The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
"There Is No Middle Ground": The Idioms of Political Warfare, 1838-1860

Let the stout-hearted democracy . . . sound their ancient battle cry, and rally their forces to the conflict on the 7th day of next November.

-- "To the People of Pennsylvania," 1848

ACCORDING TO BOTH Whigs and Democrats, there was much at stake in American politics in the late 1830's and the 1840's. The clash of contrasting policies and alternative ideological visions that they presented was constant, vigorous, and detailed. At the same time, their presentations had another quality as well: they always added a political calculus to the patterns of belief and strong commitment present. Each party sought electoral advantage as they framed discussion of what was at stake. Every political expression was structured in a particular way; each had a purpose; each was strategic as well as ideological. Party rhetoric, therefore, had two purposes, to bind together and to polarize, to sharpen differences among the voters as a whole and to draw together each party's own tribes. In every election campaign, both parties tried "to stir up the lukewarm and convince the wavering." 1 Neither party, of course, was committed to a truly free market of ideas that would lead to fresh, reflective choices by individual voters. Both Whigs and Democrats designed their rhetoric to align with their understanding of existing voting preferences by the constant reinforcing of old habits and truths.

Historians have noticed, nonetheless, that the two parties "mounted significantly different presidential campaigns." The Whigs "put the candidate first," whereas the Democrats "put party first and treated the candidate as the instrument of party." More was involved here than different attitudes toward the legitimacy of claims of party loyalty over individual conscience. Whig or Democrat, the losing side always tried, when it could, to attack the closely held voting loyalties that had benefited the winner in the hope of opening a wedge for itself among the few less certain voting groups. The Whigs, for example, after each of their shocking defeats in the presidential elections of 1836 and 1844, subsequently followed what the Democrats sneeringly

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