The Union Party was an incongruous and shortlived alliance of left-leaning opponents of the Roosevelt administration whose presidential candidate, Congressman William Lemke of North Dakota, received less than 2 percent of the vote in the 1936 election, leading to the swift demise of the party. Its futility in the wake of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's huge landslide victory that year demonstrated the continuing popularity of the president after one term in office and underscored the weakness of the leaders and organizations that had voiced criticisms of him and his administration's policies.
Lemke, a graduate of Yale law school and no country hick, nevertheless projected something of a rough image as an outspoken champion of agrarian dissidents through his advocacy of farm mortgage relief, better lending conditions for farmers, and currency inflation. Disappointed with the president's failure to back him firmly on these issues, he readily accepted the opportunity to make a presidential run on a third party ticket when it was offered to him in June 1936. The prime mover in the establishment of the Union Party was Father Charles E. Coughlin, the Detroit radio priest whose National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ), established soon after the 1934 election, focused its attention on money and banking issues. In addition, a shaky alliance was formed with followers of Shreveport minister Gerald L. K. Smith, who had inherited some of Senator Huey Long's following after the latter fell victim to an assassin's bullet in September 1935, and Dr. Francis E. Townsend, an advocate of old-age pensions. Coughlin's support was concentrated among Irish and German Catholic workers in urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest, Smith's greatest strength was in the deep South and southern Midwest, and Townsend's following—probably the largest of the three—was heaviest initially in the far West.
The national convention that officially founded the Union Party in Cleveland in mid-July was anything but the "love feast" it was billed as. Coughlin, Smith, and Townsend were more interested in promoting the interests of themselves and their own organizations than in advancing the candidacies of Lemke and his running mate, Thomas O'Brien, a Boston Irish Catholic lawyer and Harvard law school graduate. The new party's platform endorsed neither the Townsend old-age pension plan nor Long's proposals for sharing the wealth, and half of the principles of Coughlin's NUSJ were omitted too. It general, the Union Party was a strange combination of progressive and conservative ideas.
Lemke hoped to capture 6 percent of the popular vote and enough electoral votes to throw the election into the House of Representatives. He was the first presidential candidate to travel extensively by plane, but he could not overcome the internal divisions and bickering within the hastily-formed party and failed to attract much press coverage for his campaign. In November, the party mustered only 892,000 votes, registering its strongest showing in Lemke's home state, where it captured 13 percent of the vote, and doing no better than 7 percent in any other states. After North Dakota, the Union Party received its greatest support in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Oregon.
Bennett, David H. Demagogues in the Depression: American Radicals and the Union Party, 1932–1936. 1969.
Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. 1982.
Leuchtenburg, William E. "Election of 1936" In History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–1968, Vol. 3, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. 1971.
John E. Miller
Union party, in American history.
1 Coalition of Republicans and War Democrats in the election of 1864. Abraham Lincoln was renominated for President with Andrew Johnson, the Democratic war governor of Tennessee, as his running mate. The Union party was hardly more than a name; very few Democrats were attracted, and the party reverted to its Republican designation in 1868.
2 In 1936 various radical groups discontented with the New Deal formed the Union party at a convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Father Charles E. Coughlin, Dr. Francis E. Townsend, and Gerald L. K. Smith, who had succeeded the recently assassinated Huey Long as the leader of the Share-the-Wealth movement, were the prime movers in the new party. William Lemke, a Republican congressman from North Dakota, was put forward as presidential nominee, and Thomas C. O'Brien of Boston, a labor lawyer, was nominated for Vice President. Although some believed that the Union ticket might deprive Franklin Delano Roosevelt of many normally Democratic votes, Lemke failed to get on the ballot in many states and polled only 882,000 votes. The strange coalition that had created the Union party fell apart immediately, and the party disappeared.
See D. H. Bennett, Demagogues in the Depression (1969).
UNION PARTY, a fusion party conceived by Republicans in 1861 to combine people of all political affiliations into a single movement committed to the preservation of the Union and to war. Republicans wanted to project an image of wartime nonpartisanship, and they also expected to capitalize on wartime patriotism to siphon off Democratic support. Most Democrats, including a significant number willing to tone down their partisan rhetoric, refused to bolt their party altogether to join the Union coalition (the War Democrats were the notable exception). After 1862 and for the duration of the war, Republicans and occasionally War Democrats ran against regular Democrats under the Union Party banner.
See alsoWar Democrats .