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DIBACCO: On the way of the Whigs
A history lesson for the Republicans
Question of the Day
If the Republicans don’t stop concentrating their energies and salvos on a lame-duck president, as well as feudin’, fussin’ and fightin’ among themselves, they may wish, at a minimum, to review the history of the Whigs, their predecessor party. The Whig Party was formed in 1834 in opposition to Democratic President Andrew Jackson, who served from 1829 to 1837. Jackson was dubbed a king for his abuse of presidential power; his followers were designated Tories. His opponents called themselves Whigs, adopting the name of the opponents to the English monarchy.
The only issue on which the Whigs could agree was that they absolutely, positively despised Jackson. The president was infamous to the Whigs because he made war on the Bank of the United States, in spite of the fact that the Supreme Court had declared the institution constitutional. Jackson removed all government funds and placed the dough in state banks, many of which were financially unstable. “I have read the opinion of [Chief Justice] John Marshall,” Jackson said, “and could not agree with him.”
When the Whigs in 1834 were successful in getting the Senate to pass a bill censuring Jackson for taking powers “not conferred by the Constitution and the laws,” no matter. The president’s Senate followers in 1837 had the whole resolution and debate expunged from the record.Jackson made war on American Indians, forcing them to move to lands west of the Mississippi River. Although the Supreme Court invalidated the action, Jackson refused to enforce the decision.Jackson and his minions were smart, though. They identified the Whigs as the party of the wealthy that cared little about the average person although, in truth, the Whigs were so diverse that they captured several state governorships and legislatures. The increasingly numerous evangelical religious denominations found a political home in the Whig party, to say nothing of individuals concerned about reform - ranging from schools to prisons to government. Recall that Abraham Lincoln was a leader of the Whigs in the Illinois legislature before he became a Republican in the 1850s. The problem with the Whigs was national politics. Unlike the Democrats with their well-oiled party convention system, the Whigs had too many leaders and too few platform planks they could agree on. In the 1836 presidential election, for example, they had four candidates: Daniel Webster of Massachusetts with his appeal to New Englanders; Gen. William Henry Harrison of Ohio, who looked West for votes; and Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee and Willie Person Mangum of North Carolina, both of whom were expected to do well in the South.The Whigs were naive in thinking that no one candidate, including the Democratic contender, Martin Van Buren, would receive the requisite electoral votes, throwing the final outcome into the House of Representatives, where they might prevail. They were wrong: Van Buren, Jackson’s handpicked successor, won.
To be sure, the Whigs would eventually have four presidents bearing their party affiliation, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, with Tyler ascending to the top office on Harrison’s death in 1841, the first veep to enter the White House in that eventuality. Unfortunately for the party, Tyler was chosen as Harrison’s second because as a Virginia aristocrat, he was thought acceptable to Southerners. As president, however, he alienated Whigs from other regions, resulting in a fractious party front.
The same result befell Taylor’s victory in 1848. A slaveholder and military hero, Taylor alienated northern Whigs. His veep, Millard Fillmore of New York, ascended to the presidency in 1850 on Taylor’s death, but the script was the same: The Whig party, without a platform and single vision, was noted for its divisions.
The only Whig candidate for president who got his party to consider a clear platform was Henry Clay in 1844. It included sensible goals: “A well-regulated national currency; a tariff for revenue to defray the necessary expenses of the government, and discriminating with special reference to the protection of the domestic labor of the country; the distribution of the proceeds from the sales of the public lands; a single term for the presidency; [and] a reform of executive usurpation.”
The problem for Clay was that he was overexposed, a veteran politician running five times for the presidency, making too many speeches, too few lasting friends and too many enemies. In this era of burgeoning democracy, with the vote extended to more and more people, cutesy nicknames and slogans mattered more than rational language.
In the final analysis, opponents were correct in calling the Whigs an “organized incompatibility” that grew out of opposition to President Jackson. The party was destined to break apart, especially as the slavery issue rose to national prominence by 1850. No doubt, the Democratic Party would be strained by pro-slavery and anti-slavery divisions and, like the Whigs, would find individuals moving to the new Republican Party, founded in 1854 and committed to curbing the spread of slavery and aiding industrialization. Unlike the Whigs, though, the Democrats had history on their side, with much stronger local organizations that, through thick and thin, would survive.
Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.
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