Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party by Michael F. Holt

This is a massive work of serious history. More than a thousand pages, based on a detailed and studied analysis of, among other things, state-by-state voting patterns in every election, Congressional and Presidential, between 1828 and 1856. It is a book much better suited for consumption by academics and their students than by enthusiastic amateurs like me.

So I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading it. But I can honestly say that I’m glad I read it. It taught or reinforced a few things.

The More Things Change…

Here’s three paragraphs from the first ten pages.

But there was more to Jackson’s appeal than martial glory. Though himself a wealthy slaveholding member of Tennessee’s plantation gentry, Jackson was a perfect standard bearer for angry voters bent on venting resentments. Westerners and Southerners embraced the Tennessean as a foe of the haughty East. His ownership of slaves and his renown as an Indian fighter only increased his appeal to such men. More important, Jackson was clearly a political newcomer compared to Adams, Clay, and Crawford. All who wanted to throw the establishment out of Washington, or at least out of the White House, could cleave to him.

Andrew Jackson: the first Donald Trump?

As astute Jacksonian managers recognized much more quickly than the Adams party, dealing with a mass electorate required different strategies than could be used with a relatively small one. Voters had to be mobilized directly; alliances of local elites loyal to one political leader or another could no longer win. Issues now had to be framed in terms that were understandable and compelling to relatively less educated and less interested voters. At times this necessity meant presenting specific policies in broad ideological or symbolic terms; at times it meant developing campaign issues that resonated with voters’ emotions, values, and prejudices but that had no specific programmatic focus.

Andrew Jackson: the first Barry Goldwater?

Surprisingly optimistic about their ability to topple the new regime, National Republicans initially decided to wait quietly for the Jacksonian coalition to disintegrate. Refusing to acknowledge the 1828 election as a repudiation of economic nationalism and of leadership by the traditional political elite they represented, they regarded the outcomes instead simply as a triumph by the magnetic Jackson over the aloof and colorless Adams. Hoopla, demagoguery, and Jackson’s refusal to take a stand on matters of national policy, they thought, had temporarily dazzled voters, while sheer opportunism had engaged politicians with divergent policy goals in the Jackson cause. Once Jackson clarified his position on matters such as the tariff and internal improvements, they believed, people would regain their senses and desert the Jackson movement as quickly as they had joined it.

Henry Clay, leader of what was then called the National Republicans: the first David Cameron on the eve of Brexit?

Time and again, as I read history, I discover that the more things change, the more they stay the same. History, especially political history, is like a great pendulum, swinging between populism and pluralism, repeating predictable cycles of rhetoric and action with every movement back and forth.

Whigs Took a Stand Against Executive Power

The early focus on Andrew Jackson is an appropriate place for Holt to start his book, because the American Whig Party came into being as a direct result of his election to the presidency.

At the end of December, [Henry] Clay defined the opposition’s platform in a ringing three-day speech. “We are in the midst of a revolution,hitherto bloodless, but rapidly tending towards a total change of the pure republican character of the Government, and to the concentration of power in the hands of one man,” he warned the Senate. He demanded passage of two resolutions. One rejected [Treasury] Secretary [Roger B.] Taney’s report to the Senate justifying removal [of government deposits for the Bank of the United States]. The other denounced Jackson for trampling on the laws and the Constitution. With these resolutions, the Whig party at its birth focused on its everlasting basic principle: opposition to executive usurpation in general and to Andrew Jackson in particular.

But it wasn’t just Jackson that they opposed. As described above, the weapon they opposed was that of unchecked executive power. As the most adept wielder of that weapon, Jackson was the catalyst for their creation and organization, but their opposition to executive power would keep them together for years after Jackson’s vacancy of the White House.

Indeed, for forty or so years in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Whigs and the Democrats were the two major political parties. They each stood for certain principles, but, at least in the case of the Whigs, their primary principle was simply one of opposition. They opposed all kinds of Democrats, Jacksonian and otherwise, and it was only in that opposition that they seemed to come together as a political force. Finding something consistent that they could all be in support of -- especially as the nation began to align itself into Northern and Southern factions -- proved much more difficult, and would eventually bring about their own demise as smaller parties, each single-mindedly focused on support for one particular position, splintered off the shaky Whig tree.

The Issues Are Different; The Angry Rhetoric Is the Same

After more than a thousand pages of deep and scholarly analysis, I know that I still don’t understand the politics that shaped the history that Holt is describing in his text. Some of the issues -- especially slavery -- may just be beyond my ability to fully understand from a nineteenth century perspective.

But one thing is interesting. Whatever the issues were that the Whigs and the Democrats of the 1840s and 1850s fought over, the angry rhetoric that they used to demonize each other is eerily familiar.

These contrasting partisan perspectives on governmental activism also engendered conflicts over social legislation. To a far greater degree than Democrats, Whigs backed state intervention to regulate social behavior: temperance legislation, Sunday blue laws, and the creation of state-run public school systems. Democrats denounced such legislation as intolerable infringements on individual freedom, and although they did not oppose education, they feared that state-supported schools would compel increased state taxation and threaten local supervision of schools.

There’s a twist. Democrats standing up for individual freedom and local supervision of schools, and Whigs (in some ways, precursors to our modern-day Republicans), in favor of state-run public school systems. It’s almost like this Connecticut Yankee has gone back in time and found himself in bizarro land. But here’s where things start sounding familiar again.

Increasingly, Democrats portrayed Whigs as bigoted and self-righteous religious fanatics intent on imposing their ethical values on others. Whigs retorted that Democrats were immoral deadbeats or dangerous radicals bent on destroying the very fabric of society -- property, morality, education, and the rule of law.

Now there’s a political paradigm I have some familiarity with. Although the strange juxtaposition of opposite issues and identical rhetoric makes me speculate on how true the accusations of any age can be. If you can swap out the cake of political principles and keep the same frosting of demonizing rhetoric for your opponents, you have to suspect that the two things are really not all that connected in the first place.

No, seriously. Look how the Whigs reacted when they lost the presidential election of 1844 to Democrat James Polk.

Those Whigs who remained convinced of the superiority of their candidate and their issues could only attribute the Democratic surge to “the utter mendacity frauds & villainies of Locofocoism [a term referencing the radical wing of the Democratic party of the time].” The Democrats, Whigs repeatedly inveighed, relied on “appeals to every bad passion, the hostile instinct of the poor against the rich, lies and calumnies etc etc” to “bamboozle” the masses. Worse still, Whigs charged, Democrats illegally naturalized immigrants and marched them to the polls, openly bought votes or paid the taxes of those who could not meet taxpaying requirements to vote, employed double and triple voting, and stuffed ballot boxes to steal the election from Whigs in Louisiana, Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. “You have lost this state by the most unprecedented frauds and rascality,” a New Orleans Whig consoled [losing Whig presidential candidate Henry] Clay. “Parishes giving more votes or as many as there are white inhabitants of all sexes & ages being in them. Steamboats chartered to convey voters in the same day at different Polls, and every other species of fraud that could be imagined.”

Millions of illegal votes, indeed. If only the Whigs had access to Twitter. Have these things ever been true?

History Is Made by Political Compromises Only Understood in Their Time

This is another one of those truisms that becomes more apparent to me every time I read history. Not apparent in the sense that I can effectively explain or remember the political nuances and compromises of another age, but apparent in the sense that I encounter examples of this dynamic over and over again.

For example, a lot of the political and legislative victories and defeats chronicled in Holt’s book derive from an vibrant and acrimonious debate over banks and tariffs.

To Whigs, banks and tariffs were integrally linked as the keys to prosperity, for the oil that lubricated the engine of economic growth was credit. Individuals’ ability to borrow beyond their existing resources and to use those loans to transport products, start businesses, pay workers’ weekly wages, buy land to farm, and earn the profits from which to repay loans generated expansion and opened opportunity for upward mobility. Banks and businesses provided the necessary credit, and since the specie resources of the United States were limited, it came primarily in the form of paper bank notes, bills of exchange secured by goods in transit, and promissory notes.

Got that? Whigs want people to be able to borrow money from the government so they can launch business ventures they couldn’t otherwise afford. And, because government financial resources at that time were limited by the precious metals it had in reserve, that meant that Whigs supported protective tariffs.

The credibility of those paper devices ultimately depended on assurance that they could, if necessary, be redeemed in specie. Thus the supply of credit and interest rates for it ultimately depended on the nation’s specie reserves. That is why Whigs regarded the tariff as so crucial. To them the biggest threat to the nation’s specie reserves and thus to the availability of credit was an unfavorable balance of foreign trade. If the value of imports exceeded the value of exports, Whigs believed, specie would be drained abroad, and credit, the economy’s lubricant, would dry up. Hence protective tariffs did more than shelter American manufacturers, mine operators, and workers from foreign competition. By limiting imports, they also slowed the exodus of specie and preserved the credit supply that freed men to pursue their economic ambitions beyond the limits of their restricted individual financial capacities.

But, of course, not everyone agreed with the Whigs on this point.

Most Democrats, of course, had always castigated this program as baneful and unnecessary. They viewed credit from its dark flip side, as debt, as a trap rather than a release. They denounced its public form -- bonds -- as a burden on taxpayers and its private forms as threats to individual autonomy, as insidious inducements to self-enslavement. They attacked banks and other corporations as privileged monsters that violated the principle of equal rights before the law. They vilified paper money as a cheat and a fraud. They dismissed protective tariffs as pandering to manufacturers, who would inevitably raise prices to unjust and unjustifiable levels if shielded from foreign competition. What is more, they denied that active government intervention into the private economic sector was necessary to achieve growth or enhance public welfare. “There is, perhaps, no more dangerous heresy taught in our land than that the prosperity of the country is to be created by its legislation,” intoned Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor William Bigler in his inaugural message of 1852. “The people should rely on their own individual efforts, rather than the mere measures of government for success.”

What resulted, apart from the cognitive dissonance in my 21st century brain trying to wrap itself around 19th century Democrats taking a stand against government involvement in the economy, was years of back and forth, from one political administration to the next, first in favor of protective tariffs, then against them. As that dance occurred, countless other pieces of legislation got dressed up and spun around on the dance floor, the political parties cutting deals for and against things not because they were for or against them, but because their position would help them get closer to the position they sought on the tariff.

That was evident enough, even if I had trouble following all the ins and outs of every discussion chronicled. But if nineteenth century vibrant and acrimonious debate is what you’re looking for, nothing compares to slavery and how it would be understood and practiced as new states continued to be admitted to the Union. Presidential candidates were chosen or rejected, and presidential elections were won or lost on how the divisive and tangled issue was proposed to be resolved. And many, although fully recognizing its polarizing power, did not even see the disagreement over slavery’s expansion as one of direct substance.

Most regarded the whole sectional dispute over slavery extension as far more symbolic than substantive. To them, protecting southern equality and “Southern honor” by escaping the stigma of enslavement to northern dictation that congressional prohibition of slavery entailed, rather than actually extending the institution of slavery westward, was the heart of the territorial issue. Even [Whig Georgia Senator John M.] Berrien, who argued that slavery could flourish in California, saw the territorial dispute primarily in symbolic terms. He admitted to his kinsman [Charles J.] Jenkins that Northerners in Congress had no intention of abolishing slavery and that slavery could prosper into the unforeseeable future even if its extension were prohibited. Nonetheless, he protested, if the Northern majority could exclude slavery from the Cession, they would gain complete control of the national government. “Slavery will then exist in a double aspect. The African, and his owner, will both be slaves. The former, will as now, be the slave of his owner -- but that owner, in all matters within the sphere of federal jurisdiction, will be the doomed thrall of those, with whom he associated on the basis of equal rights.” For Berrien, other Southern Whigs, and many Southern Democrats, in sum, what was at stake in the territorial question was neither the end nor the weakening of African-American slavery. Rather, it was that dictatorial Northerners intended to treat white Southerners themselves as slaves.

I find this one of the most fascinating aspects of American history -- essential to any accurate understanding of these times and the civil war that followed. That Americans of the same history and lineage could have such divergent views on the same subject. Putting black men in chains was slavery, but so evidently, was trying to prevent white men from doing so. Yikes.

Because, frankly, I don’t see why things had to be interpreted that way. Take a different issue. Tobacco smoking, let’s say. If majorities in the majority of States in the Union wanted to ban the practice of smoking tobacco in their States, and in any new States that entered the Union, would those minorities in those same States and the majorities in other States that wanted tobacco smoking to be legal everywhere and in newly-admitted States really describe themselves as the “doomed thralls” of those with whom they associated on the basis of equal rights?

And if something morally ambivalent like tobacco smoking doesn’t make my point, how about something with obvious moral implications? Like child molestation? Those who wish to outlaw child molestation in newly-admitted States are enslaving those of us who support child molestation and will “gain complete control of the national government.” Why is the idiocy of that line of thinking obvious to us today, but far from obvious those those wrangling over the morally loaded issue of slavery in the 19th century?

Maybe that’s why, whether is was seen as an issue of symbol or substance, the disputes over slavery were the thing, eventually, that obliterated the existing party lines, transforming those political institutions, temporarily at least, from houses divided by political principle to houses divided by geography. Whigs and Democrats in the South came together in the existing Democratic Party, and Whigs and Democrats in the North similarly coalesced more painfully together in the new Republican Party.

States Mattered a Lot More Before the Civil War

Perhaps that’s an obvious statement, but it really hit home while reading the majority of Holt’s 1,000+ pages.

… in April [1851], Whigs stumbled across a new issue that united their party and redivided the Democrats. It bore no relation whatsoever to [Whig presidential candidate Millard] Fillmore, the Compromise [of 1850], or slavery. It illustrated a fundamental fact about the federal structure of American government in the nineteenth century: state policies often mattered more to politicians and the public than the actions of Congress or presidents. The issue that saved the New York Whig party from almost certain disaster was enlargement of the state’s Erie Canal system.

For this reason, Holt spends a lot of time describing state-level issues and politics and, despite ample warning in his preface that this deep dive analysis is one of his key objectives in this work, I have to admit that this enthusiastic amateur frequently got lost in all the details. Here a randomly-selected sample of what I’m talking about.

As even Berrien recognized, however, Stephens and Toombs insisted on nominating military men in 1847 and 1848 primarily because they feared that the party could never carry the state legislature or governorship again without attracting Democratic support. Even in the congressional elections of 1846, when Whigs had joyously pilloried the record of Polk and the Democratic Congress, they had won less than 47 percent of the statewide vote. And the chief source of their weakness was clear to all -- the seemingly unshakable grip Democrats had on the growing nonslaveholder vote in the Cherokee District of northwestern Georgia. Running only military heroes appeared the easiest way to cut into that vote, and hence Whigs from northwestern Georgia clamored more vociferously than anyone else for Clinch’s nomination in 1847. After his narrow defeat in October 1847, those same Whigs insisted that Taylor be the Whig nominee. Taylor was a more famous military hero than Clinch. His image as a No Party or People’s candidate who repeatedly spurned a regular Whig nomination made him potentially far more attractive to Democrats than Clinch, who had served in Congress as a Whig. “Very many Whigs from the counties North & West say that we are down unless we hoist the Taylor flag,” wrote one Georgia Whig. “Nothing can … save us but Genl. Taylor -- nothing can destroy the Democracy but Genl. Taylor.” Gaining control of a party that could not control the Georgia state government had little appeal for Stephens and Toombs. Thus they insisted on, and energetically worked for, Taylor’s nomination in December 1847, not only to isolate Berrien but also to win crucial Democratic votes.

And that’s just the view from the Cherokee District of northwestern Georgia. After a while I found myself looking forward to the chapters where he came back up to the national stage, or at least talked about what was going on in my home state during all these years.

There Was Initially More Than One Republican Party

There’s precious little about Wisconsin in the book, but I was primed to look for one linchpin that was clearly going to force Holt to spend some time on the Badger State -- the birth of the Republican Party in Ripon in 1854. But that, at least according to the way Holt tells things, is not necessarily how it happened.

The new organizations emerging in 1854 and 1855 co-opted Whigs’ mission to defend republicanism by portraying themselves as better able to do so. They insisted that powerful new threats to America’s experiment in republican self-government had emerged that made executive tyranny and the other antirepublican bogeys against which Whigs had campaigned seem tame by comparison. They explicitly and repeatedly invoked the key code phrases of the familiar republican idiom -- power, tyranny, corruption, conspiracy, and enslavement versus liberty, freedom, self-government, majority rule, and republicanism itself. And they summoned voters to join a crusade in defense of republican principles and institutions that, they argued, far exceeded in importance stale partisan quarrels fought between now irrelevant parties. They initially portrayed themselves, in short, not as officeseeking politcial parties, but as patriotic Minute Men springing to freedom’s defense. Anti-Nebraska coalitions and the Know Nothings, however, saw different dangers to republicanism that approached from different directions. In effect, they wanted to wage the battle to rescue public liberty on different fronts.

There were many “anti-Nebraska coalitions,” the name being a reference to their opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed by Congress in May 1854, and which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, prohibiting slavery north of latitude 36°30´, and which allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. Which one, if any, gave direct rise to the Republican Party that nominated Abraham Lincoln for president in 1860 is never made clear in Holt’s text. It rather leaves one with the impression that, like much of actual history, the process was much more organic than linear.

But however the Republican Party came about, the organic progression that resulted in its creation would be a much more interesting subject of deeper inquiry. It was described earlier in this post. Not just the death of the Whigs and the birth of the Republicans, but the national transition from two parties representing ideological difference to two parties representing geographic ones.

Speculation about a political realignment in which parties that exclusively represented the North or South displaced the nationwide, bisectional competition between Whigs and Democrats began in early February [1854] when events seemed to presage such a reshuffling. Caucuses of pro-Nebraska southern Whig and Democratic congressmen in Washington portended a bipartisan fusion in Dixie. Simultaneously, in community after community across the North, meetings that combined Whigs, Democrats, Free Soilers, and the politically unaffiliated gathered to protest the Nebraska bill as an outrageous southern aggression against the rights, interests, expectations, and moral convictions of Northerners. Along with the acrimonious debate in Congress and angry recriminations traded by northern and southern editors, these cross-party sectional gatherings in 1854 seemed harbingers of intrasectional unity and permanent intersectional conflict.

Let’s add it to that imaginary list of future PhD dissertations I plan to write.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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