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 6
"The Whig Party Seems Now Totally Broken Up and Dismembered"

"I NOW REJOICE in the almost certain prospect of the restoration of our common Country to its original prosperity and greatness," an Alabama Whig wrote a month before the installation of the new administration. 1 With control of the presidency, a 29-22 majority in the new Senate, a 133-102 margin in the new House of Representatives, and possession of a majority of state governments, the Whig party stood poised to reform government and to promote economic recovery. 2 The nation's desperate economic condition and the financial disarray of state and national governments required new policies. Their promised alternatives, they believed, would provide the necessary remedy. More than that, they now had the opportunity to restore what they considered the proper balance between the legislative and executive branches of the national government and thus end supposed executive despotism. Harrison had repeatedly pledged to defer to the will of Congress, and Whigs intended to prove that congressional initiative could work. Additionally, the party had its first opportunity to fill the 18,000 offices subject to federal appointment and thus to replace Democrats, whom they scorned as corrupt, incompetent spoilsmen, with public servants of talent and ability. 3 Best of all, from the perspective of Whig politicians, by demonstrating the efficacy of their principles and programs and by using federal patronage to bolster local organizations, the Whig party had a chance to cement the loyalty of those hundreds of thousands of voters who had rallied to the party since 1837 in order to achieve change. They had the opportunity, in short, to effect a durable voter realignment and become a permanent majority party if they could redress the grievances and address the needs that had turned an electoral majority against the Democrats. 4

Whig leaders in 1841 thought they must act immediately, lest their grand opportunity slip away. As Henry Clay's fellow Kentuckian, Senator John J. Crittenden, put it, Harrison and the Whigs "must act. The people expect it, and are entitled to expect it. . . . The real danger is in inaction, and falling behind, and disappointing the high hopes and feelings of the people."5 This pressure to enact their program decisively shaped Whigs' behavior during the next two years.

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