What is the Opposition Party?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Opposition Party was a short-lived political party in the United States that formed during the controversy over slavery in the middle of the 19th century. This period of political turmoil saw the formation and dissolution of a number of political parties that split on the slavery issue. Ultimately, abolitionists prevailed and slavery was outlawed in the United States, but not before the political and social landscape changed radically.

The Opposition Party formed during the controversy of slavery during the 19th century.
The Opposition Party formed during the controversy of slavery during the 19th century.

The roots of the Opposition Party lie in the Whig Party, a political party that was marred with internal conflict almost from the start. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed new territories to decide whether to enter as slave or free states caused a schism in the Whig Party. Some Whigs supported the Act, while others were infuriated that the Missouri Compromise was being disregarded. Some Whigs split off to form the abolitionist Republican Party, while a small group formed the Opposition Party. Others joined forces with the Democrats and a number of other small political parties.

Politically, the Opposition Party was very similar to the original Whig Party and attempted to continue the legacies of the Whigs. They didn't adopt the Whig name because they felt that it had been tainted by the dispute and this party could be considered simply a continuation of the Whigs under a different name. Initially, the Opposition Party managed to elect a number of members to Congress, primarily because the Republicans did not organize themselves in time. After 1854, however, the numbers and influence of the Opposition Party waned. By 1858, the party was essentially dead.

Another group of former Whigs created the Constitutional Union Party and convinced former Opposition Party members to join them. This party attempted to maintain a neutral stance on slavery to promote keeping the United States whole. This did not prove effective and the party rapidly disintegrated as the United States fell into civil war when a number of Southern states seceded and attempts at maintaining a union by political means were abandoned.

This was a turbulent period in American political and social history that lead to radical shifts in the relatively new nation. The debate over slavery proved extremely explosive and the political landscape shifted rapidly as parties formed, reformed, and changed their previous political positions. Ultimately, the highly organized Democratic Party and the newly formed Republic Party emerged with tremendous clout, becoming the two primary political parties in the United States.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@ddljohn-- Didn't the Opposition Party have South roots?

If they did, it makes sense for them to remain neutral when it comes to slavery because otherwise they couldn't get support in the South. Being outright pro-slavery wouldn't be good either because then the North wouldn't support them.

I guess the Opposition Party wanted to kill two birds with one stone by appearing open to both sides. But I suppose it backfired and didn't exactly go as planned.

Does anyone know if any prestigious politicians at the time joined the Opposition Party from the Whigs or Republicans?

It would be interesting to know what kind of leadership they had, because that might have been another major reason why the Opposition Party didn't do well.


@ddljohn-- No, I don't think that was really the reason. I actually don't think of the American Opposition Party separately from the Whig Party. Even though their names were different, the Opposition Party (and also the "Know Nothing Party" to some extent) were the continuation of the Whig Party.

The Opposition Party's failure lies in the failure of the Whig Party in my view, it doesn't make sense to analyze them separately. The Opposition Party was unsuccessful and died out because the Whig Party lost its popularity and died out as well.


I thought that "opposition party" was a general term used to refer to a popular political party that is not currently in power. For example, when the Democrats are in power, the Republican party becomes the "opposition party" and vice versa. This is generally how the term is used for opposition parties in Canada or elsewhere in the world. I wasn't aware that there was actually an American political party called the "Opposition Party" at one point.

What would you say was the biggest mistake of the American Oppostion Party that caused them to fail as a political party?

Was it because they refused to take a firm stand either in favor or against slavery? This sounds like a logical reason because I think Americans are generally wary and unsure of neutral politicians.

What do you think?

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