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 21
"Now Is the Time to Start New; the Old Issues Are Gone"

"THE WHIGS ARE sullen of course but more united in Congress by far than at the last session," Tennessee's William Cullom reported from Washington in December 1852. "They seem confident that they are only postponed for a season." Also impressed by congressional Whigs' unity, New York's Seward concurred that they wanted "to be quiet and wait without committing ourselves until a breach shall occur in the ranks of the majority." Outside of Washington, too, Whigs of all varieties agreed that "if we keep still and quiet." "the Democratic party must soon divide itself." "If we will be wise," summarized Virginia's John Minor Botts, "we shall have little to do but hold out our hats to catch the fruit as it falls in 56." 1

The Whigs' own history after defeats in 1836 and 1844 and the entire course of American political history demonstrate that outs can mount comebacks by exploiting ins' mistakes. Whig predictions, moreover, were largely accurate. During Pierce's administration Democrats divided over patronage and policy, and they committed blunders that produced massive defeat at the polls. Whigs, however, did not reap the fruit of voters' backlash in the congressional elections of 1854- 55 or in the 1856 presidential election. After 1852, instead, the Whig party disintegrated and was displaced. Decomposition was marked during 1853. In 1854 and 1855 erosion accelerated so that by 1856 only a shadow of a once formidable party remained.

What requires explanation, therefore, is why Whigs' eminently reasonable assumptions in the winter of 1852-53 proved erroneous. Since Whigs correctly predicted that Democrats would divide and alienate most American voters, why did Whigs fail to benefit from their opponents' woes? Why did the Whig party waste away when the Democrats provided so much nutriment to revive it? Addressing those questions forms the agenda of the remaining chapters.

Although Whigs' reactions to the party's plight after the crushing defeats of 1852 differed, virtually all of them factored Democrats' imminent disruption into their calculations for the future. Thus the Whig party's fate continued to be shaped by its interaction with the Democratic party. What was common to all

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