to say when the party began but they fielded candidates for election in the 1885, five of which were successfully elected. Their presence obviously shook the political establishment because the British parliament passed the Crofters’ Holdings Act one year later. The act granted security to land owners, and created regional courts to settle land disputed. The act also reduce the rent cost of land. This was essentially everything the Crofters wanted so they rapidly lost popularity and momentum. Party members went on to assist the rise of the Labour party and the Scottish National Party.
Free Soil Party – USA
The Free Soil Party was a single issue party focusing on ending slavery, hence their name. They genuinely believed that slavery was an inferior social and economic system than America would be without it, and they turned out to be correct. They focused on campaigning in New York mostly, with the goal of convincing other politicians that slavery must not spread to America’s ever-growing western territories. Their slogan was simple: “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men” – and their persistence was recognized by others. They took the interesting approach of not arguing moral issues, but claiming slavery hindered economic expansion. Like so many 19th century political parties, Free Soil eventually merged with the republican party. This is how the two dominant parties came to be – they absorbed most smaller ones like a corporate monopoly.
Liberty Party – USA
The Liberty Party was also an anti-slavery party in America. They were among the first voices against the slave trade, being founded in 1840. Although abolitionists, their opinion clashed with that of the American Anti-slavery Society, who claimed the constitution justified slavery and needed amendment. The Liberty Party believed that the constitution was actually against slavery and the establishment was just misinterpreting the document. They really didn’t have much electoral success and have largely been forgotten about. Unlike most 19th century political parties, their death didn’t come through a merger with a much larger party. But their membership slowly declined and the party simply faded away. This is because their policy was becoming more and more mainstream, and therefore adopted by the larger parties. They were made redundant.
Whigs – UK
The Whigs were an incredibly influential political party in Great Britain. The party was founded in 1678 after the parliamentarian victory in the English civil war. It was the political party of those fighting for democracy instead of absolute monarchy. Their opponents were the Tories, who grew out of the royalist side of the war. The Whigs lasted well into the 19th century after slowly gaining support through the 18th for championing the liberal ideology. Backed financially by many wealthy industrialists of the 19th century boom, the party was at all times wither the ruling party or the main opposition.In 1859, the party merged into the Liberal party, which took on the exact same position under a new name. But before then they defended individual rights, free trade, and pushed for the abolition of slavery.
Democratic-Republican Party – USA
The Democratic-Republican Party, can you imagine that? It had nothing to do with either of the modern Democratic or Republican parties. It was founded just one year before the start of the 19th century by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson, all of which served as president at one point in their lives.The death of the party came when it split into two smaller ones – the Democrats and the republicans. So that’s how they came to be. Unlike most other parties, they really had no main policies other than continuing to expand America and build more infrastructure. Basically they just wanted to run America, and they did so.
Tories – UK
As mentioned before, the Tories were the main opposition to the Whigs, and therefore one of the most influential 19th century political parties. The party was founded in 1678 after it’s future members were forced to face their defeat in the English civil war. There are countless great British parliamentarians produced by the Tory party – like William Pitt the Younger and Robert Peel. The party met it’s death by the Corn laws, which controlled tarifs in imported corn and grain in order to support British produce. On scrapping these laws, the party caused outrage. Outrage which would eventually tear the party apart. One group torn from the party went on to become the Conservative party – who are in power today.
Know Nothing – USA
Don’t be fooled by their bizarre name, the Know Nothing party was a serious political force. It was formed when they split away from the American Whig party as they believed the party wasn’t right-wing enough. Strangely, their main purpose was to oppose high levels of Immigrants coming from Ireland. Inside the party was a secret society known as the order of the star spangled banner. Members of the secret society were instructed to claim they know nothing about what it is. So people started calling party members “know nothings” because they all claimed they know nothing about it. The party was dissolved in 1860, becoming the Constitutional Union Party, which was also dissolved just 5 years later.
Northwest Liberal-Conservative Party – CAN
The Northwest Liberal-Conservative Party lasted from 1897 to 1905. Campaigning in the Northwestern region of Canada was never easy for them. The population was low and spaced out over vast distances. In 1903, the party held a convention in a small city called Moose Jaw. Some party members actually had to travel over 700 miles to get to Mosse Jaw for it! Despite that serious commitment, the party saw virtually no electoral success.
Anti-Nebraska – USA
The Anti-Nebraska party had the sole purpose of opposing the Kansas–Nebraska Act. The Kansas–Nebraska Act created Kansas and Nebraska as new territories so that more farmland could be used. As slavery was to be introduced into these new territories, the Northern Free-States were outraged. The Whig party had recently fallen apart, so the Democrats were free to gain power unchallenged. Many old Whig voters didn’t want this to happen. So they took advantage of the whole controversy and founded the Anti-Nebraska party. They eventually joined together with the Free Soil party, which in turn became the republican party. It’s strange to think the main modern parties have their roots in 19th century political parties.