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What is the Constitutional Union Party?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Constitutional Union party is a historical American political party with a relatively short history. Created in 1860, the party had already become irrelevant over the next few years as the country moved toward civil war. This political party emerged primarily as an attempt to avoid the issue of slavery, and prevent the conflicts that started the American Civil War.

The Constitutional Union party was also called the Bell-Everett party, named after its presidential and vice presidential candidates. The party was largely made up of conservative Whigs and another group called the Know-Nothings. These groups promoted this party as a return to constitutional purity, where other issues like slavery were to be avoided on a federal level. The party, according to its identifiers, was to “recognize no political principle…” besides the constitution.

When Southern states began to secede from the union, the aims of the Constitutional Union party became obsolete. Members of the party drifted toward either the Union or the Confederacy depending on their location and views on the abolition of slavery. It’s interesting to note that, in the last years before the American Civil War, this political party represented one of the last prominent challenges to the two-party system of Republican and Democrat candidates that has lasted for over a century in modern times.

Political analysts who identify the modern two-party system in different ways often focus on challenges to the two dominant parties. Although third parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party have challenged the two mainstreams parties in recent years on local government levels, the national electoral process has remained the province of the Republican and Democrat parties. Some grass-roots supporters of today’s third parties might look back to the history of parties like the Constitutional Union party to observe how historical third parties operated.

Historians also note that as a product of their times, the aims of the Constitutional Union party stood in the way of the progress toward civil rights that is now commonly preserved in modern American governments. To civil rights activists, the doctrines of this party represent insidious efforts to control the emergence of greater civil rights for minorities in America. Just like other political ideas of its era, the ideals of this party are still heavy with potential controversy. Today, the party of Constitutional Union is fundamentally part of a turbulent time in antebellum American politics.

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Discussion Comments
By B707 — On Nov 01, 2011

In my opinion, I think that the members of the Constitutional Union Party really were intent on blocking any further progress in the civil rights movement.

There was very strong emotional feeling about this issue. They wanted no changes to the Constitution. The civil rights controversy was right "up front" in 1860, so they embraced it. Strong feeling about civil rights have remained deep in the hearts of many people, as well as feelings about state's rights to this day.

By Misscoco — On Oct 31, 2011

I think that it is possible that a third party may one day develop in the United States. There are other countries that have had success with more than two parties.

The Republican and Democratic parties have become so headstrong and unable to communicate and negotiate that deadlock is happening more and more. What constitutes Republican and Democratic ideals has become "mushy." A third party may be the only way out.

By TreeMan — On Oct 31, 2011

@Izzy78 - I agree with you to a certain extent. Although the Constitutional Union Party was using a one dimensional idea to try and gather votes, in reality that is what voters are looking for.

The slavery issue was very complicated at this time and people were looking for clear cut answers to resolve it. The Constitutional Union Party took this opportunity to address the issue their own way by not addressing it at all, using the Constitution as a reason to do nothing about it.

I feel that it was a little more than undermining the populace because in reality every political party does that because they are trying to get people elected. The great idea that the Constitutional Union Party had was that they had a very simply idea that no one could really argue against. This was all they needed and they sold it as much as they could. It is all just politics of the day and they were able to identify with a large segment of the population.

By Izzy78 — On Oct 30, 2011

I have never enjoyed the Constitutional Union Party and have always felt it was a party that simply formed out of political reasons and not necessarily for the purposes of what they say.

When you think about it what political party ever says that they do not protect the Constitution? I cannot think of one ever saying that and how can a party base their entire political platform on that idea? The answer to this is one that is very one-dimensional and is simply looking to try and get quick votes when they do not have a real platform.

I have never seen the Constitutional Union Party as being a legitimate party simply because they do not contribute much of anything to the study of history. They are so one dimensional that it is quite astounding, yet their one and only idea is so supportive that they were able to win states in the presidential election.

Maybe they were playing off of people's ignorance and hoping they were not looked at critically, but it is possible they knew all of this and were simply looking for quick votes by undermining people.

By kentuckycat — On Oct 30, 2011

@jcraig - I understand where you are getting at and this could easily become a debate about the whole idea of progress.

I do agree it is absolutely hard to have a platform based on preserving the ideas in an 80 year old document, based on exactly how it is written, and is slow for progress, but there are ways to change and amend it that are inscribed in the document.

I see this particular party as simply being another third party that did not like the ideals of either the Democratic or Republican party and simply picked something simple and popular with people that they could identify with.

Nobody wants their rights tramples on so when they base their entire platform on protecting the document that secures the rights for the people, they are going to get a lot of support. However, as the voting results show, this can only go so far and since their idea was one-dimensional they only got a decent amount of support, but not enough to put people in office and instill their policies and ideas on the government.

By jcraig — On Oct 29, 2011

When looking back at the history of the United States from our perspective in 2011 it is hard to understand the significance of the Constitutional Union Party. However, in order to understand the party one must look at it from that time and understand the issues at hand that lead to the creation of their platform.

Back in the 1800's the Constitution was something that was near and dear to the hearts of everyone. By running on the platform that they sought to preserve the Constitution, that allowed them to avoid debating changes and simply look at the Constitution as being set in stone, not to be interpreted with changing times.

Due to this view it was only natural for issues like slavery not to be addressed, because they were not addressed a great deal in the Constitution. It was not just an avoidance of slavery, it was in reality an avoidance of progress and that is probably why the party did not last very long. There is no way to look at the Constitution the way they did and expect to progress fast over the years.

By popcorn — On Oct 28, 2011

@MrSmirnov - In the long historical list of political parties in the United States, I can't say the Constitutional Union Party will be familiar to many people, given that they were only around for the election of 1860.

Given that they were a splinter group of a couple other also-rans in the political field, I agree it is surprising that they pulled 12.6% and even carried the popular vote in three states. The fact that their candidates included former senators and a sitting governor (Sam Houston of Texas) likely increased the party's viability over that of your typical third party in the American party system.

By MrSmirnov — On Oct 28, 2011

This party sounds like it should have had the more appropriate name of the "Let's Avoid the Elephant in the Room Party". I don't know how they expected the issue to go away or be resolved by simply not addressing it. Maybe it's hard to appreciate with a century and a half of separation from this era just how divisive the issue of slavery was and what lengths people would go to in order to not have to really deal with it.

The Constitutional Union Party pulled 12.6% of the popular vote in the Presidential election of 1860, which sounds like a surprisingly high amount to me. Can anyone tell me which party would have been the most likely to receive these votes if the Constitutional Union Party hadn't existed?

By sunshined — On Oct 28, 2011

In my high school and college history classes, I don't ever remember studying about the Constitutional Union party. I do remember reading about the Whig's, and am quite amused by the definition of the Know-Nothing party.

I know that is the way some people would describe the opposing party in the political world today.

It is not surprising that the beliefs of this party were so controversial. As the history of political parties have evolved and unfolded, controversy has always been at the heart of our politics.

The Democratic and Republican parties have been the main political parties as far as I can remember, but I would not be surprised if a third party becomes successful in the future.

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