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“Doomed to Misfortune? If Not to Dissolution”

ISSUE:  Spring 2000
The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. By Michael F. Holt. Oxford University Press. $55.00

The American two-party system wielded unprecedented authority over the nation’s political life in the generation before the Civil War. The Whig Party was an essential component of that dominant system. Perhaps best remembered for the hoopla of its “log cabin” campaign in 1840 that elected “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” the party was much more than that. Born in reaction to the dangerous, (in their eyes), belligerant, executive-centered, and chaotic populist demagoguery of Andrew Jackson, Whigs came together to form a nationwide coalition against what they saw as “the menace of Caesar” threatening the republic and its social order. The ensuing political war between them and the Jacksonian Democrats became a fierce 25-year struggle that lasted until the Whigs faltered and then collapsed into oblivion.

Historians have examined many aspects of the life and character of this critical organization, none with more thoroughness and insight than Michael Holt. A professor of American History at the University of Virginia, he has masterly explored the nature of American politics before and during the Civil War in a range of books and articles that have always commanded the attention of his colleagues. His effort here is extraordinarily ambitious. The coverage and range of information provided is staggering. Holt has burrowed deeply into acres of surviving correspondence and contemporary newspapers, read everything in the scholarly literature, compiled and analyzed hundreds of elections with great skill and insight, and plowed through a mound of unpublished theses, to provide a dense, textured, almost thousand page (plus 200 pages of notes), description of the ins and outs of party politics at both the national level and in the individual states, emphasizing correctly, that Whig activities in both, separately and together, shaped the party’s direction and fortunes. Here parade, not only the familiar Webster, Clay, Calhoun, and Millard Fillmore, as well as the less familiar congressional leaders, Crittenden, Clayton, Toombs, and Stephens, but, also, the important state level party activists such as Milton Brown, Godlove S.Orth, and Abraham Lincoln. Little escapes Holt’s eye in his exhaustive investigation of the many particulars determining the party’s fate.

The book is distinguished by more than its depth of research and the extent of its coverage. Holt parts course from a historiographic world that, in recent years has emphasized, not the individual experiences of political leaders, but, rather, mass behavior and the macrocosmic dynamics undergirding the political world: rather than the persistent socioeconomic tensions defining voter choice, and the elements establishing the political culture of the society which defined the ideological boundaries within which people acted, he has chosen to focus on insider politics and the role of human agency and contingency—to trace the to-ing and fro-ing of the party’s leadership, and to lay out their understanding of what they were about. It is a compelling account of a leadership class and its prejudices, ambitions, expectations, and fears, that is extremely valuable, both for its detail, and for Holt’s keen insights about the nature of the American political experience.

The Whigs’ history divided itself into three distinct, if unequal, eras. The first, from the early 1830’s until the economic panic of 1837, was one in which party leaders tried to bring together the scattered, often contradictory, opposition to Andrew Jackson into a coherent whole. A unified party did not easily emerge from its embryonic roots in the National Republican, Nullifier and Anti-Masonic movements. These different groups, while sharing great hostility to Jackson and his right-hand man, the wily political intriguer, Martin Van Buren, sharply disagreed among themselves, while, at the same time, they were often hostile to the constraining discipline and demagogic populism associated with Van Buren’s particular contribution to the arena: organized political parties which ran roughshod, in Whig eyes, over individual conscience and sacrificed civic virtue in lust for office. During this period of evolution, Whigs emphasized their fears for republican liberty in the face of Jackson’s indiscipline, overambition, lack of understanding of the civic arts, executive usurpation against the Constitution, and too willing attempts to rouse an equally undisciplined and unpredictable crowd through partisan wiles.

They cohered but made little headway against the Democrats. Their organization was incomplete, and their issues did not attract as many as they had hoped. As Holt notes, “resistance to executive tyranny had given the new party an identity but not a victory.” However, in their second period, from 1837 to 1848, they adapted to confrontational, popular politics and found the keys to attracting voter loyalties. Jackson’s retirement and the onset of economic panic in 1837, which was badly handled by his successor as president, Van Buren, provided the Whig leadership with an unparalleled opportunity to articulate an alternative way in government affairs. They took advantage of their chance, finding cohesion, clarity, and power by sharply differentiating themselves in policy terms from the Democrats, both nationally and in the states. Holt pivots his analysis on the importance of these ideological and policy commitments and, particularly, the strong public articulation of the concrete differences separating the Whigs from their adversaries. “A sharp contrast with Democrats on measures, not just men,” he writes, “was the nutrient that brought the Whig party to maturity.”

Unlike their opponents, the Whigs marked themselves as unafraid of national power, and deeply committed to its use to promote the general welfare. They put forward, and etched into public consciousness, a policy agenda embodying the positive state: economic development driven by the use of government power to promote national growth, combined with a similar commitment to use state authority to protect the moral health of Anglo-Saxon, Protestant America, through legislation dictating moderate behavior and promoting particular social values—temperance and school curricula legislation, for example—in the face of Democratic tolerance of socially destabilizing immigration and its consequences. They could be innovators as well. Holt notes, for example, that the Whigs saw the utility of appealing to women and involving them in their campaign activities in the expectation that they would influence the voters in their families.

All of this drew to them a number of economic entrepreneurs, certain social and religious groups, intense moral reformers, and just plain haters of everything that the Democrats represented. The Whig share of the popular vote increased gratifyingly, they won two of the three presidential elections between 1840 and 1848 (ironically, by running military heroes as their candidates), and came heartbreakingly close in the third behind their much loved leader, Henry Clay. They did very well in congressional and state elections as well. Their strongly articulated persona had made them into a national party of some power.

But, by the mid-1850’s, the Whigs stumbled badly and then died. Why this collapse, given their vitality and many successes? “We seem doomed to misfortune—if not to dissolution,” one observer sadly noted. The usual answers to this conundrum emphasize bad timing, bad luck, and bad judgement, their own organizational and policy disarray, and, most critically, the rise of all but irresistable sectional forces that could no longer be politically contained. The Whigs were always troubled, even unlucky. Both of their elected presidents died soon after taking office to be replaced by more troubling, for the party, successors. Nevertheless, luck, or lack of it, does not explain much. Nor does the rise of overwhelming sectional impulses, by themselves, explain, in Holt’s view, the massive failure that occurred. Frequent sectional tensions had bedevilled party leaders throughout their history, the Texas annexation issue had badly divided them in the mid-40’s, for example. But Northern and Southern Whigs found ways to contain them through evasion, compromise, and agreement to disagree over their positions. As Holt notes, for a long time, most Whigs were not interested in “venting sectional grievances.” Such allowed the party to continue to function—and to win.

The key to their fate lay, rather, in a complex interacting mixture of challenges as too many fragmenting matters came tumbling together to whipsaw the party and upset the Whigs’ ability to maintain themselves. And their leaders badly mishandled matters, beset, as they were, by often scabrous divisions over state level issues, candidate choices, factional and personal advantage. Miscalculation, infighting, and bad decisions, all significantly sapped the party of its power and ability to sustain itself as the major second party in the American system.

Even in their best days, Whigs always had a difficult political calculus to solve. Holt keeps a close eye on election results, tieing them to how Whig leaders assessed and acted. Voter behavior underscored that they were usually the minority party in the two-party system and needed to find effective strategies to win voters to them. These electoral calculations provoked internal disagreement. Each campaign, each legislative battle, was the occasion for litanies of hope and despair from jumpy and testy party managers, always uncertain about how they were doing. The 1848 presidential election was the crucial turning point. Winning after their close loss in 1844, many of them thought that they could only continue to triumph by pursuing a classic minority party strategy, playing down their own distinct policy agenda and identity as a singular political movement, that is, by nominating and running candidates of national renown (victorious generals for one), not identified as rabid partisans, in the hope that they could attract votes across party lines.

This reach beyond themselves worked in 1848 but provoked subsequent divisions over which road to follow thereafter. It caused them to dilute their attention to traditional Whig issues, offending many regular party supporters. This decline in Whig-Democratic confrontation over long standing policy matters, both consciously, and in the face of a prosperity that seemed to belie their insistence on certain policies as necessary for economic growth, allowed centrifugal forces to gain purchase on the party. In particular, both a new eruption of North-South differences over intractable territorial issues in 1854, and the surge of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, nativism, at the same time, assaulted a party already weakened by its debilitating battles and inability to find a cohering strategy. In the face of these assaults and convulsions, frustration, anger, and scapegoating increased, the party’s internal disagreements grew more pronounced. What the Whigs lost, as the battles over party direction and how to tame the sectional issue went on, was the glue that held them together, the complex of issues that identified them and brought supporters to their side. As the party leaders tried, once more, to paper over their differences, but with little of the ideological substance of earlier years, their popular support continued to slip away from them as “an apathetic and disillusioned electorate” rushed to new parties based on more compelling issues at both the state and national levels.

Given their problems, their internal disagreements, the desertions of many of their supporters to nativist and anti-slavery parties, their inability to escape from their fragmenting dilemma, some Whig leaders questioned the party’s viability and whether it should continue. Holt emphasizes how dismayed Whig leaders sought to escape their situation, many of them by joining the Know Nothings or Republicans into which many of their supporters had gone, rather than trying to rally, once more, around the Whig standard, which, by their calculations, had become a futile enterprise. Energy, optimism, and willingness to work together, had all collapsed.

In this concluding section, which encompasses almost three quarters of the text, Holt’s extraordinary thoroughness is aweinspiring. He extensively covers almost a decade of national and state level activities and arguments, emphasizing, as he has throughout, how much leaders and ideas counted in determining party fortunes. Without the efforts of the former, and the polarizing force of the latter, the whole enterprise melted down, and with it, intersectional politics, to the nation’s detriment and pain within a few short years.

This book, to repeat, is a remarkable tour de force. Not everyone will agree with all of Holt’s emphases or choices—or the particular way that he has chosen to approach his subject, either in the concluding section, or throughout. One could write a critical essay on the virtues and vices of the various ways of doing political history, an essay much stimulated by the choices made here. The extraordinary coverage of the discussions, disputes, and heart burnings of Whig leaders at both the national and local levels, creates a colorful and extraordinarily full picture of internal party history but may also contain the weaknesses of its virtues. Not everyone will agree that a primary focus on party activists as the driving engine of the Whigs’ fate, effectively touches on the whole story of cause and consequence, that such may overemphasize, for example, the post-defeat despair of one part of the party community while paying less attention to other elements in the situation perhaps equally important to understanding Whig fortunes.

But, no matter. While there are always counter arguments that can be made in any historical analysis, matters that might be handled differently, and alternative emphases that can be suggested, the essential structure and story presented here are compelling, important, and persuasive. Holt’s volume, in all of its massive shape, adds a great deal to our understanding and will command the attention, and respect, of political historians for a long time to come as one of the prime foundations on which future explorations of mid-19th century politics will be built.


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