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 26
"The Whig Party Is Dead and Buried"

"THE WHIG PARTY died of too much respectability and not enough people." 1 That, at least, was the opinion of Edward Stafford, a Republican newspaper editor from Jackson, Mississippi, five years after the Civil War. A review of the reasons for the party's rise and fall demonstrates the manifold inadequacies of Stafford's witty epitaph. As this last chapter also seeks to show, however, Stafford quite accurately described the party's final death throes in 1856.


I

By the end of 1855, so many one-time Whig voters and leaders had deserted their former party for new organizations that it did indeed have far too few people to contest the presidency in 1856. But Stafford's sarcastic gibe fails to explain why the Whigs had been reduced to that condition by the start of 1856. To the extent that he posited a causal connection between his two variables -- that the Whig party had too few supporters because its self-righteous aura of respectability and social superiority turned most American voters against it -- his analysis is manifestly wrong. Although the majority of the nation's politically active wealthy citizens supported the Whig party, it had never been the exclusive preserve of the rich. Although the often self-consciously respectable, God-fearing, churchgoing, sober middle classes in towns and cities across the nation also tended to be Whig, moreover, the party could never have dominated almost every city in the country or the small towns and prosperous agricultural regions that constituted the core of its strength if only the social elite and smugly fastidious middle classes composed it.

Nor was a sense of social and moral superiority the main reason even the upper and middling classes gravitated to Whiggery. Whig supporters were attracted by the commonwealth tradition of republican government Whigs espoused and Democrats so vigorously rejected. Inherited by the Whigs from the Madisonian wing of the Republican party to which Henry Clay had belonged, this tradition held that government at all levels of the federal system should be used positively to elevate people economically, socially, and morally through the

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