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Primary Sources and Political Parties: The Role of Third Parties

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This post is first in a series that looks at sources and strategies for teaching about political parties. 

Reading and analyzing primary sources can help students consider the various roles that third parties have played in U.S. history. Three sources from the Library’s new political parties primary source set, each from a different point in time, allow students to come to their own conclusions about the role and significance of minor parties in a dominant two-party system.

Depending on your instructional goals and your students’ readiness for reading a range of complex texts, you could:

  1. Assign students one of the three sources below, and then bring students together in small groups of three to discuss highlights from each source.
  2. Allow time for small groups to work together to read and analyze one source. Then jigsaw members of each source group to share their findings with other source groups.
  3. Model for the full class how to read and analyze a complex text using the Judge Jay letter, then assign student pairs to examine the remaining two texts.

Support students’ discussions with these questions:

  • What is the author’s purpose in writing this text?
  • What clues can you find in the text about the author’s point of view or perspective?
  • What claims does the author make about the party or parties they are covering? What evidence does the author use to support their argument?
  • What can this source tell you about the role of third parties in the United States’ party system? What additional information do you want to know that this source can’t provide?

Judge Jay Letter [1848 election]

In 1848, seceders from the two dominant parties of the time – the Whig Party and the Democratic Party – came together to form a new party, the Free Soil Party. In this letter, written after the 1848 presidential election, New York Judge William Jay weighs different considerations for supporting minor parties in a dominant two-party system.

Document with the title, "Judge Jay's Letter. Free Soil Whigs and Liberty Party Men, Read This!"
Jay, William. Judge Jay’s letter. Free soil Whigs and Liberty party men, read this! October. 1849.


“The Progressive Party and the Negro” [1912]

During the 1912 Republican Party National Convention, party leaders selected William Howard Taft over Theodore Roosevelt for the party’s nominee to run in the general election. Many delegates to the convention who supported Roosevelt called for the creation of a new political party, the Progressive Party. In this speech, Mary Church Terrell, a suffragist and civil rights activist, gives her account of issues within and surrounding the newly formed Progressive Party.

Document with the title, "The Progressive Party and the Negro"
Mary Church Terrell Papers: Speeches and Writings, 1866-1953; [ 1912 ], “The Progressive Party and the Negro, Aftermath of the Chicago Convention”

New Parties Are Split Too [1948]

Civil rights campaigns were a major force for change in party membership. In 1948, the Dixiecrat Party formed to maintain race-based segregation in American life, and a new Progressive Party emerged from the more liberal side of the Democratic Party. In this newspaper article, the author examines the internal divisions of the Dixiecrat and Progressive Parties.

Newspaper page with an article titled, "New Parties Are Split Too."
New Parties Are Split Too, Toledo Union Journal. (Toledo, OH), Jul. 30 1948.



  • Direct students to this map of election results. Help students find the election years that go with each of the sources examined: 1848, 1912, 1948. How did the third parties fare? How do the election results impact their understanding of the role and impact of third parties?
  • Allow time for students to reflect on each source, as well as what they can learn from the sources when looked at together. What themes or big ideas about third parties may have emerged?


  • What third parties are present in a recent or current election year? Do students see any connections to third parties of the past? Why or why not?

Did you enjoy this post? More blogs are on the way related to the political parties primary source set. Stay tuned!

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