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

By Michael F. Holt | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
"Not Fitted to Make Converts"

"THE WHIGS LOOK FORWARD to the approaching contest with all the confident ardor of men who are conscious of the justness of their cause -- and in its righteousness read their claim to certain success." 1 So wrote a Baltimore resident in February 1844 about the impending presidential election to the son of the certain Whig standard bearer, Henry Clay of Kentucky. That winter and spring, through the summer and into the fall, Whigs everywhere forecast triumph. Their own unprecedented harmony, the Democrats' apparent disarray, and faith that they had the superior issues and candidate generated Whig confidence. Their missionary tone, the frequent use of words such as "righteousness" and "redemption," however, derived from another aspect of the race.

Clay's candidacy gave the campaign a special dimension. It vividly reminded Whigs of their ill-starred past even as they contemplated a glorious future. Born in Virginia during the Revolutionary War, Clay had studied law there before moving on to a long and distinguished political career in Kentucky. First a state legislator and interim United States senator, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1810 and chosen Speaker when he reached Washington. Aside from duty as a peace negotiator at Ghent during the War of 1812, he served as Speaker almost continuously from 1811 to 1825, as secretary of state in John Quincy Adams' administration, and as Kentucky's United States senator for most of the period after 1831. As senator, Clay led the effort to build and define the Whig party. By 1844, most Whigs considered him "the embodyment [sic] and polar star of Whig principles."2

At the same time, no other Whig leader had suffered so many mortifying setbacks as Clay during, and even before, the Whigs' oft-times losing crusades against Democratic foes. Although the Whigs' chief congressional spokesman, he had been bypassed for their presidential nomination in both 1836 and 1840 on the grounds of "unavailability." When Whigs won power in the latter year and had a splendid chance to enact the sweeping legislative program Clay had done the most to formulate, a cruel twist of fate deprived him of the opportunity. In 1844, therefore, circumstances seemed to offer Henry Clay long overdue personal vindication and his party long overdue dominance. This prospect of atonement generated Whigs' religious language and euphoria.

-1-

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