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 10
"We Must Have the Aid of Gunpowder"

" PRESIDENTMAKING has commenced," Joshua R. Giddings reported from Washington in December 1847. 1 His verb was apt. Although much maneuvering and speculation about the Whig candidate had occurred since 1844, systematic efforts to secure the party's presidential nomination began only with the opening of the Thirtieth Congress.

Almost every event during 1847 that influenced opinion about the nomination-the news of Buena Vista and the subsequent Taylor frenzy, Scott's capture of Mexico City, the convergence of the Whig press and state platforms on the No Territory position, the up-and-down cycle of Whig fortunes in congressional and state elections, Clay's trip east in the summer and his Lexington Address in November -- had occurred outside of Washington when Congress was not in session and Whig leaders were widely scattered around the country. Congress not only assembled when many Whig politicians first began seriously to focus on the presidential question, therefore. Its convening also provided the first chance since March 1847 for leading Whigs from different states and regions to meet face-toface, compare notes, refine calculations, and directly confront opposing points of view.

The congregating of so many officeholders from different states also offered the first opportunity for congressional backers of rival candidates to organize cooperation across state lines and so convert opinion in the periphery. Washington thus became a magnet that attracted elected Whig officeholders, politically influential lawyers with Supreme Court cases like Clay and Seward, and the different aspirants' strategists. Clay men like Greeley and Daniel Ullmann, McLean's lieutenants James E. Harvey and Thomas Dowling, and even Zachary Taylor's brother Colonel Joseph Taylor converged on Washington to make the case for their favorites to the gathered Whig leadership. The ensuing dynamic of group interaction, with its incidents of harmony and friction, agreement and disagreement, fundamentally altered the struggle for the nomination. 2

Ultimately, decisions at the periphery of the American political system, in states and localities that chose delegates to the Whigs' national convention, de-

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