LESSONS LEARNED #23: “Those who seek a third party cede the election to the opposition.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 22nd, 2010

SLAVERY WAS ALWAYS a complicated issue.  Many of the Founding Fathers saw the contradiction with the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence.  And there were the economic costs.  George Washington wanted to transition to paid laborers as the generations of slaves he inherited were consuming an ever growing share of his harvest.  (You only pay paid-laborers; you didn’t have to house and feed them and their families.)  He had whole families that included babies and the elderly long past their working prime.  People would buy slaves in their working prime but wouldn’t take their parents and grandparents, too.  He didn’t want to break up the families.  And he couldn’t free them.  Someone had to take care of those who could no longer work.  So he would.  Even after death.  He freed his slaves in his will and directed his heirs to train and help them so they could integrate into the workforce.  (Not every slave-owner, though, was as caring as Washington).

So Washington, John Adams and some of the other Founding Fathers saw slavery as an institution that would eventually wither and die.  They saw it as immoral.  As well as an inefficient economic system.   It would just have to die out one day.  So they tabled the discussion to get the southern states to join the union.  But they did put an end date on the slave trade.  Twenty years should be enough time they thought.  And in those 20 years, the South would figure out what to do with the slaves they had.  Because no one in the north could figure that one out.  Who would compensate the slave owners for their emancipated ‘property’?  And there were no biracial societies at that time.  No one could imagine that a formerly enslaved majority will become peaceful neighbors with their former minority masters.  Especially in the South.

But the cotton gin changed all of that.  The one thing that slave labor was good for was big single-crop plantations.  And there was none better than King Cotton.  Separating the seed from the cotton was the one bottleneck in the cotton industry.  Ely Whitney changed that in 1791.  Cotton production exploded.  As did slavery.  The southern economy changed.  As did the political debate.  The southern economy was a cotton economy.  And cotton needed slaves.  The South, therefore, needed slavery.

CARVED OUT OF the new Louisiana Territory were territories that would organize into states and request admittance into the union.  But would they be free or slave?  The first test was resolved with the Missouri Compromise (1820).  Henry Clay (the Great Compromiser) kept the peace.  Saved the union.  For awhile.  The compromise forbade slavery north of Missouri’s southern border (approximately the 36th parallel) in the Louisiana Territory (except in Missouri, of course).  Martin Van Buren saw this as a temporary fix at best.  Any further discussion on the slavery issue could lead to secession.  Or war.  So he created the modern Democratic Party with but one goal.  To get power and to keep power.  With power he could control what they debated.  And, once he had power, they wouldn’t debate slavery again.

During the 1844 presidential campaign, the annexation of the Republic of Texas was an issue.  The secretary of state, Daniel Webster, opposed it.  It would expand slavery and likely give the Senate two new democratic senators.  Which was what John C. Calhoun wanted.  He succeeded Webster as secretary of state.  The new northern Whigs were antislavery.  The southern Whigs were pro-cotton.  The Whig presidential candidate in 1844 was Henry Clay (the Great Compromiser).  He wasn’t for it or against it.  Neither was Martin Van Buren, the Democrat frontrunner.  They wished to compromise and avoid this hot issue all together.

Well, Clay wasn’t ‘anti’ enough for the antislavery Whigs.  So they left and formed the Liberty Party and nominated James. G. Birney as their candidate.  Meanwhile, the Democrats weren’t all that happy with Van Buren.  Enter James Knox Polk.  He didn’t vacillate.  He pledged to annex Texas.  And the Oregon territory.  The Democrats nominated him and said goodbye to Van Buren.

The Whig and Liberty parties shared the northern antislavery votes, no doubt costing Clay the election.  A fait accompli, President Tyler signed off on the annexation of Texas before Polk took the oath of office.

BUT ALL WAS not well.  Those sectional differences continued to simmer just below the boiling point.  The Fugitive Slave Law now made the ‘southern’ problem a northern one, too.  Federal law now required that they help return this southern ‘property’.  It got ugly.  And costly.  Harriet Ward Beecher’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin only inflamed the abolitionist fires in the North.  And then Stephen Douglas saw a proposed transcontinental railroad that could take him to the Whitehouse. 

The railroad would go through the unorganized Nebraskan territory (the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase).   As Washington discussed organizing this territory, the South noted that all of this territory was above 36th parallel.  Thus, any state organized would be, by the terms of the Missouri Compromise, free.  With no state below the 36th parallel added, the balance of power would tip to the North.  The South objected.  Douglas assuaged them.  With the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  Which replaced the Missouri Compromise (the 36th parallel) with popular sovereignty.  And Kansas bled.

The idea of popular sovereignty said that the people of the new organized state would determine if they were free or slave.  So the free and slave people raced to populate the territory.  It was a mini civil war.  A precursor of what was to come.  It split up the Whig and Democratic parties.  Southern Whigs and Northern Democrats quit their parties.  The Whig Party would wither and die.  The new Republican Party would rise from the Whig’s ashes.  They would address the cause, not the symptoms.  And at the heart of all the sectional divides was the issue of slavery itself.  It had to be addressed.  As Abraham Lincoln would say in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

ZACHARY TAYLOR CHOSE Whig Millard Fillmore as his vice president to appeal to northern Whigs.  When Taylor died some 2 years into his first term, Fillmore became president.  His support of the Compromise of 1850 (admit California as a free state, settle Texas border, grant territorial status to New Mexico, end the slave trade in the District of Columbia and beef up the Fugitive Slave Law) alienated him from the Whig base.

In the 1856 presidential contest, the Republicans nominated John C. Frémont.  The Democrats nominated James Buchanan.  And Millard Fillmore (compromiser and one time Whig) ran on the American Party ticket.  There was talk of secession should Frémont win.  It was a 3-way race.  Buchanan battled with the ‘compromiser’ in the South.  And with the ‘abolitionist’ in the North.  The race was close.  Buchanan won with only 45% of the vote.  But Frémont lost by only 2 states.  He had won all but 5 of the free states.  Had Fillmore not run, it is unlikely that these free states would have voted for the slavery candidate.  So Fillmore no doubt denied Frémont the election.

AMERICA’S ORIGINAL TRUST buster, Teddy Roosevelt (TR), said he wouldn’t run for reelection.  And he didn’t.  He picked Howard Taft as his ‘successor’.  TR was a progressive frontier man.  He had that smile.  This made him a popular and formidable candidate.  Taft just wasn’t as much of a TR as TR was.  So some asked TR to run again.  Against his own, hand-picked ‘successor’.  Which he did.

Taft won the Republican Nomination, though.  Undeterred (and having a really big ego), TR formed a third party, the Progressive Party.  He moved to the left of Taft.  So far left that it made Woodward Wilson, the Democrat candidate, look moderate. 

The 1912 presidential election turned into a 3-man race.  Between 3 progressives.  Taft ‘busted’ more trusts than did TR.  But he just wasn’t TR.  Woodward Wilson was probably the most progressive and idealist of the three.  But in the mix, he looked like the sensible candidate.  Roosevelt beat Taft.  But Wilson beat Roosevelt.  Wilson won with only 45% of the vote.  And gave us the income tax and the Federal Reserve System.  Big Government had come.

IN THE 1992 presidential campaign, George Herbert Walker Bush (read my lips, no new taxes) ran in a 3-way race between Democrat Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.  Perot bashed both parties for their high deficits.  He was a populist candidate against the status quo.  He went on TV with charts and graphs.  He called Reaganomics ‘voodoo’ economics.  While Bush fought these attacks on his 12 years in the executive office (8 as vice president and on 4 as president), Clinton got by with relative ease on his one big weakness.  Character. 

Exit polling showed that Perot took voters from both candidates.  More people voted that year.  But the increase was roughly equal to the Perot vote (who took 19%).  If anyone energized the election that year, it wasn’t Clinton.  He won with only 43% of the vote.  The majority of Americans did not vote for Clinton.  Had the focus not been on Reaganomics and the deficit (where Perot took it), Clinton’s character flaws would have been a bigger issue.  And if it came down to character, Bush probably would have won.  Despite his broken ‘read my lips’ pledge.

HISTORY HAS SHOWN that third party candidates don’t typically win elections.  In fact, when a party splinters into two, it usually benefits the common opposition.  That thing that is so important to bring a third party into existence is often its own demise.  It splits a larger voting bloc into two smaller voting blocs.  Guaranteeing the opposition’s victory. 

Politics can be idealistic.  But not at the expense of pragmatism.  When voting for a candidate that cannot in all probability win, it is a wasted vote.  If you’re making a ‘statement’ with your vote by voting for a third party candidate, that statement is but one thing.  You want to lose.

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