The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

Synopsis

The political home of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Horace Greeley, and the young Abraham Lincoln, the American Whig Party was involved at every level of American politics--local, state, and federal--in the years before the Civil War, and controlled the White House for eight of the twenty-two years that it existed. Now, in The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, Michael F. Holt gives us the only comprehensive history of the Whigs ever written--a monumental history covering in rich detail the American political landscape from the Age of Jackson to impending disunion. In Michael Holt's hands, the history of the Whig Party becomes a political history of the United States during the tumultuous Antebellum period. He offers a panoramic account of a time when a welter of parties (Whig, Democratic, Anti-Mason, Know Nothing, Free Soil, Republican) and many extraordinary political statesmen (including Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, William Seward, Daniel Webster, Martin Van Buren, and Henry Clay) struggled to control the national agenda as the U.S. inched towards secession. It was an era when Americans were passionately involved in politics, when local concerns drove national policy, and when momentous political events rocked the country, including the Nullification Controversy, the Panic of 1837, the Annexation of Texas, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Holt captures all of this as he shows that, amid this contentious political activity, the Whig Party continuously strove to unite North and South, repeatedly trying to find a compromise position. Indeed, the Whig Party emerges as the nation's last great hope to prevent secession and civil war. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party is a magisterial work of history, one that has already been hailed by William Gienapp of Harvard as "one of the most important books on nineteenth-century politics ever written."

Excerpt

This is a history of a nineteenth-century American political party. It encompasses the careers, aspirations, ideas, and actions of many individual Whig politicians and nameless Whig voters. But it is not primarily a collective biography, a study of political ideology and political culture, or an analysis of the social experience and characteristics of the electorate. Rather, it is the story, told chronologically, of the birth, life, and death of a political organization and of its competitive relationship with other political parties. That life was short -- scarcely more than twenty-two years. Yet this history of it, which has taken me almost that many years to write, is a very long book. The reader deserves to know why.

I set five objectives before starting to write. First, I believe that no political party can be fully understood in terms of its own beliefs, actions, and internal quarrels. Its relationships with rival parties must also be incorporated into the analysis. The Whig party operated in a definable two-party system, labeled by historians the Second American Party System, in which its major, but not its only, rival was the Democratic party. A central argument of this study, indeed, is that from the time of the Whig party's birth in the winter of 1833-34 until its death during the 1856 presidential campaign, Democrats played a profound role in shaping its fate. Thus pay close attention to non-Whig and anti-Whig political actors, not just to the Whigs themselves.

Second, the American federal system, with its jurisdictional division of policymaking responsibilities among national, state, and local governments, had unusual importance for the structure and operations of nineteenth-century political parties. What state governments did often had far more impact on people's lives during that century than did actions taken in Washington. Whigs, therefore, often viewed control of state governments as a vital goal. Like its Democratic foe, moreover, the Whig party was a federation of state and local organizations, each of which had its own experience of internal rivalry and external competition. To write the history of the party as an institution -- and not just of a few prominent national leaders -- I was therefore compelled to analyze developments in as many states as possible over a period of some twenty years while simultaneously examining Whig attempts to capture the national government and their actions while in it.

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