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 16
"God Save Us from Whig Vice Presidents"

"IF THE OMPROMISE BILL SHOULD pass now and obtain the [President's] signature," Seward worried in late July 1850, "what will be the issue on which we go to the polls?" 1 The shrewd New Yorker pinpointed northern Whigs' problem throughout Millard Fillmore's presidency. They could mobilize their voters only by differentiating themselves from Democrats. Fillmore's promotion of a measure backed overwhelmingly by northern Democrats could cripple them at the polls. When Fillmore signed the Compromise measures in September and the New York Democratic state platform endorsed them, therefore, Seward's New York allies instructed Weed that the Whigs' state platform must demand revision or repeal of every prosouthern concession Congress had made. Fillmore's pro-Compromise stance, like John Tyler's vetoes nine years earlier, must be publicly repudiated. "We must make war on this administration to save the Whig party from contempt and scorn." 2

Five days after New York's Whigs met, Daniel Webster penned the administration's response to this declaration of war. "If any considerable body of the Whigs in the North shall act in the spirit of the recent convention in New York," he told a friend, "a new arrangement of Parties is unavoidable." He understood why many northern Whigs opposed the compromise measures in Congress. Now that those bills had become laws, however, loyal Whigs should "resist all attempts at further agitation and disturbance, and make no efforts for another change." Any northern Whigs who "continue to talk about the Wilmot Proviso, and to resist, or seek to repeal the Fugitive Slave Bill, or use any other means to disturb the quiet of the Country" deserved excommunication. "The present administration will not recognize one set of Whig Principles for the North, and another for the South," Webster insisted. "That can be regarded as no Whig Party, in New York, or Mass., which espouses doctrines, and utters sentiments, hostile to the just, and Constitutional rights of the South, and therefore such as Southern Whigs cannot agree to." 3

Defining precisely the horns of the dilemma that confronted the Whig party, these salvos opened a battle between Fillmore's administration and its northern

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