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 20
"Like Pissing Against the Wind"

"THE WHIG CAUSE never was more vulnerable in its platform and in the person of the individual hoisted up on the rickety scaffolding," a Louisiana Democrat jeered on the very day that Henry Clay died. Other Democrats shared this confidence, but they were struck less by the shakiness of the Whigs' platform than by its similarity to their own. Pennsylvania's Governor William Bigler told Franklin Pierce that Whigs had purposely "assimilated" Democratic doctrines "to reduce the contest to a personal struggle between General Scott and yourself, relying as they evidently do on the brilliance of his military career to secure success." 1

Bigler erred. Whigs did not intentionally mimic Democratic principles in order to contrast the candidates. Most southern Whigs fought Winfield Scott's nomination until the bitter end, while many of Scott's northern supporters regarded the platform as an unconscionable price to pay for his nomination. On the same day that Scott was nominated and Tennessee's James Jones read a letter from him accepting the platform as "laid down by the Convention," for example, Horace Greeley wrote of the platform in his widely read New York Tribune: "We defy it, execrate it, spit upon it." 2

If Bigler mistook Whig intentions, he correctly judged the result of the Whig and Democratic conventions. More than any presidential election since 1836, the 1852 campaign focused on the character and reputation of the opposing presidential candidates rather than on alternative public policies. Southern Democrats' campaign tactics, northern Whigs' disgust with their platform, and the Democrats' selection of Pierce, a man particularly vulnerable to personal attack, all contributed to that focus. Primarily, however, it resulted from the elimination of issue differences between the parties. Their indistinguishable positions on the Compromise and the irrelevance of economic issues because of prosperity forced them to appeal for votes by contrasting their nominees.

The lack of programmatic differences between the two parties, their opportunistic efforts to fill that void with ad hominem attacks, and the resulting disaffection and disinterest among the electorate together produced one of the election's two most important results. Despite the anticipated mobilization of tens of thousands

-726-

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