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
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Chapter 4
"We Have Many Recruits in Our Ranks from the Pressure of the Times"

CAN I OFFER "any consolation to you for the future, as to public affairs?" Henry Clay glumly wrote a friend three days after Martin Van Buren's inauguration. "I lament to say not much." To Clay the new Whig party seemed as ineffectual and divided as the various anti-Jackson elements had been at the beginning of 1833. Unlike some Whigs in Washington, he could entertain no hope of capturing a majority in the next House of Representatives, for Whigs lacked "union as to the ultimate object." 1

Clay and other Whigs had good reason to despair. They had won only twofifths of the House seats filled in 1836, and the defeat or forced resignation of party founders like John Tyler and Willie P. Mangum had depleted their Senate strength. Meanwhile, the party had barely begun to organize in the West and southwest, and in many eastern states it had been thrust into the minority.

Worse, no improvement seemed likely, for no issue appeared ripe for exploitation. Resistance to executive tyranny had given the new party an identity but not a victory. Pennsylvania Whigs' connection with Biddle's Bank had proved to be political poison. The recent attempt in the winter of 1837 to make an issue of Jackson's Specie Circular had floundered when Jackson vetoed a Whig bill altering the system. Now Whigs could do nothing until Congress met again in December. Worst of all, congressional Democrats had defeated Clay's promising proposal to distribute federal land revenues to the states. Instead, in June 1836 bipartisan majorities had passed a Deposit Act that contained a different form of distribution.

Aimed primarily at regulating Jackson's deposit banking system, the Deposit Act also provided that surplus government funds in excess of $5 million should be deposited with state governments, rather than private banks, in proportion to the states' population. These deposits, one-year interest-free loans rather than permanent grants of aid, were to be made in four equal installments at threemonth intervals, beginning January 1, 1837. Clay, in contrast, had called for continuing annual grants of land revenues to the states, not a one-year loan. The Deposit Act not only buried Clay's proposal for the immediate future, but also stripped Whigs of their claim to be the sole champions of federal aid to the states, for Democrats seized equal credit for the law. 2

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