Essays on American Antebellum Politics, 1840-1860

By William E. Gienapp; Thomas B. Alexander et al. | Go to book overview

MICHAEL F. HOLT


Winding Roads to Recovery: The Whig Party from 1844 to 1848

THE Whig party won the presidency for the second and last time in November, 1848, when General Zachary Taylor, a Mexican War hero and Louisiana slaveholder, was elected to the White House. Four years earlier many Whigs would have found this triumph inconceivable. In 1844 they had run Henry Clay, "the embodyment and polar star of Whig principles," as one had called him, against the Democrat James K. Polk, and the Whigs had been convinced that they had both the superior candidate and the superior position on the issues of the day. They would win in 1844, or else, many thought, they could never win. Thus one Whig paper had proclaimed on the eve of the election, "If J. K. Polk prevails over Henry Clay, the WHIG PARTY IS NO MORE." Clay's narrow loss to Polk, therefore, filled Whigs with "gloom and consternation" and shattered their faith in popular government. "The people have been appealed to and have elected a mere Tom Tit over the old Eagle," protested one Kentuckian. "Our strongest man has been beaten by a mere John Doe." Or, as Millard Fillmore, who himself lost the 1844 gubernatorial election in New York, wrote in despondency, "If with such issues and such candidates as the national contest presented we can be beaten, what may we not expect. A cloud of gloom hangs over the future. May God save the country, for it is evident the people will not." An equally dismayed Virginian evinced more anger: "With a most emphatic by God, I do say it is a disgrace, a lasting disgrace to our God Almighty-God damn-raggedy arse-hyena-made Republic to have elected over H. Clay that infernal poke of all pokes James K. Polk. of Tenn." Gauged against this background of defeat and demoralization, the election of Taylor in 1848 marked a dramatic recovery for the Whig party.1

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1
J. W. Mighels to Henry Clay, November 11, 1844, Henry Clay MSS, Library of Congress, microfilm ed.; Richmond Whig, November 1, 1844, quoted in William J.Cooper Jr.

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