Being something of a sadist I recently re-red Michael Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. It’s quite the tome to sift through once, and to do it again is a sure sign of some kind of mental disturbance. It is a remarkable work, though perhaps a bit over-extensive. If you want to know what a low-level Whig state legislator from Rhode Island thought about the death of the Whig party, this is your book.
So why did the Whig party pass? My interpretation – and I don’t think I’m that far off from Holt – is that it simply stopped being an ideological vehicle of opposition to the Democrats. In other words, by the time of its death it no longer stood for anything. It’s not that individual members of the party stopped caring deeply about the major issues of the day, but its leadership, particularly in the persons of Millard Fillmore and Daniel Webster, tried so hard to steer a middle ground in the sectional war brewing between north and south that the Whigs became almost indistinguishable from the Democrats.
There are many other things that contributed to the party’s demise, though all are wrapped up into this inability for the party to provide an attractive and distinct counterweight to the Democrats. As Holt describes, economic boom times in the late 1840s and early 50s made some of the Whig economic arguments somewhat obsolete. I plan on discussing this in some greater detail in a subsequent post. Comparatively speaking the Whigs were the more “big government” of the two parties. In reality they were the inheritors of the Hamiltonian Federalist program: they supported the national bank, they supported a protectionist tariff, and they advocated federal governmental involvement in internal improvements (canals, roads, trains, etc.). But the boom times ate into some of these ideas and causes the Whigs to re-focus. By the early 50s there wasn’t much daylight between the two parties, at least substantively. Whigs didn’t necessarily abandon their platform, but they muted their advocacy of traditional Whig ideas.
The party also did not offer a unified platform on some of the other major issues of the day, namely nativism, anti-Catholicism, and prohibition. Certainly the birth of the Know-Nothing party ate into the Whigs, but in a sense Whig dis-unity and silence on these issues encouraged voters to turn to a third party. None Know-Nothing Whigs opposed to slavery had yet another alternative: the Republican party. So while some might argue that these other parties killed the Whigs, the reticence of national Whigs to forcefully articulate some kind of platform enabled these other parties to rise to prominence.
Ultimately, Whig leaders tried to make the party all things to all people. In a sense this was inevitable due to the very nature of the sectional conflict that was brewing. Pro-slavery southern Whigs naturally clashed with anti-slavery northern Whigs. But I’d contend that it was the politically tone-deaf turn towards moderation taken by Millard Fillmore and then Secretary of State Daniel Webster that led the Whigs down the path to ultimate ruin.
If voters are not given a clear choice they’ll either stay home or just vote for the real thing. The more Whigs tried to eliminate real differences between them and the Democrats, the more it discouraged Whig voters. Given a choice between Democrats and Democrat-lite, it’s no surprise that voters between 1850-1853 chose actual Democrats.
Amazingly modern pundits and other figures have learned nothing from this and continue to advocate the same path for our modern parties – I’m looking at you David Frum, David Brooks, Colin Powell, etc. Calls to moderate might have some intellectual appeal, but political parties must offer brand differentiation in order to thrive and survive. The Whigs ceased to offer up a meaningful alternative, and voters proceeded to abandon them. And so the Whig party passed into oblivion