The Beards Were Right: Parties in the North, 1840-1860

By Egnal, Marc | Civil War History, March 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Beards Were Right: Parties in the North, 1840-1860


Egnal, Marc, Civil War History


Toombs of Georgia: Nine-tenths of the [internal improvements] bills which have been reported, I think are for the [Great] lakes.... Not one of these bills is for the Atlantic coast.... This time the western rivers are left out. I do not think the Ohio gets anything now.

Pugh of Ohio: Not a cent

Toombs: The Ohio river is quiet this time. They either have stopped mending the works or they are not amendable.

--Congressional Globe, May 27, 1858

Slavery was not the only issue that Americans quarreled about in the 1850s, nor were the only significant lines of division those between North and South. As Robert Toombs and George Pugh were aware, areas such as the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley had their own demands. Regional clashes, which mirrored patterns of trade and development, had important ramifications in the political realm. This article, which examines politics and society in the antebellum North, argues that more than any other single concern, the dynamic, evolving economy of the North explains the divisions of the second party system, their disappearance in the 1850s, and the new alignment of the third party system.

In spirit, though not in detail, this work echoes the outlook of Charles and Mary Beard. In The Rise of American Civilization the Beards argued that economic forces shaped U.S. history. The Beards underscored their outlook in the text and in chapter titles such as "The Sweep of Economic Forces" and "The Politics of the Economic Drift."(1) To be sure, their synthesis had weaknesses. In many instances the categorizations ("capitalist," "laborer," "farmer") were crude, and their research on partisan loyalties was primitive. But there is much to be said for the essence of their interpretation. Despite decades of criticism, the Beards remain more right than most of their critics. This article thus engages the long-standing debate over the makeup of the second and third party systems. Historians continue to disagree over whether economic self-interest or other concerns, such as ethnicity and institutional dynamics, underlay party membership and platforms.(2) And because the triumph of the Republican party in 1860 had far-reaching implications for nation building, this analysis also casts light on the beginnings of the modern American state.(3)

Transformations in the economy played a key role in defining partisan divisions in the North. A commercial economy of rivers, roads, ports, manufacturing belts, and backwater farming areas underlay the split between Whigs and Democrats from the 1830s to 1852.(4) Then in the 1850s the rising importance of the Great Lakes economy helped erase the older electoral alignments. The priorities of the lake region shaped Republican policies and party membership. The economy, however, was never the only factor creating political groupings. Religious and ethnic origins, and particularly the spread of Yankee settlement, also played noteworthy roles in party formation.

The division between Whigs and Democrats reflected the commercial economy of the North. Historians analyzing the second party system have frequently noted the links between Whiggery and the "market revolution" as well as the less commercial orientation of the Democrats. In his magisterial study of the Whig party, Michael Holt notes, "The central fault line or cleavage in the electorate separated men with different degrees of experience in and different attitudes toward the market economy and the cultural values it spawned."(5) What has been ignored or little noted in these studies has been the geography of party identity. Yet it is the geographic pattern of political persuasion that provides a fuller understanding of the nature of party lines and their transformation in the 1850s.

Whig and Democratic counties spread across the North in broad bands reflecting the areas of commercial activity.(6) West of the Appalachians the largest concentration of Whig counties lay along the National Road in Ohio and Indiana, and in the Illinois counties just to the west.

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