The second American political party system is generally considered to have begun with Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency in 1828 and ended in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was elected to the highest office in the land. The second political party system pitted the Democrats against the Whigs and featured growing sectionalism and the ubiquitous slavery question, which both parties wanted to tip toe around. The rise of the Republican Party and the Civil War is generally viewed as factors that ended the second American political party system, but those things only could have happened without the end of the Whig Party, and it was not the Republicans who put the Whigs in the grave.
As political realignment was taking place in the late 1840s and early 1850s around the slavery issue, many people in the North, as well as those in some border states and urban areas of the South, felt more threatened by immigration. To these mainly young and middle aged men, slavery was something far to the west, while immigration affected their daily lives in the form of job competition, increased crime, and the dilution of their votes. Men with these beliefs, often referred to as “nativists,” coalesced to form local lodges and secret orders to promote their ideas, eventually becoming known as “Know Nothings” due to their secrecy.
The Know Nothings offered disaffected voters many things that neither party did or could at the time and they were a true populist movement. In fact, by the mid-1850s it looked like the Know Nothings, many of whom formed the American Party, would become the Whigs’ successor as the opposition party to the Democrats, but by the late 1850s slavery and sectionalism won out and the Republicans became the second major party, ushering in the third American political party system.