The Whig Party versus the "Spoilsmen" of Tennessee

By Atkins, Jonathan M. | The Historian, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

The Whig Party versus the "Spoilsmen" of Tennessee


Atkins, Jonathan M., The Historian


THE IDEAS OF THE AMERICAN WHIG PARTY were "worse than useless for the understanding of society," according to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Some historians, however, have recently begun to view Whig ideology as a crucial element of Jacksonian politics. The Whig Party encouraged the economic development of the United States and advocated the use of federal power to promote material and moral progress. Whether Whig rhetoric was the sincere expression of a distinct world view, or mere "claptrap" that distracted voters from the real issues, it won the loyalty of roughly half the American electorate, which understood its political world according, to party principles. Since national political parties in the antebellum era represented collections of state parties, each with a unique heritage rooted in the peculiarities of local politics, Whig politicians and their Democratic opponents had to employ strategies that were tailored to the state political environment. The study of the Whig appeal at the state level can thus increase the historian's understanding of Whig political culture.1

Although the Whig Party in Tennessee has received little attention, Andrew Jackson's home state was not a Democratic stronghold. Voters gave almost unanimous support to Jackson for the presidency, but they divided into one of the nation's most closely contested state party systems within three years after he left office. Whigs gained control of the state government in four of the seven state contests held between 1839 and 1851, and the national Whig Party carried Tennessee in each of the four presidential elections held between 1840 and 1852--including the contest in which the Democratic nominee, James K. Polk, was a Tennessean and one of Jackson's closest associates.

The Tennessee Whig Party built its platform on warnings that powerful, demagogic forces conspired to rob republican citizens of the liberty won during the American Revolution. Whigs also argued that the power of government should be used to promote the public good. This tactic proved especially successful during the economic depression of the late 1830s and early 1840s, when Whig supporters recognized that the party's success could enhance their material well-being. But Tennessee Whigs merged their economic appeal with a concern for the success or failure of a republican government. The party argued that it favored a beneficial exercise of government power, while its opponents destroyed the nation's prosperity during their time in office. Since Whig leaders persuaded half of Tennessee's voters to join them in a "revolt against Jackson," the Whigs' appeal in Tennessee provides an appreciation of Tennesse's political culture and demonstrates the adaptability and power of republican ideology in the antebellum United States.(2)

The belief that the American Revolution had led to the creation of a republican government that ensured freedom and equality for all citizens permeated the United States in the years before the Civil War. Always a vague idea, by the time of Jackson's presidency "republicanism" was difficult if not impossible to define beyond a belief in popular sovereignty and in limiting government power. Despite its ambiguity, republicanism proved a powerful political force in the nineteenth century, and no successful politician could violate the electorate's standards of proper republican conduct. Jackson's widespread popularity had depended heavily on his reputation as a hero who had saved the republic with his victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Nowhere did the image of Jackson as republican statesman prevail more widely than it did in his home state. As the editor of the Knoxville Register wrote in 1831, in Tennessee "the enemy of Gen. Jackson is now identified with the enemy of free government and free institutions." Over ninety percent of Tennessee voters cast their ballots for the general in each of his three campaigns for the presidency. …

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