Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

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

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

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

Article excerpt

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. By Michael F. Holt. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xviii, 1248. Preface, acknowledgments, illustrations, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $55.00.)

For nearly two decades, historians of nineteenth-century politics have been eagerly awaiting the publication of Michael F. Holt's The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. Some anticipated the book's publication merely because no one had ever written a good history of that ill-fated organization, whose only two successful presidential candidates died in office. Others looked forward to the book's appearance because Holt's two previous monographs were both seminal works. His first, Forging a Majority: The Formation of the Republican Party in Pittsburgh, 1848-1860 (1969), is still a model for those who seek to write the political history of a single locale and was one of the first historical studies to make extensive statistical analyses of antebellum voting behavior. And his second monograph, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (1978), remains the best short introduction to the "ethnocultural" interpretation of the breakup of the "second party system" and the coming of the Civil War. This interpretation stresses the role of issues such as temperance and nativism in the demise of the Whig party, arguing that only well after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 did the slavery question become of paramount importance to a majority of northern voters.

The result of Holt's decades of work is a huge book, 1,248 pages long, which chronicles the origins of the party, the lives of its leaders, their major legislative battles, and the causes of the organization's demise. The monograph is unabashedly old-fashioned in its concerns. There is very little analysis of ideology, the electorate is virtually absent, and there is no discussion of political culture or the "gendering" of political debate. Instead, the book carefully chronicles every major and minor election campaign in which the Whigs participated. Like other authors espousing the ethnocultural interpretation, Holt presents a variety of complicated statistical tables (especially concerning the voting behavior of legislators), but these statistics play a far less important role in this book than in his previous studies.

Holt's opus has many strengths. It is very well written. Complicated subjects such as the formation of the party and the Compromise of 1850 are presented with great clarity, especially given the intricate detail Holt provides. His description of the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska bill is the best I have ever read, both for the careful manner in which he chronicles its modification from Stephen A. Douglas's original proposal and for his enlightening discussion of the initially unenthusiastic reaction to the bill by southerners. Holt's thumbnail portraits of Whig party leaders are convincing and enlightening. Finally, the book is admirably encyclopedic. Most anything one would want to know about the party's history, even on the state level, can be found in its pages. The only exception concerns relatively underpopulated states in which the Whigs did not fare well. Because the Whigs never carried a statewide election in Arkansas, for example, Holt does not provide a substantive discussion of the party's efforts there.

Such omissions are easily excused, given how exhaustively Holt chronicles the Whigs' efforts virtually everywhere else. …

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