THIS IS A HISTORY of a nineteenth-century American political party. It encompasses the careers, aspirations, ideas, and actions of many individual Whig politicians and nameless Whig voters. But it is not primarily a collective biography, a study of political ideology and political culture, or an analysis of the social experience and characteristics of the electorate. Rather, it is the story, told chronologically, of the birth, life, and death of a political organization and of its competitive relationship with other political parties. That life was short -- scarcely more than twenty-two years. Yet this history of it, which has taken me almost that many years to write, is a very long book. The reader deserves to know why.
I set five objectives before starting to write. First, I believe that no political party can be fully understood in terms of its own beliefs, actions, and internal quarrels. Its relationships with rival parties must also be incorporated into the analysis. The Whig party operated in a definable two-party system, labeled by historians the Second American Party System, in which its major, but not its only, rival was the Democratic party. A central argument of this study, indeed, is that from the time of the Whig party's birth in the winter of 1833-34 until its death during the 1856 presidential campaign, Democrats played a profound role in shaping its fate. Thus pay close attention to non-Whig and anti-Whig political actors, not just to the Whigs themselves.
Second, the American federal system, with its jurisdictional division of policymaking responsibilities among national, state, and local governments, had unusual importance for the structure and operations of nineteenth-century political parties. What state governments did often had far more impact on people's lives during that century than did actions taken in Washington. Whigs, therefore, often viewed control of state governments as a vital goal. Like its Democratic foe, moreover, the Whig party was a federation of state and local organizations, each of which had its own experience of internal rivalry and external competition. To write the history of the party as an institution -- and not just of a few prominent national leaders -- I was therefore compelled to analyze developments in as many states as possible over a period of some twenty years while simultaneously examining Whig attempts to capture the national government and their actions while in it.