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 3
"No Opposition Man Can Be

Elected President" "YOU WILL HAVE HEARD the result of our K[entucky] election," an ebullient Henry Clay gushed to Willie P. Mangum in August 1834. "We could not desire that it should have been better -- 76 out of the 101 members of the [state] H. of R., Letcher's re-election [to Congress in a special election], and H. of the 12 [state] Senators to be chosen elected on our side." Meanwhile, "Indiana has done nearly as well, and Illinois and Missouri are not much behind her. Ohio will bring up the rear gloriously in the West." 1 Everywhere the new party seemed to be taking hold. Everywhere the various opponents of the Democrats seemed to be rallying behind the Whig banner. Everywhere the Whigs seemed to be riding a wave of resentment against Jackson's actions that would wash Democrats out of office and eventually cleanse the White House itself of the Jacksonian stain.

But Clay, characteristically, was overly sanguine. Convinced of Andrew Jackson's unpopularity in the spring of 1834 and concerned primarily with resisting the tyranny of the national executive, national Whig leaders hoped to transplant their party to the states in 1834 and 1835 and build momentum for the 1836 presidential election by stressing national issues -- presidential despotism and Democratic depression. That emphasis, however, proved to be flawed. Economic conditions improved, and disenchantment with the Democratic president dissipated. As a result, Whigs' electoral fortunes fluctuated. Similarly, they sometimes failed to bring all of Jackson's disparate foes into the Whig camp, and they utterly failed to unite behind a single presidential candidate. Thus they could not compete successfully for the office that, according to their ideological standards, especially menaced republicanism if it remained in Democratic hands.

Far more important, contrary to Whigs' initial assumptions, rallying voters against Jackson proved insufficient to launch successful state organizations. Transplanting a nationally oriented party to the states required more than the nutrient of national issues, especially when those issues began to lose their sustaining power. To sink permanent roots in the states, the Whig party had to address matters of state political concern so that citizens would vote Whig in state as well as presidential elections.

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