Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party

By Thomas Brown | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Southern Whigs and the Politics of Statesmanship

THE TWO-PARTY SYSTEM of the Old South has been, and remains, one of the least explored problems in American history. Perhaps the main reason for this neglect is the belief that the South's unity in defense of its special interests (especially slavery) precluded serious political debate. One eminent proponent of this notion wrote more than a generation ago that "party conflict south of the Potomac, from nullification to the late 1840's, had the hollow sound of a stage duel with tin swords." 1 More recently, several historians have uncovered evidence which indicates that there were in fact substantive ideological differences between the parties of the Old South. The southern Whigs and Democrats of the Jacksonian era, it appears, disagreed about the same national issues as their counterparts in other parts of the country. Moreover, many of them resisted the sectionalization of the party system in the divisive 1850s. 2

A recognition of the strength of partisan loyalties in the Old South prompts questions as to how the broad principles of the major parties were made relevant to the special concerns of southern voters. The antebellum southern Democrats, members of a party rhetorically dedicated to states' rights and strict construction, may perhaps be considered the protectors of the Old South's distinctive interests. But the southern Whigs cannot be explained away. As Charles G. Sellers pointed out, the Whigs, who commanded the support of about one-half of the southern electorate in the Jacksonian era, had a more liberal view of the powers of the federal government than the Democrats, at least in economic matters. Needless to say, this fact hardly comports with the

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