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 12
"Many Discordant Political Interests to Reconcile"

"THE WHIG PARTY has safely passed through . . . a transition state and will be as enduring as the union itself," one Whig rejoiced after Taylor's election. "Its perpetuity as a great national party, is placed beyond doubt." Optimism abounded among Whigs in the weeks following Rough and Ready's victory. They appeared to be ascending because of their presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial triumphs in 1848, while Democrats plummeted in the opposite direction. "We have precisely changed ground with the locofocos," boasted a New York Whig. "We stand new, fresh, hopeful before the country -- full of promise and glittering with the prestige of success. They have drooped beneath the weight of odious men, of names that stink in the public nose, & of recent measures." Democrats "are regarded as hopeless," while "we have the destiny of the party, in its new form, in our hands." "With the right policy by the incoming Administration," chorused a Vermont leader, "the locofoco party will never see daylight again." 1

The modern observer can savor the irony of such predictions. Within a year of Taylor's victory, hopes raised by Whigs' performance in 1848 would be dashed. Within four years, they would be routed by their supposedly discredited foe in the next presidential election. Within eight, the Whig party would totally disappear as a functioning political organization. Four years after that, the perpetuity of the Union itself would be in grave jeopardy, in no small part because of Whigs' disintegration as "a great national party."

Whatever their unintended irony, such predictions provide important clues to what brought the Whig party acropper within a year of Taylor's election. Numerous Whigs rejoiced that Northerners and Southerners had stood behind the ticket despite the corrosive sectional animosity evident at the national convention, profound sectional disagreement over the Wilmot Proviso, and the new Free Soil party's threat in the North. Yet Whigs had maintained unity largely by taking very different tacks on the slavery extension issue in the North and South, and Taylor's triumph had not resolved the divisive issue itself. It could still disrupt the party along sectional lines, a potential enhanced by the Democrats, whose

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