The last third party to win — the Republican Party — used a revolutionary reform they called the “non-extention of slavery” to fundamentally alter the existing two-party system.
The history of the anti-slavery movement and the early Republican Party raises a question we are dying to answer: under what conditions and with what strategies can government be fundamentally transformed? Those conditions exist when there are major problems that the existing political order created but cannot solve. Back then it was slavery and the domination of the government by slave-owners. Now, it’s the interlocking crisis of climate change, empire, the militarized penal system, inequality and the domination of government by corporations.
Starting in the 1840s a series of third parties raised a fundamental challenge to the existing social order and they did so with a special kind of reform — a reform that required revolutionary measures to achieve.
Non-extension of Slavery was a Revolutionary Reform
The demand for the non-extention of slavery literally drew a line in the sand beyond which the system of slavery could not pass. Its appeal would mobilize millions of people from all walks of life. Non-extention was a first step leading to abolition and the creation of a revolutionary party. Non-extention was a wedge issue that busted up the existing order and convinced northern white people to oppose slavery.
A new array of social movements and political parties, including the Liberty Party, Free Soil Party and eventually the Republican Party organized resistance against the slave owners that controlled the federal government. By wielding the power of government the slave-owning oligarchs ruthlessly exploited slaves and threatened the interests and values of northern white labor.
As the demand for non-extension made slavery a mass issue, the existing two-party system began to splinter.
Non-extention was a reform because it did not demand the immediate abolition of slavery as the black abolitionists or the morally-driven white abolitionists did. But, it was revolutionary because both the anti-slavery movement and the slave owners themselves understood that slavery was a “grow or die” system, just like the modern corporate empire. To block its plans for expansion was to put it on the path to what the anti-slavery movement called “ultimate extinction.”
As early as 1846 non-extension became a popular issue in the struggle around Wilmont’s Proviso — a proposal to bar slavery from the new territories conquered from Mexico. Although Wilmont’s Proviso never passed Congress it became a lightning rod for anti-slavery organizing.
According to the greatest of all abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, the campaign for Wilmont’s Proviso was an effective way “to keep the subject before the people — to deepen their hatred of the system–and to break up the harmony between the Northern white people and the southern slaveholders.”
As non-extention shattered “the harmony between northern white people and southern slaveholders,” it challenged the white racism on which the two-party system rested.
Where Did the Republicans Come From?
One important source was the splintered elements of Whigs and Democrats that were pushed to the left by the growing anti-slavery movement. By 1848 the Free-Soil Party — the forerunner to Republicans — was created out of northern Democrats that split from their southern controlled party, Whigs pushed to the left by the antislavery movement and members of the Liberty Party, an explicitly abolitionist third party.
Non-extension was a political campaign and an organizing tool. It was different from the radical abolitionists who spoke in the uncompromising language of moral outrage about the sinfulness and corruption of slavery.
The radical abolitionists demanded a clean break with slavery but were only able to attract about 5% of white northerners to its view. But by seeing slavery as a system hostile to everyone’s freedom, including whites, and damaging to the future of the country, the Republicans were able to reach a majority of northern whites estimated at 66%.
What Revolutionary Reform Can Break Up The Harmony Between Everyday People and Corporate Power Today?
We need to “break up the harmony” between everyday people and corporate power — including the politicians, police and military that enforce their rule. We can push the wedge by focusing on issues that cannot be accommodated or compromised: climate change, war, empire, the militarized penal system, and corporate control over the government.
What reforms can help us to disrupt the social order in a way that corporate power cannot agree to without compromising their political might? Here are a few examples:
- The abolition or defunding of the vast militarized penal system including the police. Mass incarceration is the foremost example of systematic racism and social control.
- The Green Party’s Green New Deal is one of the best examples of a revolutionary reform because it centers the role of war and empire in climate change.
- Extensive election reform would reveal the rot at the heart of the system. No wonder election reform is ignored by corporate parties and media.
- Returning the power to declare war back to Congress — as the Old Constitution clearly states — we would undermine the power of the “imperial presidency” and the empire along with it.
- The repeal of “Citizens United” would strike at the heart of the legal fiction that gives corporations special powers: corporations claim the protections and rights of the people even as they merged with the state.
- Reparations to American Descendants of Slaves would jump start the economy and strengthen leadership from this key community of resistance.
- Land Back to Natives and recognition of Treaty Rights would erode one cornerstone of the settler state and safeguard the environment.
- Projects and laws encouraging and subsidizing worker-owned enterprise and local cooperatives would help us build “a new world in the shell of the old.”
- Restoration of the Old Bill of Rights. The tyranny of the corporate empire demands that our rights be restricted.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner
There are striking parallels between then and now.
White supremacy remains the most damaging form of class collaboration weakening all efforts to rebuild democracy. Breaking those bonds will be decisive in mounting any major challenge on the existing order.
One way to start is by reclaiming the arguments on white privilege as an educational and political tool. But, the most important paths are social movements like the on-going Black-led but multiracial uprising against police violence. Some seven million people took part including millions of white people. The “harmony” between white people and the system is breaking down. No wonder the powerful have moved so strongly to coopt or crush the movement.
Beware the Wounded Ruling Class. Arm Ourselves With History
As the position of the slave owners began to weaken they doubled down. The pro-slavery forces actually claimed that slavery was a good thing in keeping with the natural order of things. And, a system to which there was no alternative. We can hear echoes of this in the bosses’ propaganda about the virtues of free markets or the doubling down by the ruling class to control the crisis they know full well is coming.
But, when the great day came and the Slave Power could no longer rule with an iron fist, — when all the special advantages of the three-fifths clause, gag rules, compromises, and evasions no longer worked — it plunged the nation into its deadliest war. They chose disaster over defeat. Beware the wounded ruling class. Beware.
History is terribly unpredictable as it unfolds and only seems inevitable or orderly in hindsight. In times of deep social change political movements once considered marginal become mainstream; ideas once thought impossible or unrealistic become both urgent and practical. Third parties become major parties. And so it is in our time.
Climate destruction forces us to both recognize the interlocking nature of our problems — the deep structural connections between corporate power, racism, patriarchy, war and climate change — and to seek solutions that aim at nothing less than what Martin Luther King called the “radical reconstruction of society.”
Yet, we have no choice but to start with the world we have inherited. To find our way forward we must study the past not as something dead and gone but as something very much alive in our minds and embedded in the very structure of the existing social order. Our anti-slavery ancestors crafted a winning political struggle with a revolutionary reform. Can this past live again? Only if we make it so.
 Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p 314
 Leonard L. Richard, The Slave Power, 154
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The Last Third Party to Win: The Republicans, The Civil War, The “Slave Power,” and The Current Crisis
“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 “Left-Unity” Hawkins/Walker Green Party campaign, 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.