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Customer Review

39 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Definitive Word on Jacksonian Politics, May 6, 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (Hardcover)
It can clearly be said that Michael Holt's book "The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party" is the last word on the subject. This exhaustive, deeply analytical, and immensely detailed work is the ultimate history of the American Whig party. Yet, it is much more than that: as William Gienapp has written, it is "one of the most important books on nineteenth-century politics ever written." Yes, it is somewhat dry at times and often repetitious. Yes, there are many charts and statistics, and as one Amazon reviewer suggested, these are best ignored. This book is certainly not a quick read and you had better be in love with political history before tackling it. But, the rewards for the patient reader are immense. You will come away from this experience with an understanding of American politics you can gain nowhere else.
The deeply learned Holt ties political history to the changing social, religious, economic, and cultural life of nineteenth-century America and exposes the ethnic conflicts in American life and how they influenced the fortunes of the Whig and Democratic parties. His persistent theme is that the origins and successes of the Whig party depended upon the state of its rivalry with the Democratic party, and once the issues that separated the two parties lost their urgency, the Whig party lost much of its support and its reason for being. A secondary theme is that "politics is local" and that we cannot understand the history of the Whig or the Democratic party without understanding the local and state issues that shaped their rivalry. Real politicians dealing with real local and regional issues and fighting for political patronage set the tone everywhere. Most decisions were not passed down from Washington. As a result, Holt's book roams far and wide analyzing the politcal struggles within the states.
Particularly interesting is the stress politicians put on state and federal patronage as the reward for party loyalty. Sectionalism and slavery, of course, eventually assume center stage, but always within the context of the particular political struggles among the forces within the various states. Holt's examination of the struggle over the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, and the damage done to the Whig and Democratic parties by the Kansas-Nebraska Act is nothing short of brilliant. Also profound is his analysis of how prohibitionism and the rise of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing movement sent the Whig party to its grave. These insightful chapters will give any reader a more profound understanding of exactly what was taking place prior to the Civil War in American political life. We have Michael Holt to thank for providing us with a more complex, yet well-rounded picture of the causes leading to civil war. One may be surprised to discover that many of the Whigs in the antebellum South held out hope for a party of national union longer than most of the Whigs in the North. We all owe Michael Holt a debt of gratitude for his summation of a lifetime of learning. "The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party" will remain an indispensable reference for anyone interested in the politics of antebellum America.
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