Pundits on sites such as Esquire and Salon find an intriguing precedent in the rapid demise of the Whig party in the middle of the 19th century. From the early 1830s well into the mid-1850s, the Whigs joined the Democrats as one of the nation’s two major parties. As late as the winter of 1853, a Whig president, Millard Fillmore of New York, occupied the White House. But two years later, by the fall of 1855, the Whig party was effectively extinct. Clearly, dramatic change in American party politics can happen fast, but is that kind of transformation happening today with the G.O.P.?
The 1852 election was a disaster for the Whigs. In the vain hope of once more bridging the widening sectional rift, the party crafted a measured, proslavery platform distasteful to many northern Whigs, thousands of whom simply stayed home on Election Day. Two years later, when Congress passed divisive legislation that could introduce slavery into Kansas, the teetering Whig party came tumbling down. A new coalition that combined most of the Free Soil Party, a majority of northern Whigs, and a substantial number of disgruntled northern Democrats came together to form the Republican party. In less than two years, this grand, and not-at-all-old, party emerged as the most popular political party in the North, electing the Speaker of the House in February of 1856 and winning 11 of 16 non-slaveholding states in the presidential contest later that year.
The one policy goal that united all Republicans was opposition to the expansion of slavery, though there were a host of other issues that this Republican Party also coalesced behind (including, ironically, many former Whigs’ disgust at the growing “problem” of Irish Catholic immigrants). Abolitionists had long argued that the southern states unfairly controlled the national government and needed to be stopped from further extending slavery’s reach. Finally, after more than 20 years of agitation, the new Republican Party organized around precisely this agenda. Just a few years prior, such developments would have been almost completely unimaginable to all but the most prescient antislavery political spokesmen. Party systems can indeed collapse with stunning rapidity.