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 13
"Patronage Is a Dangerous Element of Power"

"IF WE CANNOT RALLY a new party -- composed of the elements which brought Taylor into power," John M. Clayton warned John J. Crittenden six weeks before Zachary Taylor's inauguration, "we shall be beaten under the old name of Whig this year." To avert that calamity, Taylor must reaffirm his intention to run an all-parties or No Party, rather than exclusively Whig, administration in his inaugural address. If he did, "thousands will join in who never voted with us before." All the Whigs whom Clayton spoke with in Washington concurred in his plan for "some demonstration on the Republican basis." 1

Here Clayton, one of its chief architects, outlined the central agenda of Taylor's presidency, a term that can best be understood in two phases. During the nine months between his inauguration and the meeting of Congress in December 1849, the sixty-four-year-old president and his men attempted to transform the Whig party into a broader and more inclusive organization. Based on loyalty to Taylor himself, patriotism inspired by Taylor's heroics in Mexico, and a self-conscious dedication to republican principles, this new organization was to be called the Taylor Republican or Republican party. It would abandon what Taylorites deprecated as ultra Whiggery, seek middle ground on issues that had traditionally divided Whigs from Democrats and North from South, and carefully distribute government jobs to non-Whigs, not just Whig regulars.

From its inception, this foolish and utopian initiative provoked angry resistance from most Whigs. The administration's inept patronage policies bitterly divided Whigs against each other and contributed to a truly dismal performance in the crucial state and congressional elections of 1849, thereby neutralizing the solid successes of 1848. By the time Congress assembled in December, the new party initiative had utterly failed, thereby jeopardizing the administration's far more sensible policy proposals. For the remainder of his presidency, therefore, Taylor and the Whig party suffered the consequences of this abortive, fractious, and misguided foray into party building. Since it both exacerbated intraparty divisions and propelled the diminution of interparty differences, the party itself never fully recovered from Zachary Taylor's first nine months in the White House.

-414-

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