The years leading up to the American Civil War were some of the most divisive in American history. Many northerners favored the abolition of slavery. Others supported accommodating the southern states. Most southerners favored maintaining the institution of slavery and favored the power of state governments over that of the federal government. These disagreements split existing political parties and led to the formation of new parties that vied for control of the U.S. and Confederate governments during the Civil War.

Democratic Party

The Democratic Party was formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1792 and held considerable power in the years leading up to the Civil War. The Democratic Party became divided in the 1850s over the issue of slavery, with some factions in the north supporting abolitionist causes, some northern factions supporting accommodation of the South and Southern Democrats supporting the continuation and expansion of slavery. During the elections of 1860, Southern and Northern Democrats nominated separate candidates for president. After the Civil War broke out, former Southern Democrats held considerable clout in the Confederate Congress. Northern Democrats lost much of their political power in the North during the Civil War.

Republican Party

The Republican Party was founded in the 1850s by northerners who wanted to abolish slavery. The demise of the Whig Party and the split in the Democratic Party in the years leading up to the 1860 elections gave the Republicans an opportunity to advance. Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the U.S. Presidential election in 1860 and Republicans gained control of Congress, leading to the secession of eleven Southern states. The Republican Party had very little support in the South before the war and virtually none after war broke out. In 1864, the Republican Party joined with Democrats who favored the war effort to form the National Union Party. Other Republicans, who were in favor of pressing the war more forcefully, left the Republican Party to form the Radical Democracy Party. The National Union Party won the 1864 presidential election.

Constitutional Union Party

The Constitutional Union Party was formed by former Whigs, former Know-Nothings (American Party) and moderate Democrats. The Constitutional Union Party's platform called for preserving the union by refusing to take sides on divisive issues such as slavery. Sam Houston, a leading figure in the War for Texas Independence, was a prominent member of the Constitutional Union Party and was considered for the presidential nomination in 1860. The party nominated Tennessee slave owner John Bell. When it became obvious that support for the party was weak, many in the Constitutional Union Party attempted to join with Northern Democrats who supported appeasement.

Political Parties in the Confederacy

There were no recognized political parties in the Confederate States of America. Most Southerners, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis, opposed political parties, considering them to be a corruption of the principles of republican government. However, many of the members of the Confederate Congress were former Southern Democrats. A few had been Constitutional Unionists or Whigs. While there were no political parties, per se, Confederate politicians often divided over the issue of whether to have a strong central government. Nationalists, including Jefferson Davis, favored giving the Confederate government broad powers, especially in war time. Libertarians, led by Alexander Stephens, favored a very limited confederate government, reserving most powers -- including most war powers -- to the individual states.