“Third parties can never win” or so you have heard a thousand times. Except — and it’s one huge exception — under historical circumstances much like the conditions we currently face. We are living in a rare historical moment when the deep inner conflicts of the system can no longer be solved, compromised, or even faced by normal political means. The two-party system has only made things worse.
In the years before the Civil War, there was an issue that also could not be solved, compromised or avoided: slavery. Slavery was an economic system but it was also a political system that gave special benefits and special powers to the slave-owning class. The radicals of the day had a name for this rigged system: “The Slave Power.”
The decades before the revolutionary leap of 1863 are full of meaningful parallels to our own time. The existing two-party system was destroyed because it could not solve the problem of slavery. Instead, the politicians of the day resorted to gag rules, denial, distraction and deception — all the same tools used by our current political class in the face of the new issues for which there is no middle ground.
Now we face a clusterfuck that no amount of denial, propaganda, or machine politics can make go away: extreme wealth and political inequality, irreversible climate chaos, systematic racism and patriarchy, perpetual war, global empire, and the collapse of democracy. The corporate power rules over us because it has merged with the government in order to secure the special powers, protections, and benefits that guarantee its supremacy.
As our anti-slavery ancestors fought the “Slave Power” so must we fight Corporate Power.
Abolitionists, rebellious slaves, and political radicals searched for strategies to best resist or abolish slavery. Once the Civil War turned to revolution after 1863 the most successful slave rebellion in US history flooded the federal army with recruits eager to fight for freedom. Black action turned the tide of war, destroyed chattel slavery, and launched the failed but deeply democratic experiments of the Reconstruction Era.
But the path toward the revolutionary upheavals of 1863 – 1877 was paved by a long political struggle against slavery. The abolitionist movements against slavery gave rise to a new revolutionary party: the Republican Party.
The Slave Power and the Anti-Slavery Movement*
The anti-slavery movement busted through all the gag orders, denials and distractions with a strategy that clearly named the “Slave Power” as the enemy. The Slave Power advanced the interests of all slave owners and suppress the rights and interests of all others — including enslaved and free blacks, white workers, and small farmers.
The power of the slave-owners was guaranteed by the original US Constitution. While there were many flaws and shortcomings in the Constitution’s design the worst of the worst was the “Three/Fifths Compromise.”
The Three/Fifths Compromise allowed the slave-owning states to include three-fifths of all slaves into the census that determined the number of congressional representatives and electoral college votes. Needless to say, the enslaved were not represented. This distorted representation gave slave owners effective control over Congress and a decisive edge in presidential elections until Lincoln’s victory in 1860.
The presidencies and power of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe depended on the extra political power of slave owners. This rigged advantage continued to give the slave-owners of the 19th Century an upper-hand. They pushed through a series of laws that sought to open the territories and new states of the west to slavery.
This steady enlargement of slavery’s domain sparked northern resistance.
Three third parties — the Liberty Party, Free Soil Party and finally the Republican Party — tried one after the other to take this fight against Slave Power to the northern white masses. They took aim at the Slave Power and they were armed with a “revolutionary reform:” the demand for the non-extension of slavery to the western territories. (More on this in an upcoming article.)
Salmon P. Chase, one of the most effective anti-slavery organizers, honed these twin strategies over the long struggle that lead to the triumph of the Republican Party. Chase’s political plans depended on the “absolute necessity of organized resistance to the extension of Slavery and the domination of the Slave Power.”
The Slave Power was the defining narrative of the anti-slavery movement. It was a blunt instrument used to break up the deeply embedded racism of whites — including their own followers. It may seem counterintuitive and deeply troubling, but the right-wing of the anti-slavery movement used white supremacy as a political tool. In this racist view, the west should be spared slavery because it was “white man’s country” — no place for Natives, Blacks, or Mexicans.
But, the radical wing of the movement was far from silent. Their powerful arguments about the Slave Power — proven at every turn by the insatiable demands of the slave owners — turned even racists against slavery.
Many understood as Frederick Douglass did, that white racism was, “the greatest of all obstacles in the way of the anti-slavery cause.”
Their method was to expose racist whites to ideas about civil rights and racial equality while engaging them in the struggle against systematic racism. Now, that is an organizing approach worth studying. By the end of the Civil War, a majority of northern whites agreed with the vision and values of the new Republican Party — at least for a time.
A Power Struggle or a Morality Play?
A comparison between the different tendencies resisting slavery gives us some hard contradictions to think about. The best known to history are the radical abolitionists. Their leader was William Lloyd Garrison who viewed slavery as ungodly and sinful. Their main strategy was a strident moral demand for immediate abolition. The radical abolitionists organized about 5% of northern whites against slavery.
The anti-slavery forces, on the other hand, were committed to a primarily political strategy. Many leaders did emphasize the moral and political critique of slavery, like Salmon Chase, but others were openly racist. In the end, however, it was a political strategy — not merely a moral appeal — that was the path to both power and morality.
Lincoln was a “centrist” in the Republican coalition and went back and forth between racist and anti-racist positions. By 1859 Lincoln finally claimed that the Republican Party was motivated by “hatred to the institution of slavery; hatred to it in all its aspects, moral, social and political.” Over 60% of northern whites eventually rallied behind that program, at least during the later phase of civil war. This political hatred of slavery did not necessarily translate into the desire to see Blacks as equal.
But, by engaging the millions in a political struggle, the Republican party moved toward the revolutionary threshold. In 1863 Lincoln finally accepted the fact that it was either emancipation — including the arming of thousands of blacks — or defeat. Lincoln choose revolution because it was the only path to victory.
By targeting the Slave Power the anti-slavery activists united a wide-ranging and internally conflicted coalition of forces into a revolutionary party.
The Republicans won the allegiance of the most important actors of the period: the hundreds of thousands of rebellious slaves, Black Abolitionists, and soldiers that won the Civil War. They became the backbone of the Republican Party and the new democratic governments in the south.
Martin Delany, one of the founders of African Nationalism, was commissioned a Major — the first Black field officer in the US Army. Delany would later run for office as a Republican.
The 2,000 or so newly elected black officials — virtually all Republicans and southern — rode the wave of revolution earned by the sacrifices of the 250,000 black soldiers and the many thousands more black women and children that supported the federal armies. An estimated 15% of white federal troops were abolitionist minded– a percentage that grew as the war went on — and meaningful black/white unity existed for a brief few years in the south behind demands for public education, economic reforms, and basic democracy.
The transition of Black men from slave to citizen was also the result of political necessity. Just as emancipation was absolutely necessary for military victory, citizenship rights for Black men were absolutely necessary for political victory. Had the slaves been technically freed but not become voters, the southern states would have returned to Congress with even larger delegations than the 3/5 compromise granted them — since all Blacks would now count in the census. Only the Black male voters, many of them soldiers or veterans, guaranteed Republican majorities in the south.
The Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction and ended the Republican Party as a revolutionary force: Federal troops were withdrawn; Republican majorities destroyed; white terrorism unleashed.
Despite the failures and limits of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the new Republican Party this remains one of our proudest moments. But now the Slave Power of old has been replaced by Corporate Power. By merging the corporation with the state, big money dominates the government like never before. And the results? All the existential crises we now face are driven by Corporate Power’s insatiable demands for profit and power.
We must find the modern equivalent of the great slave rebellion, the abolitionist soldier and anti-slavery movement that together made a new revolutionary party. Look to the massive resistance against police violence and the strike wave triggered by the pandemic for clues as to what that looks like.
We will make history from the bottom up or we will not make history at all.
This article also appears in CounterPunch.
*I am relying on two classics, a newer one and an older one. Leonard Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination 1780-1860 sets out the long-term damage created by the Three/Fifths Compromise of the Constitution and demonstrates that the Slave Power had a systematic and institutionalized foundation in the Constitution and political parties. Eric Foner’s classic work: Free Soil, Free Labor Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War remains a useful read. While Foner places ideology at the center of things, I am reading across his main purpose to find the political and rhetorical strategies that emerging third parties used to rise to power.
 In a series of fairly close votes Congress supported the slave power’s agenda: the Indian Removal Act, Gag Rule, Annexation of Texas, Mexican-American War, Defeat of Wilmont’s Proviso, Fugitive Slave Act, repeal of Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and more.
 Foner, 92
 See Foner, 308, for the estimates of the organizational effectiveness of the moral abolitionist versus the political anti-slavery movement.