Constitutional Union Party (United States)

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Constitutional Union Party
First LeaderJohn Bell
Founded1860 (1860)
Dissolved1861 (1861)
Merger ofAmerican Party
Opposition Party
Succeeded byUnionist Party
HeadquartersAtlanta, Georgia
IdeologyAmerican nationalism
Gag rule
Political positionRight-wing/Big tent (main aim was to preserve the Union)
Colors     Orange
A Constitutional Union campaign poster for the 1860 election in which are shown John Bell (left), the presidential nominee; and Edward Everett, the vice presidential nominee

The Constitutional Union Party was a political party in the United States created in 1860 which ran against the Republicans and Democrats as a fourth party in 1860. It was made up of conservative former Whigs who wanted to avoid secession over the slavery issue. These former Whigs (some of whom had been under the banner of the Opposition Party in 1854–1858) teamed up with former Know Nothings and a few Southern Democrats who were against secession to form the Constitutional Union Party. The party's name comes from its simple platform, which consists of the resolution "to recognize no political principle other than the Constitution of the country, the Union of the states, and the Enforcement of the Laws". The party hoped that by not taking a firm stand either for or against slavery or its expansion, the issue could be pushed aside.

John J. Crittenden and other unionist Congressmen organized the 1860 Constitutional Union Convention, which met in May 1860. The convention nominated John Bell of Tennessee for President and Edward Everett of Massachusetts for Vice President. Crittenden, Sam Houston, William Alexander Graham and William Cabell Rives also received support for the party's presidential nomination at the convention. In the 1860 presidential election, Bell took 12.6% of the popular vote and won three slave states. Most of Bell's support came from former Southern Whigs or Know Nothings.

After the election, Crittenden and other Constitutional Unionists unsuccessfully sought to prevent a civil war with the Crittenden Compromise and the Peace Conference of 1861. After the onset of the American Civil War, many former party members, including Bell, supported the Confederacy whereas most border state Constitutional Unionists remained loyal to the Union. Constitutional Unionists helped organize the Wheeling Convention (which split off West Virginia from Virginia) while many in Missouri joined the Unconditional Union Party.


A predecessor of the Constitutional Union Party, the Unionist Party, was founded in 1850 by Georgia politicians Robert Toombs, Alexander Stephens and Howell Cobb to support the Compromise of 1850 and reject the notion of Southern secession. This party united Southern Whigs and Democrats under the Georgia Platform, which affirmed Georgia's acceptance of the Compromise as a final resolution to the issue of slavery. However, the party never expanded outside of the Deep South states of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama and dissolved by the end of 1851.[1]

The 1860 incarnation of the Constitutional Union Party united remnants of both the defunct Whig and Know Nothing parties who were unwilling to join either the Democrats or the Republicans. Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, Henry Clay's successor in border-state Whiggery, set up a meeting among fifty conservative, pro-Compromise congressmen in December 1859, which led to a convention in Baltimore the week of May 9, 1860, one week before the Republican Party convention. The convention nominated John Bell of Tennessee for President and Edward Everett of Massachusetts for Vice President.

1860 presidential election[edit]

In the 1860 election, the Constitutional Unionists received the great majority of their votes from former southern Whigs or Know Nothings. A few of their votes were cast by former Democrats who were against secession. Although the party did not get 50% of the popular vote in any state, they won the electoral votes of three states, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, largely due to the split in Democratic votes between Stephen A. Douglas in the North and John C. Breckinridge in the South. California and Everett's home state of Massachusetts were the only non-slave states in which the party received more than 5% of the popular vote.

After 1860[edit]

The party and its purpose disappeared after 1860 as the Southern states began to secede, though the party remained active in Congress until the end of the Civil War. Bell and many other Constitutional Unionists later supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, but backers of the party from north of the Carolinas tended to remain supporters of the Union. Constitutional Unionists were influential in the Wheeling Convention, which led to the creation of the Union loyalist state of West Virginia, as well as in the declaration of the Kentucky General Assembly for the Union and winning Congressional elections in Kentucky and Maryland in June. In Missouri, many of the party joined the new Unconditional Union Party headed by Francis P. Blair, Jr. and remained active in that state's efforts to remain in the Union by overthrowing the elected government of Claiborne Jackson. Everett supported the Union and in 1863 gave a speech at Gettysburg before Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schott, Thomas (1996). Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography. LSU Press. pp. 129–132.


  • Blum, John M.; William S. McFeely; Edmund S. Morgan; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.; Kenneth M. Stampp; C. Vann Woodward (1985). The National Experience: A History of the United States (6th ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. pp. 344–345. ISBN 0155656643.

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