Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party

By Thomas Brown | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 8
Alexander Stephens: States' Rights Whig

AS IRRELEVANT as it might seem to the crass realities of antebellum politics, the role of the statesman was an eminently practical one for its Whig adherents. The statesman, after all, governed his public conduct by an "ethic of responsibility." 1 His table of virtues did not consist of Platonic absolutes, to be implemented without concern for their worldly consequences; his zeal for "improvement" was tempered by a scrupulous regard for time-honored traditions, usages, and institutions. In times of trouble, he did not resort to chimerical "experiments" or easy expedients, surrendering the "calm and dispassionate conclusions of wisdom and experience to the sudden outbreaks of popular feeling." 2 Neither, however, did the statesman disregard the will of the electorate. Rather, it was "his duty to bow in obedience to the sober judgment of the people, after reason and reflection have regained their dominion." 3

But for all their professions of statesmanship, the Whigs always had great difficulty in reconciling principle with practicality, reality with the ideal. They might claim to venerate established institutions, but there was a "peculiar institution" which was morally repellent to most northern members of the party. 4 The southern Whigs knew that, given the intensity of antislavery sentiment among the Whigs of the North, their northern colleagues could not appear to be unduly solicitous of special southern concerns. Accordingly, the southern Whigs did everything in their power to exclude slavery from the forums of national debate. Yet, as Whigs, they were obliged to uphold programs which had long been branded with the taint of "Federalism" in the South. Hence, when questions relating to slavery did come under the purview of the nation, they demanded that their counterparts in the North act like

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