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 9
"The Contest for President Should Be Regarded as a Contest of Principles"

"THE WHIGS ADMIT that" the 1844 election "proved" that they could never "succeed of their own unassisted strength" and must "come into power, if at all," only "with the aid of Democratic votes as in 1840," jeered the notorious Rhode Island Democrat Thomas Dorr in January 1848. "Hence," Whigs sought "a taking candidate. A brave old soldier they think is the man for them." Many historians have echoed Dorr's charge that the Whigs' nomination of Zachary Taylor in 1848 was an act of desperation, a confession that they could not win on issues. 1

Dorr's gibe, and the interpretation it prefigured, were in fact only partially accurate. By January 1848, Whig leaders, having squabbled about their nominee for three years, remained far from a consensus. By then most southern Whigs, like northern Whigs from strongly Democratic states, enthusiastically backed Taylor. Despising the war in which he gained fame, many Whigs, however, vehemently opposed him. Others adamantly rejected Taylor because they demanded a committed advocate of Whig programs. They objected to a candidate who, in Dorr's words, "has not made up his mind on any of the great questions of principle & policy that have so long divided the country." Only days after Dorr wrote, indeed, Rhode Island's Whigs officially endorsed Henry Clay for the nomination explicitly because he embodied Whig principles. 2

Whigs, in short, did not rush en masse to seize Zachary Taylor as their savior. The shifting fortunes of Whig candidates in off-year elections, the aggravation of sectional animosity over slavery extension, state factional rivalries, and, above all else, the oscillating salience of issues all influenced the contest for the nomination. By June 1848, a majority of delegates at the Whig national convention believed that the party did need a "brave old soldier" to win. For a variety of reasons, Taylor was their preferred chieftain. But the choice followed a long and divisive struggle, the wounds of which festered long after the convention and the ensuing election. Opposition to Polk's administration united and strengthened the Whigs in 1846 and 1847. Conflict with the Democrats always did. The simultaneous struggle to choose a Whig candidate to replace Polk, in contrast, dangerously rent them. Since both a diminution of interparty conflict and the deepening of

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