It was a conservative party that tried to prevent the separation of the southern states by ignoring the issue of slavery and promoting adherence to the union and the constitution. It ultimately failed to do so as Lincoln won the election of 1860 and the Civil War started soon after. The party’s slogan was “The Union as it is, the constitution as it is.”
The Constitutional Union Party was a third party in the United States elections of 1860. It was made up mainly of former members of the collapsed Whig party who declined to side with either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. In the 1950s, the ex-Whigs from the southern states joined the Know Nothing party, which promoted nativist ideas.
This party, however, was also dissolved after the 1956 elections, so John. J Crittenden and a few other members founded the Constitutional Union Convention just before the 1860 elections. The electoral campaign was based on the call “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 did not stand for abolishing or expanding slavery; instead, it intended to keep the United States as it was.
The election 1860 candidates were former senator of Tennessee John Bell and Edward Everett for president and vice president respectively. Both nominees were former Whigs, which lead to one southern newspaper calling the party “The ghost of the old Whig Party”.
The party’s goal was not to win, but to prevent any other candidate from receiving the majority of the votes, causing a contingent election. In this scenario, the president’s chair would be taken by whomever the Senate elected as vice president. The party’s leaders hoped that their moderate candidate would seem like the most reasonable option compared to the others who they saw as too extreme.
However, all the Constitutional Union Party could achieve was breaking up the southern electoral votes and thus helping Lincoln win. Since it opposed the secession over the subject of slavery, the party was particularly popular only in the Border States, where fears of a civil war were the strongest.
Adding to that, the fact that Bell was a slave-owner did not make for a very good standing with the northern states, which meant the Republican Party carried all but one of them. Unsurprisingly, Bell only carried Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee with 39 electoral votes and 591,658 popular votes, while Republican Lincoln won with 180 electoral and 1,866,452 popular votes. It was a close victory though, as losing a critical state such as New York would have led to a contingent election.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861 following the result of the election, the Constitutional Union Party ceased to exist. Though John Bell openly labeled himself as a rebel by supporting the confederate states, most other members of the party remained loyal to the union throughout the war, creating and joining new union parties.
Some of the union supporters in Missouri later joined the Unconditional Union Party that made efforts to remain in the union by overthrowing that state’s elected government. The former Constitutional Unionists were more eager to join the Republican Party than any other group in the South, although some of them called themselves Whigs up to the 1890s.