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 23
"The Whig Party, as a Party, Are Entirely Disbanded"

"THE WHIG PARTY OF THE NORTH is, this day, stronger than at any former period," Pittsburgh's William Larimer wrote James Pollock in March 1854, several weeks after Pennsylvania's Whig state convention selected Pollock over Larimer as the party's gubernatorial nominee. "Occupying as she now does, the true Republican ground, the policy of the opposition is making her a unit, and is doing more to render her invincible than all the efforts of her most astute political tacticians could accomplish." Many northern Whigs shared Larimer's confidence that Democratic responsibility for the Nebraska bill guaranteed Whig victories that year. That Larimer was an erstwhile Free Soiler epitomized Whigs' hope that all opponents of Nebraska and other Democratic measures might now rally behind the Whig banner. That he saw opposition to slavery extension and Slave Power aggressions as a reaffirmation of fundamental republican principles illustrates the remarkable persistence of those inherited values. That Larimer, like many others, capitalized "Republican" unintentionally indicated one route by which a different organization would usurp the Whig party's mission to rescue public liberty. 1

By late March, indeed, when Larimer wrote Pollock, and certainly by May, when newspapers published his letter, other political observers would have disputed his rosy prediction about Whigs' unity and invincibility. Northern Whigs might condemn slavery expansion and Slave Power aggressions to win at home in 1854, but that tack could permanently alienate Southerners from the party. Nor were northern Whigs united about how best to exploit anti-Nebraska sentiment. Some advocated abandoning the party, if only temporarily, for broader anti-Nebraska coalitions to ensure that Democratic candidates were rebuked. Others, hoping to preserve northern Whig organizations intact, often feuded over how far the party should go to reach out to non-Whigs, particularly militantly antislavery Free Soilers. Astute observers, moreover, doubted Whigs' invincibility because they doubted that the upcoming elections would be clear-cut referenda on the Nebraska Act and other actions by Democrats in Washington. Ominous evidence existed during the spring and summer of 1854 that voters insisted instead that politicians confront matters that fell within the jurisdiction of local governments and state legislatures, matters that often divided Whigs against each other.

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