In 1834 political opponents of President Andrew Jackson organized a new party to contest Jacksonian Democrats nationally and in the states. Guided by their most prominent leader, Henry Clay, they called themselves Whigs—the name of the English antimonarchist party—the better to stigmatize the seventh president as ‘King Andrew.’ They were immediately derided by the Jacksonian Democrats as a party devoted to the interests of wealth and aristocracy, a charge they were never able to shake completely. Yet during the party’s brief life, it managed to win support from diverse economic groups in all sections and to hold its own in presidential elections.
Although unable to unite behind a single candidate in 1836, thus permitting Jackson’s handpicked successor Martin Van Buren to obtain an electoral majority, the Whigs won a popular vote for their candidates that was close to the popular tally for the Democrats. And in 1840 and 1848, the party captured the White House. Their only loss in a presidential election during the decade occurred in 1844 when Clay lost by a hair to the Democrats’ dark horse James K. Polk, who had greater appeal to voters favoring the expansion both of territory and slavery. But in 1852, as slavery’s expansion became the great issue of American politics, the Whigs suffered a drastic decline in popularity. And by 1854 they had given up the ghost, no longer able to hold the support of ‘cotton Whigs,’ who found a more congenial political home in the Democratic party, or of ‘conscience Whigs,’ who helped form the new Republican party.
Historians have interpreted the Whigs in strikingly different ways. They have been seen as champions of banks, business, corporations, economic growth, the positive liberal state, humanitarian reform, and morality in politics, and as opponents of expansionism, executive tyranny, states’ rights, labor, and the democratic suffrage, among other things. These dissimilar assessments are unsurprising given the heterogeneity of the party itself, in its leaders, policies and programs, political style, and rank-and-file supporters.
The Whig party was founded by individuals united only in their antagonism to Jackson’s war on the Second Bank of the United States and his high-handed measures in waging that war and ignoring Supreme Court decisions, the Constitution, and Indian rights embodied in federal treaties. Beyond that, however, there were Whigs and Whigs. Some played the demagogic anti-Catholic game; others scorned it. Some spoke critically of working people; others, admiringly. Detailed studies of the Whig party in the states and biographies of such Whig leaders as Clay, William Seward, Daniel Webster, and Horace Greeley reveal dissimilar policies from one state to another and important differences in the character, beliefs, and actions of the leaders. Thurlow Weed was much more opportunistic than his New York State colleague Seward. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania was more high-minded and not nearly as pragmatic as Clay of Kentucky. For all Clay’s political flexibility and his lust for the presidency, he could still inspire the young congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.
The tendency of Whig officeholders to vote as a bloc on certain issues, in opposition to Democratic blocs, helps account for the tendency of some historians to exaggerate the extent and depth of Whig single-mindedness. In Congress, Whigs supported the Second Bank of the United States, a high tariff, distribution of land revenues to the states, relief legislation to mitigate the effects of the great depression that followed the financial panics of 1837 and 1839, and federal reapportionment of House seats (a ‘reform’ likely to enlarge Whig representation in Congress). Studies of voting patterns in the states reveal Whig support of banks, limited liability for corporations, prison reform, educational reform, abolition of capital punishment, and temperance. Although the Whig party was hardly an antislavery party, free blacks and abolitionists overwhelmingly preferred it to more ardently proslavery Jacksonian Democrats.
The old notion propagated by the party’s enemies-that the Whigs drew their support primarily from the rich and the well-to-do-has been sharply modified by modern scholarship. The relatively few rich men in the country did prefer Whigs to Democrats, but by a modest margin. Whigs fared well at the polls among people of all classes in economically dynamic communities heavily engaged in commerce. Jacksonian propaganda did induce many people to regard the Whigs as an upper-class party (not organized working men, however, whose leaders dismissed both Democrats and Whigs as ‘humbugs’). Yet Whigs could win presidential elections, governorships, and state legislature majorities only because they attracted mass support. Although they received the votes of many small farmers, shopkeepers, clerks, and artisans, they appear to have appealed particularly to what some modern historians call distinctive ethnocultural groups: evangelical as opposed to liturgical Protestants; moralists and abstainers; persons unhappy with brutal treatment of blacks and Native Americans. In some states Whig leaders seemed so critical of political parties that they appeared to be religious zealots rather than party leaders. Yet for all their antiparty rhetoric, Whigs were as realistic and efficiently organized as their Democratic opponents.
American major parties develop their own distinctive auras that are no less real for being intangible and unmeasurable. Whig and Democratic leaders were strikingly similar in such significant characteristics as wealth, occupational prestige, a fundamentally conservative social ideology, materialism, and opportunism. These similarities help explain why both major parties were attractive to moneyed men. But it is unwise to discount the significance of the unique blending of moral values and social philosophies that some imaginative historians have recently discerned in Whig leaders, a blending that helps account for the Whigs’ special appeal to one rather than another kind of individual.
Ultimately, however, the Whigs are best understood as an American major party trying to be many things to many men, ready to abandon one deeply held ‘conviction’ for another in the drive for political power. The party died not because its unique aura no longer appealed to voters but because it could not cope effectively or persuasively with what after the Compromise of 1850 became the great issue of American politics, the expansion of slavery.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.