The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
The Connecting Tissue: Ideas, Principles, and Policies in American Politics

FROM THE BEGINNING OF this political era there was a strong commitment to the importance of ideas in American politics. In their unremitting arguments about policy, both Democrats and Whigs effectively framed the agenda of the American political nation and placed it before the voters with a relentless rhetorical vitality. 1 As the editor of the Whig American Review summed it up: "Those who have composed the Whig party of this country have professed to unite for the purpose of promoting and maintaining certain great distinctive principles, as being essential to the preservation of our form of government, and the advancement of the real interests and the true prosperity of the nation." 2 Such claims and their articulation of what was at stake was a second means, after organization, of energizing the crucial electoral dimension of this political nation.


"The Embodiment of Principle"

Political leaders on both sides began by justifying the relevance of their efforts. Parties, they said, were not just electoral machines, devoid of principles and purpose. "Remember democrats of New York," a party editor wrote in 1849, "it is not merely the success of your candidates that you strive for; but it is for the triumph of principles." Parties, another wrote, "must address the reason, understanding and conscience of men." When "arrayed on this basis they rise above a mere scramble for men and for place, and assume the dignity which attaches to a struggle for principle." Parties were "but the embodiment of principle" and became "faction -- dishonorable in its spirit -- when [they ceased] to be guided by principle." Still another put it most dramatically: "We will cheerfully worship at the shrine of principle." Principles "constitute our staff of life -- our bond of union" as a party. 3

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