The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

By Michael F. Holt | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
"To Rescue the Government and Public Liberty"

"AS TO POLITICS we have no past, no future," moaned Henry Clay two months after Old Hickory had crushed him. "The will of Andrew Jackson is to govern; and that will fluctuates with the change of every pen which gives expression to it." 1 Although Clay referred to Congress' failure to enact his American System, his words reflected as well National Republicans' gloom. As a tiny minority, they would resist but they could not stop Jackson. The last Congress had frustrated their program, and the next Congress would apparently be even more heavily Jacksonian.

To improve their position, National Republicans had to win over alienated Jacksonians and mobilize new voters. But first, as Clay's lament indicates, Jackson had to do the alienating. Jackson, in short, would largely determine the fate of the anti-Jackson party. The opposition party was locked into a symbiotic relationship with its rival, and he had the initiative.

The recent past had persuaded National Republican leaders that criticism of the Democratic majority alone would not create an effective opposition. They also had to unite those who disliked Democrats. Their failure in 1832 to rally southern dissidents and northern Antimasons demonstrated that unification required compromise. Unless all anti-Jackson men sacrificed some principle, Clay declared, "there can be no union or harmony." 2

At the same time, National Republican leaders could not conciliate former Democrats at the expense of offending their original supporters. Thus in 1835, when Ohio's Whigs nominated Supreme Court Justice John McLean, a former member of Jackson's cabinet, for president, Clay warned that they "looked too much to support . . . from the Jackson ranks, without sufficiently estimating the amount that might be lost in our own." 3

Because National Republicans disagreed with each other, and with other antiJackson men, over which principles should be abandoned, a more effective opposition party proved dauntingly difficult to construct. Over the next eight years, as Jackson's opponents struggled to coalesce and expand the anti-Democratic coalition, the name of the National Republicans, to say nothing of their issues and

-19-

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