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 24
"Confusion Worse Confounded"

"THE, SO-CALLED, Whig Convention in this State surrendered at discretion to the abolitionists," Louisiana's Charles M. Conrad, Millard Fillmore's secretary of war, railed to the ex-president after reading newspaper accounts of the proceedings while on a business trip to New York City in September 1854. Whigs' platform amounted "to a declaration of perpetual warfare against the South"; therefore, it was "impossible for Southern Whigs to cooperate with the authors & abetters of these measures." New York's Whigs, like those in Vermont and Massachusetts, Conrad raged, aimed at "a virtual dissolution of the Whig party" that would result in "a new arrangement of parties" and in a new northern "organization based on merely sectional issues." To avert that catastrophe and retain southern Whig support in 1856, Fillmore must repudiate New York Whigs' actions and help "to form a new national party." 1

Other Southerners also viewed northern Whigs' virulently antisouthern stance in 1854 as lethal to the continued "nationality of the Whig party." "What are we to do with our Northern allies?" George S. Bryan asked Fillmore's close advisor John P. Kennedy in August. Although Bryan recognized that northern Whigs' antislavery bluster was only "political & for local power," he still wondered, "Can we of the South maintain brotherly relations with men whose power is based on sectional association against our section?" 2

Both Conrad and Bryan correctly perceived the fatal impact that northern Whigs' campaigns during 1854 had on southern Whigs' allegiance to their old party. Yet Bryan understood northern Whigs' motives better than did Conrad. Outside of Wisconsin, Michigan, and perhaps Maine and Vermont, most northern Whigs, even in Indiana and Ohio, viewed the campaigns of 1854 as sui generis. They did not seek the creation of a permanent new northern party "based on merely sectional issues" -- at least not in 1854. Instead they hoped to resurrect disintegrating northern Whig organizations that year by exploiting anti-Nebraska, anti-slavery-extension sentiment to defeat Democrats. Once they revivified the northern Whig party with those anticipated victories, they expected to rebuild bridges to southern Whig allies so the two sectional wings could rally again for the next presidential election.

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