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 11
"Stimulate Every Whig to Turn Out"

"THE POLITICAL ADVANTAGES which have been secured by Taylor's nomination," southern Whigs cheered after the Philadelphia convention, are "impossible to overestimate." If the Whigs had not chosen a victorious Mexican War general, Meredith Gentry explained, Democrats would have crucified them for treason throughout the campaign "and our overthrow would have been complete." Even more important, Taylor's victory demonstrated that all future aspirants for the presidency must "keep themselves clear upon the negro question." The selection of the Louisiana slaveholder "has scotched if it has not killed abolition. It is literally expurgating the Whig party. For example, Giddings, Root, & Co. will leave now." 1

That prospective defection of militant antislavery men terrified most northern Whigs. From New England, the Middle Atlantic states, and the Midwest came immediate predictions of a bolt by furious opponents of slavery expansion, not just a few well-known leaders, but tens of thousands of Whig voters. "What in God's name shall be done?" queried a worried New Yorker. "The masses are in rebellion. The rank and file are swearing they'll wheel out by Regiments. Taylor's nomination is regarded as infamous." 2

These contrasting reactions support traditional interpretations of the 1848 election. According to many historians, sectional disputes over slavery extension and the resulting shift of northern Whigs and Democrats to a new Free Soil party constituted its central story. By this analysis, even though Taylor won, Free Soilers' deep incursions into the Whigs' northern constituency gravely weakened the party's competitiveness and heralded its subsequent disruption. 3 This chapter reassesses how much the sectional split over slavery expansion actually debilitated Whigs in 1848. Northern and southern Whigs had long disagreed about matters involving slavery, yet the cohesive force of interparty conflict had held it together and retained the allegiance of Whig voters despite those divergent sectional views. The question is how successfully that same centripetal pressure operated during the 1848 campaign once the contest was against the Democratic enemy rather than among fellow Whigs.

Whatever historians' preoccupations with the slavery issue, following Taylor's nomination Whigs feared abstentions by Whig regulars disgusted at Taylor's No

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