Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party

By Thomas Brown | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Introduction

WHAT THE Whig party has lacked in interpreters, it has more than made up for in detractors. Henry Adams set the tone for modern evaluations of Whiggery when he wrote: "Of all the parties that have existed in the United States, the famous Whig party was the most feeble in ideas."1 Similarly, Henry Wilson, the radical Republican senator from Massachusetts, declared in 1865 that "the old Whig Party . . . never professed to have an idea on earth, [it was] a party that simply advocated tariffs and banks and moneyed measures."2 Neither of these men, it might be pointed out, was an unprejudiced commentator. Adams was a compulsive fault-finder, while Wilson was a former Whig, who denounced his old party with the relentless ferocity of the politically twice- born. Yet long before the Whigs could compile a record deserving of either praise or censure, one of their number complained: "Our Whig Party is made up of such a 'mixed multitude of discordant materials' that it is enough to sicken anyone of having aught to do with it." 3

American political parties have rarely won praise for doctrinal purity or ideological consistency, but the Whig party seems especially vulnerable to such aspersions as those quoted. Its history appears to have been a dismal tale of evasions piled on equivocations. United by their hostility to the actions of Andrew Jackson rather than adherence to clearly defined principles, the Whigs were able to win presidential elections only in 1840 and 1848, when they did not encumber themselves with a party platform and ran military heroes of few known political convictions. On both occasions, the Whigs' General-President died in office, only to be succeeded by a man of far different views. The one time a Whig presidential candidate--Henry Clay--did frankly avow his political principles, he lost. Thus, the precipitate collapse of the Whig

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