Constitutional Union Party

By: Walter L. Buenger and James Alex Baggett

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: August 10, 2020

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After the demise of their party in the mid-1850s Whig partisans searched for another organization that could win elections and bring them to power. For a time some drifted into the American (Know-Nothing) party, but its nativism cost it votes and alienated some of the more prominent former Whigs. By 1859 a new party, generally called the Opposition party, had emerged. It attracted disaffected Democrats worried about the growing radicalism of their former party. It also attracted a sizable percentage of the new voters of the state and most ex-Whigs and unconditional Unionists. The Opposition party, led by its gubernatorial candidate, the former Democrat Sam Houston, swept the majority of the statewide elections that year. Another member of the party and another former Democrat, Andrew Jackson Hamilton, was elected to the United States House of Representatives from the Second District. In 1860 the Opposition party, minus much of its Democratic support, became the Constitutional Union party, and a state organizational meeting was held at Marshall, Texas.

Starting in the spring of 1860 members of the Opposition began to call for the nomination of either Millard Fillmore or Sam Houston for president. Houston had much more appeal to the Democratic strain of the party than the former Whig president, but neither candidate had much support outside of the lower South. On April 27 a small group of Governor Houston's East Texas friends, who were supporters of the new party, assembled in Tyler for the primary purpose of electing four delegates to the national convention, which was to be held at Baltimore in May. These delegates were Anthony B. Norton, Abram M. Gentry, Benjamin H. Epperson, and Lemuel D. Evans. At the Baltimore convention the Texas delegation worked for the nomination of Houston, but John Bell, an ex-Whig from Tennessee, received the nomination, defeating Houston on the second ballot by a vote of 125 to 68.

In 1860 four viable candidates ran for the presidency: Abraham Lincoln, the Republican; John C. Breckinridge, the southern Democrat; Stephen A. Douglas, the northern Democrat; and Bell. In Texas, Republicans were so disliked that Lincoln was not even on the ballot. Douglas had a few supporters, but the Texas campaign was really between Bell and Breckinridge.

Two weeks after being rejected at Baltimore, Houston accepted a presidential nomination offered him at a San Jacinto celebration in April. Eventually, however, as former Whigs who were not already allied with the other parties began to rally to Bell, Houston lost his out-of-state newspaper support, and in August he withdrew his candidacy and became an active backer of the Constitutional Union party. Even before Houston's withdrawal, Whig Unionists in East Texas were organizing for Bell. They had strong support from the Marshall Harrison Flag. A number of other Texas newspapers supported the Bell-Everett ticket, including the Austin Southern Intelligencer, the Belton Independent, the Columbus Colorado Citizen, the Fort Worth Chief, the McKinney Messenger, the Quitman Express, and the Weatherford News. Some of these were well-established Whig publications, others were independent Democratic journals that had long supported Houston, and a few were recently founded Constitutional Union newspapers.

Elsewhere in the state, Union clubs sprang up. The Galveston Constitutional Union party, one of the first to organize, almost appeared to be a gentleman's club; its members included a number of respected longtime Island City citizens and ex-Whigs. In Jackson County, Constitutional Unionists met at Texana on August 11 and elected as chairman Clark L. Owen, a veteran of the Texas Revolution and one of the wealthiest men in the state. The Travis County Union Club organized in Austin on September 3, and members appointed an executive committee of correspondence. San Antonio Union party rallies began in September and were well attended. Union meetings were held in a number of counties between the San Antonio-Austin area and Galveston, including Colorado and Fayette. In Central Texas the party organized in Corsicana, Waco, Georgetown, and elsewhere.

Until August 1860 the race much resembled earlier contests between the Democrats and the Whigs. Partisan accusations, not concern for the Union, held center stage. Fear that the election of Lincoln might precipitate a crisis changed the tone of the Constitutional Unionists, however. The party lost heavily to the regular Democrats in a statewide election on August 6, and party leaders began to call for fusion with the Douglas Democrats. Constitutional Unionists repeatedly described themselves as the party most capable of saving the Union. The hybrid nature of the party was reflected in the election in early September of two Unionist Democrats, George W. Paschal of Travis County and John H. Robson of Colorado County, and two old-line Whigs, William Stedman of Rusk County and Benjamin H. Epperson of Red River County, as presidential electors. Unionist campaigners, however, faced a militant opposition motivated by suspected abolitionist plots within Texas, as well as by a growing belief in the need for southern solidarity. Attempts at fusion that might have restored the effective coalition of 1859 failed. Democrats voted for the Democratic candidate, and Breckinridge carried the state 47,561 to 15,402, with only three counties-Bandera, Gillespie, and Starr-voting for Bell.

In the 1860 election, calls to save the Union could not overcome party loyalty and party history. Germans and Mexican Texans well remembered that many of the leaders of the Constitutional Union party had been Know-Nothings. Democrats saw the nomination of Bell and the failure to focus clearly on Unionism early in the campaign as definite signs that the Constitutional Unionists were simply Whigs in new garb. Even the last-minute attempt to combine with the Douglas Democrats and the claim that only they could keep Abraham Lincoln out of the White House failed to broaden their appeal significantly.

Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, although he received no votes in Texas. His victory caused a popular movement for secession in Texas and the rest of the South. But the Constitutional Union party had already split along former partisan lines before the election, and with the growth of secession sentiment the fragile coalition collapsed entirely.

James Alex Baggett, "The Constitutional Union Party in Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 82 (January 1979). Walter L. Buenger, Secession and the Union in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984). John V. Mering, "The Slave-State Constitutional Unionists and the Politics of Consensus," Journal of Southern History 43 (August 1977). David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis (New York: Harper, 1976). Frank H. Smyrl, "Unionism in Texas, 1856–1861," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 68 (October 1964). John B. Stabler, A History of the Constitutional Union Party (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1954).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Walter L. Buenger and James Alex Baggett, “Constitutional Union Party,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 19, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 10, 2020