A previous article1 describes the values and beliefs that informed the political culture of the American Whigs, as elucidated in the party’s premier literary and political magazine, the American Whig Review.2 Whigs regarded themselves as strict constitutionalists in the American “Republican” tradition as defined and handed down by the Founding Fathers. The party self-consciously stood for classless economic and national interest;3 high moral character among the citizenry and especially those in government service; patriotism, nationalm honor, and integrity in foreign affairs; an independent judiciary; and a Chief Executive with vigorous enforcement responsibilities but little policy voice or proactive legislative role. Whigs had a high regard for literature and rhetoric, viewing the best examples of these arts as representing a distillation of universal experience. Though nationalists, Whigs rejected the expansionist “Manifest Destiny” doctrine proclaimed by the Democrats, which called, at a minimum, for rapid expansion of the American nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific.4 While Democratic nationalism was quantitative and spacial or geographic, Whig nationalism was qualitative and linked to their conception of the Union as an entity involved in constant improvement of self (morally and economically) over time. In contrast to the politics of their Democratic adversaries, whom Whigs viewed as impulsive, irresponsible, even “anarchical,” the Whigs saw politics as the high art of fostering consensus through compromise, with compromise understood to be a process of “mutual adjustment and concession . . . evincing men’s capacity for self-subordination in pursuit of the general welfare.”
Had the spirit of restraint championed by Whig political culture prevailed over the comparatively impatient and expansionary impulses of its philosophical and political adversaries, the history of the United States might have been spared some of its darkest, most divisive, and bloodiest chapters.5 However, consistently to balance a broad range of ends and divergent interests while steadily resisting the pull of the abstract and the arbitrary is difficult business. The Whig unionist ethic, as spelled out in the journal’s pages, presented a high standard: one not easy to live up to in the best of times and virtually impossible in the difficult circumstances of mid-nineteenth century America. Whig culture did not prevail politically, and the resulting ideological fissures—most notably, sectional divisions over slavery—split not only the nation as a whole but the Whig party itself, contributing to its precipitous demise. Whiggery’s last hurrah, the Compromise of 1850, proved to be a pyrrhic victory, indicative of the party’s permanent schisms, which soon produced the disastrous electoral defeat of 1852.
Crosscurrents of Geographic Sectionalism
The Missouri Compromise of 1820, submitted by Henry Clay, put the question of slavery extension to rest for thirty years. Missouri was admitted as a slave state, and Maine was admitted as a free state. The issue of potential westward expansion of free and slave systems into the Louisiana Territory also was settled by the agreement, slavery to be confined to the area south of latitude 36°30′. In 1820 the Union stood evenly split, twelve free states to twelve slave states. By 1848, there were fifteen free states to fifteen slave states. But the acquisition of new lands outside the Louisiana Territory obtained from the Mexican War—a war whose entry the Whigs had opposed—made necessary another compromise. To the task, Henry Clay and the Whig party’s official journal committed their energies. The American Whig Reviewenthusiastically supported new compromise measures, but the issues involved proved more divisive in 1850 than in 1820 owing to critical developments in the intervening years.
Democratic President Andrew Jackson’s heavy-handed executive conduct helped precipitate more than the Whig “Counterreformation.” It precipitated a smaller, more reactionary reflex from planter-dominated South Carolina, to wit, the state legislature’s adoption of the Ordinance of Nullification in 1833. After the resulting Nullification Crisis, controversies over states’ rights came to dominate national politics; moreover, secessionist doctrines grew more sophisticated and assertive. “Popular” democracy merely fueled sectional patriotism.
Although Whigs hoped the West would continue to impose political “balance,”6 the tentative Western political sway over the South abated as economics caused a divergence of interests between the two regions. The expulsion of Indians from Georgia and the Gulf states opened the fertile Alabama and Mississippi black belt to cotton. Old “Middle Colonies” melted away between 1815 and 1835 in terms of their distinct and sectionally mitigating political interests. Quakers, Methodists, upcountrymen and other anti-slavery Southerners emigrated away from their region as the cotton crop and the slave economy became more deeply entrenched and expanded from their base in the Carolinas and parts of Virginia and Georgia to areas throughout the South.7 A rift between Van Burenites and Deep Southerners led by John C. Calhoun after 1836 “institutionalized” a nascent geographical division within the Democratic party.8 The cotton-slave economy, likewise, exerted influence over Southern Whigs, who increasingly nursed divided section-party loyalties.9 The broad-based support for “truly national” improvements, which existed immediately after the War of 1812, dissipated in the South. Southern politicians in both parties found their support of federal initiatives impinged by the fear that such precedents could interfere with Southern domestic institutions; hence, to the extent that Southern politicians supported internal improvements at all, they preferred that they be state-sponsored.10 The bipolarity of American politics reached critical mass by 1850, partly as the result of practical concerns but also in response to new values-laden philosophies in the North and the South that emotionally charged both sides.
During the Missouri Compromise debates of 1820, Senator Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina stated what was perhaps the first recorded defense of American slavery, not as an evil without easy remedy, but as a positive good. Senator William Smith of South Carolina joined by saying the great lesson of classical history (e.g., Aristotle) and the Scriptures was that slavery was not only necessary but, indeed, beneficent. Senator Rufus King of New York led the Northern response, the first pronouncement in Congress that slavery was innately evil, contrary to God’s own “natural law.” Although the Missouri Compromise established a practical truce between North and South and provided the framework for political parity, the debates unleashed the intellectual genesis for future positions that were irreconcilable. The implication that the federal government could constitutionally interfere with slavery where it was already established was anathema to Southerners, who were determined to keep their “peculiar” institution intact. Giving strength to the Southern position besides the obvious economic incentive was the belief, fueled by the Vesey conspiracy and reports from Santo Domingo, that interference with slavery might incite bloody physical recriminations by blacks against Southern white society.
Abolitionist and Anti-Slavery Reformers
The religious zeal from evangelical Christianity, which had helped propel Whiggery forward, gave birth and sustenance to a radical abolitionist offshoot as well.11 Radical abolitionists who coalesced behind William Lloyd Garrison in the 1830s rejected colonization and other gradualist approaches in favor of immediate abolition of slavery everywhere. The ironic result of Garrison’s approach was the destruction not only of moderate abolitionism in the North but of anti-slavery sentiments that had long existed in the South as well. Radicalism in the North begot radicalism in the South. “Taunts and reproaches naturally react[ed] on those to whom they [were] addressed, and thus the breach . . . ever widen[ed] between them” (V, vi, 620). The first issue of Garrison’s weekly newspaper, the Liberator, appeared in 1831. Although a link was never established, Southerners connected the newspaper with the bloody Nat Turner insurrection, which occurred soon after it began to publish.
Abolitionist propaganda via newspapers and pamphlets began flooding the mails. Southern slave interests became frightened and intransigent. Garrison accepted the proposition that the Negro would assimilate into American society after he was made free rather than be whisked away toAfrica.12 The prospect of miscegenation and “mongrelization” of the white race scandalized Southern society and excited a rabid Southern white male defensive-aggressive behavior. Against this backdrop, the American Whig Review argued that Northern abolitionism served to strengthen slavery by raising Southern resentment; quite the opposite strategy was needed to produce both national harmony and the eventual subjugation of slavery as an institution (IX, ii, 117-19).
By 1840 there were 100,000 Northerners enrolled in some 1,000 local anti-slavery societies.13Members of Garrison’s umbrella group, the American Anti-Slavery Society, usually abstained from political participation in either party and very often refused to vote. Their abolitionist efforts were directed towards moral suasion and not towards achieving a political mandate. Others, favoring direct political action, formed a third party in 1840 called the Liberty party. Wealthy New York City businessmen Arthur and Lewis Tappan supported the party, while Garrison continued to disdain established politics and to radicalize the parent organization along philosophical lines.
Political Challenge: A Contextual Crisis
The Liberty party nominated Ohio publisher and abolitionist James Birney for President in 1840 and again in 1844, but to the rising party’s chagrin, its 1844 election support resulted in splitting the Whig vote. Support was diverted from Clay, throwing New York’s electoral vote and the entire national election to Democrat James K. Polk. The American Whig Review was irate, clearly assuming that abolitionist votes were taken from the Whigs and not from both parties equally:
The Liberty party merged in 1848 into the Free Soil party, a broadly based, moderately anti-slavery coalition that opposed slavery primarily for the racist (and very popular) reason of wanting to keep land for exclusive white settlement. The Free Soil party nominated Martin Van Buren for President and polled 300,000 votes in the 1848 election. This confirmed Whig speculations that anti-slavery sentiments by that time had spread well beyond the ranks of abolitionists.14 The Free Soil party dwindled with the effects of the political compromise reached in Congress in 1850, but most of its members remained ready to join an even larger third-party coalition in 1852 if circumstances allowed it. Again, the Whigs felt inordinately exposed to the political challenge of the Free-Soilers. “They are mostly from the Whig Party, certainly in the proportion of two Whigs to one Democrat. . .” (XVI, iv, 371; and see VIII, ii, 193). Political and cultural crosscurrents had changed the political landscape.
Regarding prospects for North-South accommodation, the situation in 1850 was a far cry from that in 1820. The Review, which had repeatedly predicted that sectional conflict would be exacerbated by the annexation of Texas (I, i, 78), was well aware that the nation and the Whig party were not in ordinary times and that acquisition of the new territories had made the crucial difference (IX, iv, 331). Whigs, including Webster, also understood that the nature of anti-slavery sentiment had become crucially different from the time of the Missouri Compromise:
Political Solution: A Compromise That Couldn’t
The election of 1848 produced a Whig victory and hence a Whig opportunity. President Zachary Taylor presided over the nation at precisely the moment compromise was required to avert a momentous sectional crisis. When the new Congress assembled in December of 1849, the Union was already near the breaking point, as sectional antagonisms were at an all-time high.16 Not only had the United States obtained huge tracts of land from war-winnings, but the gold rush in California had spurred a population rush, qualifying the territory almost overnight for admission to the Union as a state. Settlers there had framed a constitution in September and were requesting admission as a free state. Taylor urged immediate congressional approval, complicating subsequent compromise measures that involved much more than just California. At any rate, the rapid formation of California effectively prevented extension of the 36°30′ line to the Pacific, something some Southerners still wanted to do. Even Clay considered the issues needing compromise in 1850 to require a totally different formula from the one he had used in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The latter had applied to the Louisiana Territory. The new territories of Texas, New Mexico, California and Deseret (roughly the area of present-day Arizona, Nevada and Utah) were quite different geographically, each already having historical or otherwise discernible boundaries.
Clay was the “foremost articulator of sectional compromise.” His solution to the conflict over slavery was faithful to the vision of the Founders and followed the Madisonian tradition, in which compromise and perpetuation of the Union were prime objectives in all national politicaldisputes.17 Indeed, this form of constitutional unionism was inherent in the theoretical aspects of Whig political culture. After consulting with Daniel Webster, Clay presented to the Senate in late January the initial resolutions for a comprehensive settlement. Together, they were designed to resolve all the substantive issues between sections regarding slavery, thus assuring national harmony for the foreseeable future as the Missouri Compromise had done thirty years earlier. Debates continued throughout the spring and summer of 1850.
In September, the last item of the Compromise of 1850 was approved and hailed in North and South for averting almost certain national division. The resolutions as enacted provided for admission of California as a free state, while Congress would allow New Mexico and Utah18to decide the slavery issue locally via “popular sovereignty.” Slavery in the District of Columbia, which abolitionists had been seeking to outlaw, would continue; but slave auctions henceforth would be banned in the capital. The federal fugitive slave law would be strengthened. And Texas, which would give up some of its territorial ambitions in exchange for federal assumption of its large state debt, would nevertheless keep most of its extensive territory for slavery.
The resolutions seemed to provide something for everyone, yet they failed to satisfy Clay’s hopes for long-term national harmony. The Compromise presumed certain conditions for successful implementation which simply did not exist. At that particular time, nothing was perhaps so idealistic and impractical as “practical” political compromise per usual. The Compromise of 1850 compromised only on paper; it did not actually accommodate the prevailing and competing beliefs and dogmas of sections involved in the political conflict. The “static” task of harmonization was at variance with the required “dynamic” task of forging a national consensus concerning the direction and purpose of ongoing change.19 Because the compromise did not address issues relating to the inertial divergence of the sections, its passage was akin to placing a band-aid across tectonic plates moving in opposite directions. Meanwhile, in the Whig party, leadership was passing from older men to younger ones whose orthodox Whiggery was weakened by sectionalism. Aware of the slippage, Clay hoped to use the Compromise of 1850 to reinstill harmony within the Whig party itself and to fasten “moderate” control over the party’smachinery.20 In 1850, however, most Whigs did not yet capture the awful vision of which Calhoun spoke in his 4 March “equilibrium” speech. Calhoun spoke baldly of political reality and observed that the continued efficacy of the Union as it was would require the reversal of Northern political trends. Moreover, Calhoun insightfully linked sectional divergence to the gradual change of character in the central government, which had moved from the decentralized federal republic of the framers towards a consolidated national democracy.21
When one examines the nature of the compromise measures as they emerged from Congress, one is also struck by the hollow quality of the political settlement. Not only did the Compromise of 1850 fail to extend past the paper to actual practice, but Congress had barely been able to produce even the paper. Only through the most mechanistic contrivances and utter obfuscation did the compromise measures pass. In fact, there was little commitment to compromise in spirit, except from the older Whigs and Western and Northern Democrats leading the compromise effort.
The divisive spirit that was thick in the air can be seen in the sound defeat the compromise sustained when its five sections, meticulously crafted by a “Committee of Thirteen” chaired by Clay, were presented to Congress in the form of a single omnibus bill. The Compromise—when presented in its entirety as a compromise—lost. Only after the package was redrafted by Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas into five separate bills did it pass, piecemeal, from July through September 1850. Ominously, the votes on each measure showed distinct sectional orientations. Legislators voted for the “pieces” they liked and absented themselves from the other votes, in order to avoid the shows of compromise that would be unpopular in their districts.22 Ironically, when the separate votes are all tallied together, the “compromise” was primarily supported by Democratic and Northern elements. When viewed separately, however, each measure passed by overwhelming Northern or Southern support, not by cross-sectional coalitions.23
A significant difference between the compromise measures as they emerged separately and Clay’s original “package” was that the latter had not included the explicit formula of “popular sovereignty” to decide the slavery issue within territories. Aware that sometimes the best decision is to do nothing, Clay’s “nonintervention” ended where it began, i.e., no laws would be passed respecting slavery.24 Clay and Webster meant to leave the issue for nature to decide, believing that, while isolated individuals or groups might bring slaves into New Mexico or Deseret, the geography was such as to make slavery in those potential states practically extinct. Nonintervention of this kind would have diffused the issue or made it a veritable nonissue, instead of putting the slavery question at the center of territorial, then national, political attention and debate.
Clay’s intent was in accord with true Whiggery. Popular sovereignty, on the other hand, was a thoroughly Jacksonian idea. Unfortunately, Douglas mistakenly thought he could apply the new and alien “compromise” precedent of 1850 to the Kansas and Nebraska territories when in 1854 he proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But by then sectional dynamics had outmoded pure Jacksonian solutions, as well as pure Whig ones. The problem was that Kansas and Nebraska were cut out of the original Louisiana Territory, hence passage of Douglas’s measure entailed “repeal” of the Missouri Compromise together with a host of other unsettling implications. Opposition to the bill’s passage ignited Northern sentiment, gave credence to the theory of a Slave Power conspiracy, and provided the impetus for the formation of the Republican party that same year.25 The ensuing Border War (1854-59) in Kansas pitted pro-slavery forces, including Missouri border-ruffians seeking to impose slavery by terror and election interference, against eastern Free-Soilers and violent abolitionists bent on coercing freedom by similar tactics. “Bleeding Kansas” was the physical manifestation of an important philosophical distinction: that between the adopted Jacksonian course of compromise and the classic Whig formula Clay had originally conceived and proposed. The deceased Clay—who had perceived the connection between abolitionism, southern radicalism, and Jacksonianism—would not have repealed his previous compromise work of 1820 by emulating the 1850 precedent.26 Even before the Compromise debates, the American Whig Review had identified a connection between Northern abolitionism and Jacksonian radicalism (X, ii, 190 and XII, iii, 226), as well as between Jacksonian-style democracy and the rise of “sectional doctrines entirely discordant” (I, i, 18).27 Martin Van Buren, the journal declared, was the quintessential example of this league of interest (X, ii, 192). The Whigs similarly blamed the Democrats’ use of patronage narrowly targeted on Catholic immigrants for the emergence, in reaction, of political nativism (I, vi, 552-3). By 1854 Clay was in his grave and the Whig party in Congress in no shape to work the practical art of keeping peace in the Union.
In retrospect, it can be seen that Clay and Webster conceived the Compromise of 1850 in grandiose terms of Whig political theory, but most people didnot.28 Even many Whigs, impassioned by the slavery issue, were making exceptions to their established conservative political culture. For instance, William H. Seward, who would later become a leading radical Republican, denounced legislative compromise out of hand. Moreover, the American Whig Review accused anti-slavery Whigs of Free Soil persuasion of being “Jacksonian” in their willingness to use a strong executive to resist the spread of slavery, despite constitutional limitations on the president’s role in shaping, as distinguished from enforcing, policy:
A disposition prevails in certain sections of the Whig party, to sink all other considerations in order to support the one great measure of opposing the extension of domestic slavery to the territories newly acquired to our nation. Whatever may be the justice or policy of the ultimate measures proposed, . . . [if] the extension of domestic slavery to the territories is to be successfully opposed, it must constitutionally be done through some other authority than [that of the executive. We say constitutionally opposed]—for we have seen in the examples afforded by President Jackson and his dwindling successors, . . . the misuse of the executive functions” (VIII, ii, 193 and see 194-5).
Democrats like Douglas and Martin Van Buren would attempt other bargains to keep the peace, but their compromit, or commitment to compromise, had nothing philosophically to do with the conception of compromise based on theoretical aspects of Whig political culture.29 Clay, the Whig, and Douglas, the Democrat, were in “different political worlds.” While Democratic attempts fell broadly into the constitutional unionist tradition, they were colored by the Jacksonian glorification of mass democracy. This was fatal, since mass politics was largely responsible for the stimulation of sectional agitation in the first place. Although the pure Whig solution may have succumbed in time to the onset of sectional cultures opposed to the virtues of moderation, it would not have precipitated the same drastic reaction as did popular sovereignty.30 Moreover, the delay may have saved the day for the Whig party to rebuild. The Compromise of 1850 was “the compromise that couldn’t.”
American Republican Dialectic and Rupture
Dialectic is defined as “the association or interaction of ideas, forces, arguments, etc., that conflict and compete.”31 The term describes well the American political environment and two-partysystem.32 The Whigs and Democrats in their time held ideological positions clearly representing the continuing dialectic of American republicanism.33 The American republican dialectic corresponds in large degree to the alternating conception of the republic as positive or negative liberal state. The dialectic consists of a free-ranging dialogue between ideas such as conservatism and liberalism, “country” and “court,” consolidation and confederation, rationalism and piety, idealism and pragmatism, change and order, which take shape in broad party coalitions representing combinations of opposing ideological positions. Some elements of the dialectic evolve, drop out, or even trade places between parties. For instance, the “rugged” sense of individualism espoused by Jacksonian Democrats entered later conservative thought, while twentieth-century liberals began promulgating the quintessential Whig doctrine, albeit in a different sense, that the good of all should take precedence over the interests of the individual.34 Jefferson’s motto, emblazoned on the cover of every issue of the Democratic Review, that “the best government is that which governs least,” became the credo of a later variety of American conservatism. The written Constitution, with its related history, normally provides readily identifiable parameters and recognized bounds for contention, as it had in both Whig and Democratic political cultures before Southern radicalism and political abolitionism produced a hiatus in dialectical dialogue.
The Compromise of 1850, while in the making, aggravated party factions the way fierce debates often will. Union parties emerged, especially in the South, to accommodate those in both parties who were tired of fighting with anti-compromise party members, whether anti-slavery or secessionist. Indeed, old party lines were permanently ruptured in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi by both Union and Southern Rights parties. Even Clay and Webster during the compromise debates toyed with the prospect of forging a national bipartisan Union party. The “successful” outcome of the compromise package and the official commitment by both parties to its terms insured, however, that sectionalist forces would finally split the parties along straight geographic lines. Whig defeat in the election of 1852 insured that it would be the Whig party to break first. Thus the Compromise of 1850 actually precipitated the breakdown of the party system by producing an artificial consensus; this consensus, in turn, killed the parties. The most one can say about the Compromise of 1850 is that it delayed secession and the Civil War by nearly a dozen years.35
To the extent that delay almost certainly aided the North in terms of manpower, industry and political resolve, the Compromise of 1850 materially contributed to Union victory. This might be seen as a delayed victory for Whig national organicism. Nevertheless, anti-slavery forces used the artificial consensus between the Whig and Democratic parties to exploit sectional antagonisms and to reorganize distraught or alienated anti-slavery elements out of both parties.36 The fanning of opposition to fugitive slave laws was used most effectively in this regard. Among the original endorsers of the American Whig Review was Hamilton Fish of New York, who later refused to endorse the Fugitive Slave Act.37 Although massive reorganization of anti-slavery elements did not occur until after the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Compromise of 1850 laid the groundwork for the political realignment that, beginning with the election of 1852, sounded organized political Whiggery’s death knell.38 The Kansas-Nebraska Act was the coup de grâce.
Political Mechanics of Rupture: A Losing Election
The election of 1852 might have been business as usual for the Whig party. The national controversy over slavery was temporarily in remission, since the Compromise of 1850 had been approved (XI, vi, 555). The American Whig Review took advantage of the lull of controversy and attempted to patch party divisions from June 1850, by publishing more widely disparate views on slavery representing all Whig factions. The idea was to re-establish the Whig “party lines which [had] been in some degree obscured by sectional agitations” (XII, i, 1). This was the first and only major political policy shift in the life of the journal, but it was short-lived. The journal attempted to impress a kind of unity on all factions under the rubric of a “Whig interpretation of Constitutional Republicanism” (XV, i, 90; and see XIV, iii, 179 and esp. XIII, v, 393-94). After all, the motto on every issue of the American Whig Review, printed in all capital letters, was “to stand by the Constitution.”
The approach of the 1852 election revealed, however, that various factions still held positions at odds with the political Compromise settlement of 1850. In January 1852, therefore, the Review resumed its normal approach of avoiding sectionally antagonizing arguments and of establishing with its articles a “singleness of principle in the Whig party” (VII, i, 1-2). One would have anticipated that the Whig party would benefit politically by successful passage of the Compromise. Nevertheless, while slavery was not an overt issue in the election campaign, the issue continued to plague the party. Slavery split the Whig party into factions at its national convention, where individual reputations seemed fixed by the positions displayed two years earlier in the Compromise debates.39 Pro-Compromisers constituted the moderate-to-conservative element in the party, still in the majority; whereas a large minority of anti-Compromisers constituted the liberal anti-slavery wing of the party, including many who later became radical Republicans. In terms of the slavery issue, the Democratic party had a different spectrum of trouble to deal with: liberal-to-moderate pro-Compromisers and pro-slavery anti-Compromisers, including many who advocated secession or who would later become secessionists. The Compromise of 1850 mollified the conservatives in the Democratic party, for the time being at least, better than it did the liberals in the Whig party.
The Whig choice of candidate in 1852 was both politically anomalous and maladroit, due mostly to the way in which Whigs were split at convention. The Baltimore convention in June took four days and fifty-four ballots to nominate Winfield Scott, an aging military hero. President Fillmore and Daniel Webster repeatedly failed to unite enough of their delegate votes to prevent the anti-slavery faction from pushing Scott’s nomination through by a narrow margin. Although the convention platform was firmly pro-Compromise, Scott only acquiesced in it blandly, having well-known anti-slavery sentiments, as well as a personal affinity for Seward. Worse, Scott’s support was almost entirely sectional.40 Henry Clay had preferred Fillmore over both Webster and Scott, but his main desire was for that candidate to win the nomination who had greatest devotion to the Union (as well as support by all sections). Part of the difficulty in uniting delegate votes for someone other than Scott was that Clay held his sway over certain delegates too long. Clay actually agreed with Webster that if Scott were nominated, they might just as well vote for the Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce instead.41Scott’s nomination was a blow to most Whigs. Many Whigs simply withheld their support from either candidate. Others shifted their support to independent bids. Clay’s life expired just eight days after the Baltimore convention, as if to signal a bad omen for the election at hand, and even the passing of Whiggery itself. Moreover, Daniel Webster died in late October, having run for the presidency as an independent rather than to endorse the divisive and unelectable Whig nominee.42
Under these adverse circumstances, the American Whig Review became morose and reflected in every way the diffusive and halting support Scott garnered from Whigs throughout the entire campaign,43 though it had previously indicated that it could support any of the three leading contenders for the 1852 nomination—Fillmore, Webster, or Scott:
After Scott’s nomination, the journal admitted that its preference had been for Webster (XVI, ii, 100):
“[H]armony . . . of the party” was “the sole barrier to a triumph on which depend[ed] the most vital interests of the country” (XV, vi, 475 and 481). “A year of political disorder [had] led nine tenths of politicians to despair of unity” (XV, iii, 265). “It [was] no longer time for divisions in the great party of principle” (XV, i, 10):
Since slavery was not a campaign issue and the Democrats offered no “positive” measures, Whigs had all the “elements of success” if they would “use them wisely” (XVI, ii, 106); that is, the Whigs would win if they could remember that “Success is the First Duty; Defeat . . . the First Danger” (XVI, iv, 374). If popular passions were kept at bay, the people should discern Scott the “Most Worthy” over Pierce (XVI, v, 471) and Whig principles superior to Democratic ones (XVI, i, 79; and see XVI, v, 441). Never had the Democratic party presented such a “spectacle of contradiction and absurdity” (XVI, ii, 137). Whigs even attributed part of pre-election calm during the campaign to the people’s tacit approval of the incumbent Whig administration (XV, iv, 285). To the extent that Whigs managed to wage an effective campaign, the result of the election would reflect a properly harsh or beneficent judgment on the people themselves (XV, ii, 134; XVI, ii, 176; XVI, v, 395 and 446). In language reminiscent of the Jacksonian Era, the American Whig Review envisioned “the worst passions of the mob . . . arrayed against” Whigs; it remained to be seen if “the justice and . . . sense of candid men” could overcome them (XV, iii, 270). For its part, the magazine remained cautious in outlook and continued to exhort and scold Whigs who, during the campaign, refused to provide the unity so crucial to “rightful” victory.
Among the original endorsers of the Review, Alexander Stephens was also one of the most ardent devotees of Webster’s independent campaign.44 The nativist element in the Whig party also bolted or stayed home, when Scott chose to broaden his appeal by attempting to capture part of the immigrant Catholic vote. Unfortunately for Scott, the gamble backfired, losing him support in absolute terms and undermining Whig party loyalty. Whigs lost some traditional Protestant supporters, including many Presbyterians and Methodists, as well as the nativist voters in or outside their ranks. There had been that potential for some time, as there was a certain amount of tension between Whig party policy and the “proverbially fanatical Protestant sects” (I, vi, 554 and see 561). Moreover, traditional Protestant unity was undermined by sectional antagonisms, which disproportionately hurt the Whig party in the election. Several evangelical religions had either divided between Northern and Southern denominations (e.g., Methodists in 1844) or were suffering from significant religious disunity over the issue of slavery (e.g., Lutherans, Episcopalians, New School Presbyterians and most national interdenominational societies).45 The problem was due in large measure to the influence of Garrisonian radicalism, and it “covered the entire party with the odium of . . . furious and demoralizing doctrines” (XVI, vi, 571). Catholics and immigrants, on the other hand, were not in the least budged from their staunchly Democratic orientation.46 By the end of the 1852 campaign, the blurring of everything that had distinguished Whigs, from an ideological to an ethnic standpoint, caused many Whigs to lose interest and to feel that the party resembled a watered-down version of the Democracy, as the Democratic party was then called.47
Political Mechanics of Rupture: The Numbers Racket
German and Irish immigrants were mostly Democratic by virtue of religious outlook (nonevangelical Protestant or Catholic), as well as by personal and cultural preference in favor of non-temperance. Whiggery was sustained nationally by groups with opposite interests. Between 1846 and 1855, for instance, thirteen states passed prohibition laws, either with explicit Whig political support or in implicit accord with professed Whig reform and morality ideals. Scott proved a better military strategist than politician. By seeking immigrant votes, he mistook the very roots of Whig political culture, deserting his party base. Granted, some of the party base had deserted him, and it can be argued that he had nothing much to lose. Moreover, Whig political culture already was threatened in absolute terms by the numbers of immigrants arriving in America, and by their indirect impact on the rest of the American electorate. Scott actually lost the election in 1852 while garnering more votes than Taylor had amassed in his successful campaign of 1848. Indeed, immigration accounts for the absolute increase of nearly 400,000 Democratic votes between the two elections.48
The American Whig Review covered the phenomenon of immigration in some detail [in (VI, v) and (VI, vi)], describing demographic causes and immigrant motivations. The journal did not take a nativist tone, but it objectively pointed out the demands and strains one might expect on the nation’s resources and on local charities (VII, iv, 419-31). The magazine hoped that naturalization procedures would be well regulated to prevent fraudulent voting and insure appropriate assimilation of immigrants into the American way of life:
- The effect of the mighty stream of immigration which Europe is now pouring upon our shores is yet to be determined by the events of the future. But our former experience as a nation in receiving the people of various races who have sought this favored land as an asylum, and the ready adoption by the various masses of the Anglo-Saxon language, laws, manners and customs, induces us to believe that our national character will not be materially changed by the effects of immigration. It should be the duty of all true Americans to discourage the separate action and trans-atlantic attachments and associations of the foreigners who come to reside among us; and to impress upon them the truth, that as all meet here on equal ground, so all distinctions of race should here be lost sight of, and all denizens, from whatever land or clime, should be anxious to be known in this republic only by the common name of AMERICANS (XIV, iii, 193).
While Whig views thus expressed seemed to foreshadow the coercive spirit of “100 per cent Americanism” in the early twentieth century, this was not the Whig intent. Whigs never advocated restricting numbers of immigrants or actually forcing cultural homogeneity, though such measures certainly would have been in their interest. Between 1845 and 1854, the infusion of some three million immigrants represented a 14.5 per cent increase in the population over that period.49 The burgeoning immigrant population hurt the Whigs disproportionately in cities, where Whiggery had always been strong. In addition, the influx of immigrants tended to exacerbate sectional antagonisms, adding population disproportionately to the North and stressing the North-South cleavage developing within the Democratic party. Whig defections to declared nativist ranks increased in reaction to the huge number of immigrants arriving in the country, with many Whigs using the election defeat of 1852 as a perfect opportunity to make that switch.50
Indeed, demographic trends alone may have portended the eclipse of Whiggery.51 The volume of immigrants arriving in the four years after 1852, by the 1856 election, exceeded Scott’s total popular vote of nearly 1.4 million.52 Whigs were wont to blame the “foreign vote” for their failure in the aftermath of 1852, but they had created for themselves political contradictions impossible for almost any party to overcome: a candidate pro-Compromisers detested, running on a platform that the candidate and anti-slavery supporters hated; an ethnocentric and conservative constituency whose political philosophy had consistently opposed “foreign” influence, expecting to woo the alien newcomers.
Mental Mechanics of Rupture: A Question of Morale
The party also grieved the loss of their stalwart leaders, Clay and Webster, and suffered a discernible loss of identity and cohesiveness which they had helped to provide. The party labored under considerable demoralization; that, to a party based so much on morals, morale and men, proved decisively onerous. Whigs believed
[t]he truly great men of a country are the best property it possesses, or can possess. Their renown constitutes its renown; their fame is its fame. In the names of its great men the country lives, and becomes known and honored in the world. . . . Without its great names no country is great, or even respectable (VII, vi, 554).
The effect of losing “great men” was the inverse of Whig hero worship. If great men were necessary to bring out the best in a country (or party), their absence meant the inevitable dearth of all good things:
- No greater calamity can befal[l] a nation than the death of those men who represent in their persons the dignity and virtue of the people. In Republics especially, the decease of great and worthy citizens, able to sustain the responsibilities of high office, is to be esteemed among the greatest of calamities (XII, ii, 114).
Apathy infected Whig ranks before and after the election. “We are left leaderless” (XVI, vi, 572), the journal lamented. To anyone reading straight through the pages of the American Whig Review, it is difficult not to catch the change in tone and utter loss of excited anger and optimism so evident between those of any previous year and that most fateful year for Whigs—1852. Statistics cannot capture the sense of malaise which overtook Whigs after that election.53The journal seemed to say the party had lost more than an election: it had lost its will.
The Compromise of 1850 had literally stressed the nation and the Whig party to the breaking point:
We have fallen upon times of profound and startling interest. . . . It is useless to disguise that the existence of our Union has been by recent events greatly endangered. It is folly to deny that a few more sessions of Congress like the last, and the Republic, freighted with earth’s most glorious hopes, is for ever lost. The arena of public events has disclosed this state of danger. We have seen those bodies composed of the representatives of the Church, wherein discord and fear, we should think, could find no room, torn asunder by the operation of this cause. We have seen the two great parties, cemented by strong bonds, riven into fragments by the detonation of this bomb (XII, vi, 555).
“Whigs [had] sustained the Union with the loss of their all” (XV, ii, 133), but had seen their aspirations blocked by the sectional dispute:
Normal Whig optimism was fraught with second thoughts and misgivings. “A long succession of physical storms [had] caus[ed] men to despair of [the] fair weather” (XV, iii, 265). Regarding prospects for 1852, the American Whig Review “dare[d] not hope for so much” as victory, because so many of the people, North and South, seemed “hopelessly corrupted” and devoid of the proper national sentiments (XIII, i, 10-11). When the election was over, the American Whig Review freely admitted, “the basis of our hopes during this momentous campaign was of constantly shifting proportions, and oftener diminishing than expanding” (XVI, vi, 569). Even before the election, the journal intimated the efficacy of changing the name of the party, lest it become one of reproach instead of honor (XV, v, 381). The most important reason seemed to be that immigrants, unfamiliar with English or American history, so completely identified with the term “Democracy” and so universally disdained the title of “Whig,” regardless of reason or experience (XVI, iii, 195).
Mental Mechanics of Rupture: A Question of Philosophy
Before 1852, the Whig party had never lost the states of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, or Florida.54 All four were lost that year, and not because of the immigrant vote. They were lost because Whigs wasted time and energy spinning their wheels on alternative Presidential candidates after their convention was already over, or because Whigs failed to vote, or else voted for the opposition or third-party candidate. Scott carried only four states in the election (Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Vermont), losing the electoral vote by landslide, 254 to 42. For some perspective, however, it must be added that Scott carried forty-four per cent of the popular vote. Pierce’s popular vote margin was just over 200,000 out of more than three million ballots cast.55 Scott’s worst showing was in the South, where he lost because of his Northern sectional ties and his lukewarm support of the Compromise of 1850. Scott lost the South by being less “Whiggish,” so to speak, than Pierce.56
The Whig party at large had begun its own departure from conceptualized national compromise and unconditional devotion to the Union during the debates on the Compromise of 1850 itself. Obviously, Clay had perceived this intraparty challenge and had attempted with the Compromise to reassert orthodoxy. By 1852, however, the liberal faction’s challenger had gained the party’s nomination, though not control of its machinery, much less electoral success. The internal logic of Whig political culture facilitated party rupture without actually causing it. There had always been potential instability or conflict within Whig political culture because of an apparent, if not necessary, contradiction between its twin values of social harmony and social morality. Slavery, more than else, exposed that instability.57 For Clay and other orthodox Whigs, social morality itself required the nation’s statesmen to strive for social harmony; hence there was no inherent contradiction between the two goals. So-called “Conscience” Whigs, on the other hand, separated the two goals and saw their version of morality as outweighing social harmony on the political scale.
Sectionalism produced a “weight shift” within the Whig party that resulted in more “Conscience” Whiggery of the sort represented by Seward’s faction.58 Fueling the growing reform influence in the party was the view that, apart from the injustice of slavery to the Negro, slavery as an institution tended to corrupt society as a whole.59 Whig didacticism implied strongly that slavery institutionalized the same or worse excesses as Jacksonian democracy. Slavery represented gross excess of power, and power in Whig political culture was the worst possible corrupter of moral virtue. Common examples of cruelty and frequent sexual liaison between masters and slaves provided compelling empirical evidence. Here Whig organicism turned on itself, because the corrupt part, so-called, was seen to corrupt the larger whole. God’s terrible penalty for slavery would surely apply to all white men and to the entire Union, which was, after all, one government and one society.
Northern sectionalism reinforced Whig self-righteousness. The North’s economic vitality was progress as Whigs defined it; moreover, such progress was merited to the Whig way of thinking, literally God’s reward for rightliving.60 Slavery made men lazy and self-indulgent, but free labor dignified men and improved their moral, as well as material, status. Slavery was “a permanent chronic . . . to the South” (IX, ii, 118), “the very essence of despotism” (IX, iii, 232), the elimination of which would undoubtedly improve material and spiritual conditions in the region (see X, ii, 192 and 196; and XII, ii, 117-9). Exposed to the influence of sectionalism, Whig culture (hence the Whig party also) spiraled towards its demise.
In the evangelical version of Whig political culture, compromise was not possible when the issue was sin. Slavery posed no such contradiction to old-school Whigs, for whom morality meant striving for ethically required change prudently and within the established constitutional framework. Slavery might engender sin or pose affronts to individual personal virtue, but it did not negate the entire body politic:
- One may hold that there are political evils involved in our form of government, and yet may honestly swear to execute the whole and every part; and may honestly fulfil his oath, on the ground, that in a system which has an immense balance of good, the strict performance even of those parts which are inexpedient and imperfect, involves no breach of moral obligation, until they are remedied by amendments in the only constitutional way. On this principle, a sincere opponent of slavery, who would use all lawful means for its eradication from our form of government, may, if elected to office, not only swear to maintain, but actually execute, according to their true intention, all laws which at present provide for the arrest of fugitive slaves, and the security of the slaveholding States against servile insurrections (II, i, 10).
There were many things wrong in society; still, Union within the originally conceived political structure gave society the best possible and only legitimate opportunity for perfecting itself. Whigs conceived of society as being properly engaged in a process of becoming, through the free choice and voluntary actions of the citizenry.
It was standard in the Madisonian constitutional model that only time and experience would perfect the social system and settle conflicts. Whigs admitted that the system had imperfections (VIII, v, 443); slavery was such an imperfection, which would heal itself in time, because it was God’s own will that it would be healed in time (IX, ii, 119). The system of government, however, was already as perfect as necessary. After all, the system did provide a procedure for constitutional amendment, by which “the State . . . should gradually shape itself” (VII, i, 2), and the substantial burden required to effect change was considered altogether appropriate. Moreover, the moderation of passions was the way by which to facilitate those fundamental Constitutionalprocesses.61 Not only did this mean that Northern popular outcry against slavery was improper (II, vi, 549), but neither could a President properly influence national policy on the issue (VIII, v, 444). Only legislators, according to Whig tradition, were qualified to confront the issue, since it affected the vital interaction between national and state sovereignties:
- Though . . . we regard the extinction of slavery . . . as one of the great and desirable ends of statesmanship in this age, as it has been in all past ages, we admit no violent methods, no unconstitutional interference, no ferocious denunciations; the work must be done by those whom nature and the laws appoint to do it, and they must be allowed their own time: liberty in this particular is so absolutely theirs, any attempt to infringe upon it is a declaration of war against our institutions (VIII, ii, 115).
To disregard even iniquitous clauses of the Constitution and take “conscience” as the only guide was not only illogical, it amounted to a thoroughly “transcendentalist code of ethics” (II, i, 10-1).
The American Whig Review considered the division of sovereignty between States and the Union inherent in the Constitution “the highest reach of political wisdom” and “the grand discovery of political science” (XIV, ii, 176). Its maintenance was the work of statesmen qualified for the job, not merely the product of an agreed legal framework; constitutional government required perpetual exercise of good judgment, perpetual compromise. In this way, a measure such as the Wilmot Proviso of 1846 (which would have banned slavery in any territory gained from the Mexican War) might be completely legal and just, but “impolitic” and “fatal in [its] consequences” (XI, iii, 220). Whigs drew a careful distinction between constitutional authority or power, on the one hand, and the way it should be exercised on the other (see X, vi, esp. 557, 563, 566-67). The abstract and imprudent way in which reformers made the leap from the confines of constitutional unionism and legal organicism to a negation of harmony in the body politic represented their ultimate departure from compromise and true Whiggery.
Radical Reformers Stand Whig Historicism on Its Head
By what today would be called a kind of revisionism, the reformers sought to preserve the appearance of fidelity to traditional Whig historicism while actually transforming it and melding it to an emerging Northern political culture. Reformers started with the all-men-are-created-equal assertion in the Declaration of Independence and the fact that the Founding Fathers never once used the word “slave” in the Constitution (even the three-fifths clause refers only to other “persons”). From these premises, they argued that the Founders opposed slavery and that the Founders’ intent therefore conferred a presumption in favor of freedom in any national jurisdiction. As a creature of local law only, slavery could not exist outside the jurisdiction which created it. It was this shift in historical presumption which correlated the righteousness of the abolitionist cause with the “wrongness” of political compromise.62
Some moralists in the Whig party began to view the Constitution as merely a social compact of expediency and not the defined organic law and sacred oath to which every lawgiver was party. To the American Whig Review, this was a marked and frightful distinction. It opened the Constitution up to all sorts of “ought to be’s,” as opposed to preservation of the original constitutional framework.
The reformers’ shift of presumption about the past, however, was a powerful incentive towards constitutional change outside the normal amendment process. It led Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, a Free Soil senator who vigorously opposed the Compromise of 1850, to quit the Whig party as early as 1841. Abraham Lincoln too embraced the “new” historicism, which slowly weaned him from Whiggery. A moderate in Republican ranks, Lincoln remained a self-proclaimed anti-slavery Whig until 1856.63 One of the more serious implications of the historical reinterpretation was that Negroes escaping to the North were considered free, not by virtue of freedom conferred upon them by free-state law, but by their remaining men and leaving behind the state law of force and convention which had enslaved them. The interpretation turned the presumed protection of chattel property in the Fifth Amendment into its very opposite. Indeed, it made fugitive slave laws illegal, as well as immoral. It also turned the Garrisonian notion of a pro-slavery Constitution on its head, making political opposition to slavery far more palatable to Northern patriotic, pro-Constitution Americans.64 The irony was that pro-Constitution, as thus reinterpreted, came to mean no-Compromise to an ever-increasing number of Northern Whigs.
To the republican dialectic embodied in the Second American Party System (i.e., Democrats versus Whigs) was added an ultimatum concerning slavery in newly acquired territories, as well as other associated and sectionally polarizing controversies. Sectional interests, mainly originating in the North, pressed for ultimate resolution of the dichotomies between slavery and freedom, Union and States’ sovereignty, which theretofore had been part of the ongoing dialectical dialogue. Calhoun rightly observed that peaceful democracy breaks down over issues involving the nature of society or the structure of government when compromise is rejected.65 An ultimate resolution of dichotomies may not be achievable, except by war. To borrow a term from international relations, the peaceful resolution of dichotomies is not possible when perceived vital interests are at stake.
The American Whig Review in several articles from 1850 through 1852 identified British government and manufacturing interests as behind at least part of the design to encourage sectionalism in the United States, especially through free trade rhetoric aimed at the South. Downing Street was the “head of the serpent” in terms of luring Southern Whigs from the party (XII, iii, 226), but it also forged a secret league with “enemies of native industry and the disunionists of the North and West” in order to monopolize world trade (XIII, ii, 116). It should be borne in mind, however, that Northern political interests helped draw the lines which eventually defined Southern interests and made resort to rebellion seem necessary. Reasoning from the premise that the Constitution was a compact, competing sectional cultures imposed mutually exclusive constitutional and moral imperatives, which disregarded traditional restraints of compromise that had always prevented or at least moderated the imposition of one sectional doctrine over another.66
The Whig party had presupposed acceptance of the basic character of the country as it was. They sought redemption only through peaceful means and through the established constitutional edifice. Nothing new could contradict anything old.67 Concerning the Union, all Whigs were supposed to be avowed constitutional conservatives (I, i, 81; VI, iii, 243; and VI, iv, 371); that is, they were bound by preceding generations in affirming the Union, freedom, and slavery to be “compatible through compromise in a system based on divided sovereignty.”68
While responsibility was withdrawn from each particular State to a certain extent, and jealousy among the States would be confined to generous emulation, if applied to objects belonging to them as such, the general government would assume the power and prerogatives of universal sovereignty without conflict with coexisting sovereignties equally supreme. Most of the objects of Federal supremacy are compatible with the domestic supremacy of each individual commonwealth. Each may exercise its allotted powers in harmony with the other (II, iii, 236).
For in a perfect government, every condition of society must be represented[, and] . . . no member of the state should fear to impeach another[, thus making]. . . rebellion their only and justifiable cure (I, vi, 644-5).
The American Whig Review celebrated the party and the nation’s ability to accommodate opposing views on slavery, while simultaneously deploring the institution of slavery itself. For the journal, like Clay, terms of debate were about union or disunion, not about the morality ofslavery.69 Indeed, moral opposition to slavery extended “only so far as the Constitution [would] permit it” (X, ii, 195), because the Constitution was itself “the result of the entire moral power [emphasis added] and wisdom of the nation,” a veritable secular version of “holy writ” (X, ii, 193). Moreover, since “[t]here [could] be no divorce [of States from the Union]—there must be conciliation and forbearance” (XI, iii, 229).
Contrarily, Free Soilers concluded that “the old free states” had to speak for the whole Union. Altering the Framers’ assumptions, “Conscience” Whigs committed themselves to the proposition that the numerical majority must properly decide the character of the nation.70They chose a “higher law” of morality outside the Constitution, over national harmony and stability. Yet this choice was a departure from the more conservative or “orthodox” Whiggery of the party’s national organ, the American Whig Review. It was a departure which ended publication of the journal and, indeed, brought about the demise of the Whig party. A similar process would later split the Democratic party. “Conscience” and “Cotton” Whigs became Northerners and Southerners, unable to dwell longer, peaceably, in the same political entity.71
What Went Wrong
The publication of the American Whig Review ceased not long after the Whig election defeat of 1852. The end of the journal indicated the “profound sense of hopelessness” infecting party ranks. Moreover, it represented an overt strategy of drastically decentralizing party organization and ridding the party of national direction, in order to see if Whigs could rebuild the party first at the state level.72 The strategy was very strongly implied in the last issue of the American Whig Review (XVI, vi, 508), even though the journal apparently planned a January 1853 issue, which never materialized, to report the election results in detail by locality (XVI, vi, 575). As early as January 1852, the journal indicated the necessity of major reorganization, should voters not be aroused from their “present lethargy” and the Whig candidate lose (XV, i, 10). The last issue of the American Whig Review reveals a harsh judgment on both the American people and fellow Whigs for “that fatal day” (XVI, vi, 570) when Scott lost the election:
The Whig party was the party of the Compromise of 1850 and perpetual, harmonious Union; the people of the nation had resoundingly rejected that party and, by inference, those ideals and policies. Many Whigs were shocked with disbelief and intensely disillusioned.74 The disappointment was guilt-ridden and reached inward to the quick, because Whigs had contributed as much to their own demise as anyone. Despite poor political strategy and the loss of key senior party leaders, Scott was hurt worst on the national level by his association with Seward and his failure to get decisively behind the Compromise of 1850. In addition, the party continued to suffer nativist defections as the number of immigrants rose. It seemed to orthodox Whigs that the party had lost both its self-control and presumed moral high ground. “Whigs . . . [had] unlearned the moderation of ’44” (XVI, vi, 571), and “a camp without discipline” was bound to fail (XIII, iv, 290). Moreover, it seemed to them that most voters lacked discernment, hence there was no strength of goodness left in the nation on which to draw. “American honor [had] grown gray” (XIII, i, 12). The party was wrenched between nativists and abolitionists, representing the Whig notions of “Bigotry” on the one side and “Radicalism” on the other; few seemed on course with Conservatism, “the middle term of Politics” and only true path to progress (VI, iii, 244).
The hopelessness of their situation, which Whigs largely drew for themselves, made them peculiarly quiescent towards a noble death. “Existence and progress are correlatives: the one is nothing without the other” (XIII, iv, 301). Instead of resisting (and perhaps floundering) at the national organizational level, they simply let go and resigned themselves to accepting the dire consequences, as if it were the righteous, however frightful, judgment of the Almighty: “[L]et us ascertain the extent of our punishment . . . [for] [w]e have fallen very far short of that serpentine wisdom which Holy Writ commands us to exercise” (XVI, vi, 569 and 572). This reaction, too, was conditioned by their political culture. In their estimate, their greatest hopes were demonstrably unrealizable. “Antagonists” of the comprehensive American System espoused by the Whig party were politically ascendant beyond potential reach of Whig political power (see XVI, vi, 507). “The Whigs in the end, were the victims of their own aspirations.”75In state elections of 1853, Whigs did well in New York and Massachusetts but almost nowhere else. Apathy and divisiveness were universal in their ranks, however, and the party continued to “decompose.” 76 Recovery may still have been possible, except that a Democratic debacle followed on the heels of the Whig debacle, when massive defections resulted as a consequence of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The Democrats lost sixty-six congressmen from Northern districts alone in 1854, in addition to losing control of various state legislatures and executive mansions.77 Then the Know-Nothing party split along sectional lines in 1855, itself failing to contain the slavery issue. Disaffected elements of both parties were able to create a powerful third party alternative and to forestall any Whig resurgence nationally, as most Northern anti-Democratic votes gathered together in the rising Republican party.78
The Democrats’ problems were compounded, as many Southern congressmen viewed with relish the apparent opportunity for them to capture the party apparatus. Indeed, as early as 1847, Calhoun had expressed the desire to send all anti-slavery Democrats packing to the Whig party. It appears that many worked towards that goal, even calculating that the Kansas-Nebraska Act would help them finish the job. Unfortunately for the Southerners’ overall intent, there was no viable Whig party to absorb the Democratic defections when they finally occurred, nor could the Whigs hope to compete against the ideological momentum of the Republican party at that time.79
Every election has at least one political “failure.” One need not assign too much weight to Whig defeat in 1852, by blaming it for precipitating the collapse of the Second American Party System, etc. Sectionalism broke all existing party vehicles.80 Moreover, the Compromise of 1850 “failed” less for lacking in the substance of compromise, than for lacking in the spirit of compromise. To its credit, the American Whig Review maintained that spirit to the end. The Whig party has often been criticized, however, for failing to grasp the morally absolute nature of the slavery issue. Many Whigs actually did, which explains some of the sudden disbanding of the Whig party as many assimilated elsewhere, especially with the Republican party. To become Republican, however, was to excommunicate oneself from Whiggery, in which the only political absolute was Union. Ironically, the one great Whig absolute also energized Republicans and dictated the North’s actions upon secession and the firing on Fort Sumter. The Union became the indisputable standard of the new party.81
Epilogue: Where Did Whigs Go?
The specific Whig political culture expressed by the American Whig Review became marginalized in the North as that section turned more reformist, more “conscience” driven. If the Republican party inherited most remnants of organized political (read “Conscience”) Whiggery and elements of Whig organic theory besides on which to base its nationalism, the South inherited the bulk of old-fashioned Whig ideas, including constitutional republicanism, unionism based on Madisonian federalism and enumerated federal powers (altered specifically by the War), much of the Whig party’s evangelical dimension, and the Whigs’ explicit brand of historicism. Northerners might have preferred that the defeated South repudiate its past and pick up the “Conscience”-striped banner of Radical Republican Reconstruction. The South’s natural inclination, however, was to reach back to a prior, antebellum notion of what it means to be American. Southerners embraced a worldview that largely predates sectional hostilities and the Southern Democratic attempt to graft onto it a pro-slavery ideology, but one which accommodates the past, the South’s sacrifice, and even proto-Confederate nationalism. After all, the North’s break with the unionist spirit of compromise not only made rebellion attractive to Southern fire-eaters, but made resort to it seem necessary according to tenets of antebellum, mainstream Whiggery.
Voters in the South preferred former Whigs overwhelmingly as the civil war dragged on and during the subsequent period of Northern occupation. Old Whigs even started to call themselves “Conservatives” to distinguish themselves from Democrats.82 It was, in fact, the perceived Radical Republican affront to constitutional processes—to the legitimate exercise of power, to the Founders’ intent and vision—that once again melded Whigs with Democrats into a so-called, politically Solid South. Some historians have blamed Whigs for the reactionary impulse that ended Reconstruction in the South, but postbellum Redemption and attendant violence against freedmen do not wash with the Whig political culture at the heart of the Whig party’s national journal. Indeed, it is the way in which Whiggery would inform Southern Democracy over time that most clearly illumines the fascinating and unlikely process by which Southerners came widely to embrace the Party of Lincoln at the end of the twentieth century.
*Wesley Allen Riddle is professor of history at West Point.
1 Wesley Allen Riddle, “Culture and Politics: The American Whig Review, 1845-1852,” in Humanitas, VIII:1 (1995), 44-73.
2 Over the course of eight years, the American Whig Review published sixteen volumes dated January 1845 through December 1852. Volume numbers changed semi-annually, and each volume contained six monthly issues. Hence odd-numbered volumes began in January of each succeeding year, while even-numbered volumes began in July. Pagination began anew with each volume, continuing consecutively through each issue until the next volume number. Volume numbers correspond to years as follows: I-II(1845); III-IV(1846); V-VI(1847); VII-VIII(1848); IX-X(1849); XI-XII(1850); XIII-XIV(1851); and XV-XVI(1852).
3 Specifically, Whig economic policies included paper money with lowered species ratios to enhance credit availability, sale of public lands for revenue, protective tariffs to raise revenue and to shield developing American manufactures, a national bank, and a broad-based program of internal improvements. While the Whigs regarded these policies as being in the general interest and according with the Constitution, their political rivals frequently disagreed on both counts.
4 Describing Manifest Destiny, Thomas A. Bailey has written: “Countless Americans in the 1840’s and 1850’s, feeling a sense of mission, believed that Almighty God had ‘manifestly’ destined our people for a hemispheric career. We would irresistibly spread our uplifting and ennobling democratic institutions over at least the entire North American continent, and possibly over South America as well.” Bailey, The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, Second Edition (Boston: Heath and Company, 1961), 289.
5 A plausible case can be made, for example, that the middle way toward resolving the slavery issue which was characteristic of mainstream Whig opinion would have brought about the gradual elimination of slavery while circumventing the calamity of the civil war. Not only would this way have avoided the costs in blood and treasure directly associated with that war, but also the racial and sectional animosities that continue to plague the nation to this day. The radical abolitionists, whom the Whigs opposed, “no doubt hastened the freeing of the slave by a number of years,” Bailey writes. “But emancipation came at the price of a civil conflict which tore apart the social and economic fabric of the South. About a million whites were to be killed or disabled before some four million slaves could be freed, under conditions that took the lives of tens of thousands of Negro soldiers and ex-slaves. The war itself cost nearly $20,000,000,000, including interest and pensions. Compensated emancipation at full value [which the abolitionists opposed]—about $2,000,000,000—would have been far cheaper in dollars and cents.
“The bewildered Negro was caught in the middle. The sudden, over-night liberation of the slaves was in many ways a calamity for them. And freedom by no means solved the race problem.” See Bailey, The American Pageant, 372.
Of the conflagration’s steep costs Donald W. Livingston writes: “The war shocked Europeans. It was the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century, leaving a million and a half killed, missing, and wounded. Larger armies were raised per capita than during the Napoleonic Wars. . . . Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the North for the duration of the war, closed down some 300 newspapers, and rounded up tens of thousands of political prisoners, including political candidates. The Union demanded unconditional surrender and eventually directed war against the civilian population of the South. In resisting invasion, one of every four Southern males died; and two-thirds of the South’s wealth, excluding slaves, was destroyed. The magnitude of this destruction can be glimpsed by considering that only around ten percent of Southerners owned slaves.” All of this occurred, moreover, at a time when Northern states tried to prevent free blacks even from entering their jurisdictions. The constitutions of Indiana and Oregon, for example, prohibited the entrance of any free blacks or mullatos, while Lincoln’s own state, Illinois, required a bond of $1,000 for the entrance of any free black and severely limited their movements. See Livingston, “The Very Idea of Secession,” in Society, 35:5 (July-August 1998), 38-48.
6 The American Whig Review, volume V, number 3 (September 1847), 236-39, and see volume V, number 6 (December 1847), 622. All subsequent references to this source will be noted parenthetically by volume, issue number (using lower case Roman numerals) and page number (using Arabic numerals) within the text.
7 George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (New York: Harcourt, 1963), 204-09.
8 Robert V. Remini, The Jacksonian Era (Arlington Heights: Davidson, 1989), 65, 105-08.
9 Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), chapter 10.
10 See Harry L. Watson, Jacksonian Politics and Community Conflict: The Emergence of the Second American Party System in Cumberland County North Carolina (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1981), 49-52, 295-96, 318-19.
11 Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1969), 81.
12 Leonard Richards, ‘Gentlemen of Property and Standing’: Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America (New York: Oxford, 1970), 31.
13 Eric Foner and Olivia Mahoney, A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln (New York: Norton, 1990), 44, 49.
14 Ibid., 51.
15 Peter B. Knupfer, The Union As It Is: Constitutional Unionism and Sectional Compromise, 1787-1861 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1991), 5, 168, 185; and William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford, 1986), 227.
16 Avery Craven, “The Crisis,” in Edwin C. Rozwenc (ed.), Problems of American Civilization: The Compromise of 1850 (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1957), 3-4.
17 Knupfer, x-xi, 3, 21-22, 63-64, 157, 159, quote 21.
18 The area previously called Deseret was renamed and territory redefined by legislation signed 9 September 1850 (XII, iv, 430).
19 William R. Brock, Conflict and Transformation: The United States, 1844-77 (Baltimore: Penguin: 1976), 20.
20 Robert V. Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (New York : W. W. Norton, 1991), 730.
21 Holman Hamilton, Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966), 72.
22 Hamilton, 66, 124-32, 141; Foner and Mahoney, 53; and see Knupfer, 193-95.
23 Hamilton, 142-43, 164; and Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Wiley, 1978), 82.
24 Holt, Political Crisis, 83, 85; and Knupfer, 182.
25 Foner and Mahoney, 53-54; see also Hamilton, 182-83; and Holt, Political Crisis, 149.
26 Knupfer, 150, 161, 202, 206; Holt, Political Crisis, 145-46, 148.
27 Hardly Whig in sympathy, historian W. E. Burghardt Du Bois explicitly links abolitionism with democracy, calling it “abolition-democracy” and giving it powerful motive force from the 1830s through Radical Reconstruction; see Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1956), esp. 184-85.
28 See Major L. Wilson, Space, Time, and Freedom: The Quest for Nationality and the Irrepressible Conflict, 1815-1861 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1974), 150-52.
29 See Wesley Allen Riddle, “Culture and Politics: The American Whig Review, 1845-1852,” esp. 61-65.
30 Knupfer, 7, 18-22, 165, 186-87, quote 187; and Holt, Political Crisis, 48.
31 Tom McArthur (ed.), The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992), 291.
32 Wesley Allen Riddle, The American Political Tradition (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996), 2, 21-25 and 30.
33 James E. Mulqueen, “Conservatism and Criticism: The Literary Standards of American Whigs, 1845-1852,” American Literature, 41 (November 1969), 372; see also Holt, Political Crisis, 135-6; James H. Hutson, “Country, Court and the Constitution: Antifederalism and the Historians,” William and Mary Quarterly, 38 (July 1981), 337-68; and John Zvesper, Political Philosophy and Rhetoric: A Study of the Origins of American Party Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 6-9, 13-16 and 184-85.
34 Mulqueen, 358.
35 Remini, Henry Clay, 762; and see Thomas Brown, Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party (New York: Columbia, 1985), 220-21; and Knupfer, 196.
36 Holt, Political Crisis, 91-95, 98, 151-52.
37 Remini, Henry Clay, 769.
38 See Glyndon G. Van Deusen, “The Whig Party,” in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (ed.), History of U.S. Political Parties, v.1 (1980), 360-61; and Brown, Politics and Statesmanship, 224-25.
39 See Gienapp, 16.
40 Ibid., 16-17.
41 Remini, Henry Clay, 779; and Robert F. Dalzell, Jr., Daniel Webster and the Trial of American Nationalism, 1843-1852 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), 284.
42 Robert F. Dalzell, Jr., Daniel Webster and the Trial of American Nationalism, 1843-1852(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), 282-84.
43 See Gienapp, 20-21.
44 Van Deusen, “The Whig Party,” 360; and Brown, Politics and Statesmanship, 223-24.
45 Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Abingdon Press, 1957), 190-92.
46 Gienapp, 21-22, 25-26, 30-31.
47 Holt, Political Crisis, 123-26; and Gienapp, 35.
48 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (ed.) et al., History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-1968, v.2 (New York: Chelsea House, 1971), 918, 1003.
49 Holt, Political Crisis, 120; David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-61 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 241; and Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration, first ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 94.
50 Brown, Politics and Statesmanship, 221; and Knupfer, 204.
51 See Gienapp, 13.
52 Potter, 245, 266.
53 Brown, Politics and Statesmanship, 224.
54 Van Deusen, “The Whig Party,” 360; Holt, 128-30.
55 Gienapp, 28.
56 See Knupfer, 205; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953), 480; and Brown, Politics and Statesmanship, 224.
57 Howe, 275; and Brown, Politics and Statesmanship, 219.
58 Howe, 276; and Potter, 237-38.
59 Brock, 96-97, 102; and Peter J. Parish, The American Civil War (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1975), 31.
60 Kenneth M. Stampp (ed.), The Causes of the Civil War (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974), 101, 152.
61 Knupfer, 57-58, 197.
62 James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), 27, 98-99, see also 102-03, 115-17, 153-54, 175-76; and Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1962), 76-77, 94-95.
63 Howe, chapter 11, esp. 290-91; and Fehrenbacher, 25-26. See discussion of how the new historicism is also embodied in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in Willmoore Kendall and George W. Carey, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1995 edition), new preface and chapter V.
64 Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford, 1970), 76-77, 83.
65 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War, 125, 140; and Brock, 19.
66 Knupfer, 164.
67 See Wilson, 166-73.
68 Knupfer, 165, 169, 175.
69 Knupfer, 174-75, 185.
70 Brock, 31, 79, 82.
71 Parish, 27, 32; and Howe, 276-77.
72 Gienapp, 34-35, 40, quote 34.
73 For a description of the Federalist experience see Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 (New York: Oxford, 1993), ch. 15, esp. 732-33 and 750-51, quote 750.
74 Gienapp, 27-28, 32.
75 Gienapp, 34; quote Brown, Politics and Statesmanship, 229.
76 Gienapp, 40-44, 69; and Holt, Political Crisis, 140, 150.
77 Holt, Political Crisis, 150; see Michael F. Holt, “The Democratic Party, 1828-60,” in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (ed.), History of U.S. Political Parties, v.1 (1980), 497-536; and Brown,Politics and Statesmanship, 224-25.
78 See Gienapp, esp. ch. 2.
79 Foner, 153-56.
80 Brown, Politics and Statesmanship, 229-30.
81 But in a very different sense. “Union,” for Whigs, meant a confederation of states cooperating voluntarily for common ends. It was very much this sense of the word that Irving Babbitt had in mind when he referred to America’s “unionist tradition based on a sane moral realism.” See Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979 ), esp. ch. 7 (“Democracy and Standards”). For the Republicans led by Lincoln, “Union” came to denote a unitary state, “one and indivisible,” ruled from the center and held together by force. Whereas the unionist tradition of the Whigs had its origins in the American Revolution, that of Lincoln owed its inspiration to the French Revolution. See Livingston, “The Very Idea of Secession,” esp. 39-45.
82 Thomas B. Alexander, “Persistent Whiggery in the Confederate South,” in The Journal of Southern History, 27 (August 1961), 305-13, 320, and see 314-27.