In 1856, the Whig Party ran former president Millard Fillmore for president of the United States. Fillmore had last run in 1852; he'd been denied the nomination as the party fell apart over the issue of slavery. In an attempt to bring the party back together that year, the party nominated General Winfield Scott, who promptly imploded in the general election against Democrat Franklin Pierce. "We are slain!" shouted Representative Lewis D. Campbell of Ohio. "The party is dead, dead, dead!" Free Soiler Charles Sumner wrote, "Now is the time for a new organization. Out of this chaos the party of freedom must arise."
Most of the Whig leaders thought this talk overwrought. They insisted that the party would live on. Senator William Seward of New York said, "No new party will arise, nor will any old one fall." Seward thought that if the party elided the slavery issue, it could hold together. But by the same token, without the slavery issue, there was truly no difference between the two parties. As future president Rutherford B. Hayes wrote, "The real grounds of difference upon important political questions no longer correspond with party lines. The progressive Whig is nearer in sentiment to the radical Democrat than the radical Democrat is to the 'fogy' of his own party; vice versa." The party had become a party of convenience rather than principle.
Between 1852 and 1856, as author William E. Gienapp discusses, the break came: Southern Whigs joined the pro-slavery Democrats, while northern Whigs joined the newly formed anti-slavery Republicans. In 1856, the Whig candidate won just one state, while the Republican candidate, John C. Fremont, carried 11 states. James Buchanan carried 19 states. By 1860, the Whigs no longer existed. Abraham Lincoln won the presidency with less than 40 percent of the vote.
This is what happens to parties that lose their reason for being: They disintegrate. The modern Republican Party may be in serious danger of falling into that trap. That's not because of the Republican constituency, which reflects, as it has since the 1980s, the three-pronged approach of fiscal conservatism, foreign policy hawkishness and social traditionalism. It's because the Republican political class seem to reject those unifying factors as divisive.
How else to explain the GOP House's decision last week, in the aftermath of a massive electoral sweep, to table a piece of legislation banning abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy? This is an issue upon which most Americans are united -- the vast majority of Americans find late-term abortion morally abhorrent. And yet Representative Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., removed her name from the bill, stating, "We got into trouble last year" over issues like abortion. If Republicans won't stand together on such a basic moral issue, over what issues (SET ITAL) will (END ITAL) they unite?
Certainly not illegal immigration, where Republicans divide from their base, pushing a softer approach to President Obama's executive amnesty. Certainly not foreign policy, where President Obama's devastation of the military has been met with Republican resistance but not Republican intransigence. Certainly not Obamacare, where Speaker of the House Boehner recently provided full funding for the last year.
The Republican higher-ups assure us, as Whig leaders did in 1852, that if Republicans nominate someone with name recognition, an old warhorse perhaps, the party can unify once again. Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney fill in for Winfield Scott. But just as Whigs were only able to win two presidential elections over the course of 23 years, both times with military heroes at the head, Republicans have won just one popular presidential election in the last 27 years, that time with a commander-in-chief incumbent during wartime.
Perhaps the Republican Party isn't dead. But Republican leaders would be wise to take a lesson from the Whigs if they hope to avoid their fate.