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 8
"The Present Administration Are Your Best Recruiting Officers"

"THE WHIG PARTY seems to be doomed to misfortune -- if not to dissolution," one Massachusetts Whig lamented after Clay's shocking defeat. His despair about the party's continued viability was widely shared. 1 Many historians have accepted these Whig obituary notices as correct, if slightly premature. They have interpreted the reasons for Clay's loss as auguries of the Whig party's eventual death and as the beginning of that end. Supposedly, President James K. Polk's policies would greatly inflame tensions over slavery expansion and thus split the Whigs along sectional lines. Allegedly, Clays defeat had also shown that the Whigs" economic platform was not popular enough either to bring them victory at the polls or to divert public attention from the fatal sectional issues. The appeal of Whig economic issues purportedly continued to deteriorate after 1844, thereby exposing the feebleness of Whig ideas and destroying the fealty voters paid the two-party system. 2

According to these historians, the inflarnation of sectional tensions and the obsolescence of economic issues would lead Whigs in 1848, as in 1840, to eschew a national platform, shun well-known proponents of Whig principles, and nominate another politically inexperienced military hero as their presidential candidate. In the words of one sympathetic historian, "The Whigs had failed to get their message across," and "their policies were not viable enough to be carried to victory by party regulars." 3

Like traditional interpretations of the 1840 election, however, this pessimistic analysis focuses exclusively on the presidential election year rather than including off-year elections. A broader perspective suggests that the party was robust and its issues vital during the years of Polk's presidency. The Whigs remained internally cohesive in Congress and in many state legislatures between 1844 and 1848. Their record in those legislative bodies remained attractive to the electorate, for they recaptured the House of Representatives and a number of state governments in the midterm elections of 1846-47. In congressional and gubernatorial contests during 1848 itself, Whig candidates who identified with traditional Whig programs ran better than any Whig candidates since 1840. Thus, in 1848, as eight

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