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Whiggery revealed (4 1/2 stars)
on January 11, 2003
The Whig Party is perhaps the most obscure major political party that has existed in U.S. history despite the fact that it elected two presidents, Harrison and Taylor, and was a key player in events leading to the Civil War.
But this book is not about the Whig Party, per se. The author finds that the general Whig philosophy and culture transcended the Whig Party. He explores the breadth of that thinking by profiling a dozen of the leading Whigs of the day from the worlds of politics, religion, business, and the legal system.
The Whigs could be considered an oddity in the Age of Jackson, which extolled the virtues and equality of the common man. The Whigs were a throwback to colonial times and to a country-party tradition where society was considered to be hierarchical with elites rightfully governing and controlling the society. To the Whigs, society was a balanced organism with its constituent parts accepting their places, while the Democrats were not unwilling to point out opposing interests among, say, producers versus non-producers. Not surprisingly, a majority of the well to do and other prominent citizens were Whigs in the mid-nineteenth century.
The author points out that the Whigs had little regard for party politics. For them, the political realm should not be a contest among those with differing conceptions of society. It was for politicians to reinforce and improve the social order. While the Jacksonian approach to social and economic affairs was generally one of laissez-faire emphasizing personal liberty and territorial expansion, the Whigs stressed self-control and government-orchestrated qualitative improvements in the country. Henry Clay's American System, the main platform of the Whig Party, called for federal government subsidization of internal improvements, tariffs to protect northern industry and planters producing for domestic markets, and a national banking system to control currency and supply easy credit. In addition, the Whigs were proponents of public education, benevolent societies, asylums, etc.
The author suggests that the broader appeal of Whiggery was mostly moral. Whigs felt a moral obligation to redeem or reform themselves and others including the greater society. This moral dimension of Whiggery was very much driven by the evangelical movement of the day. However, there was a tension between social-conservative Whigs and those whose focus on morality made them more inclined to back social reform. It is not the author's intent to fully explore antebellum history, but it is clear that slavery was the issue that drove a wedge between northern and southern Whigs and led to the party's demise by 1856. The reform-minded, northern wing of the Whig Party could not countenance the extension of slavery that the Democratically-controlled Congress backed with the support of conservative southern Whigs.
The author emphasizes John Q. Adams and Henry Clay as those Whigs most exemplifying the core values and programs of Whiggery. But the vast majority of northern Whigs found themselves in the Republican Party by 1860. Abraham Lincoln, a prominent Whig dating from the 1830s, best represents the Whig transition to Republicanism. He retained virtually all of his earlier Whig predispositions, but he emphasized the equality of men as first articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Though highly secular in outlook, Lincoln practically sanctified the principles of the Declaration which appealed to the morality-focused reformers of the era. In addition, gone was the paternalism of the Whigs. Lincoln extolled the virtues of free labor and emphasized the possibilities of social mobility through hard work.
The author notes that the cultural predominance of small-town America, the paternalistic factory owner, and the ethic of hard work - all prominent in the Whig culture and ideology - were mostly swallowed by the urbanization and industrialization of the late nineteenth century. The classical learning and the persuasive oratorical skills of the Whigs largely disappeared. The Whig Party, though having played a significant role in antebellum politics, only existed just over twenty years. Although Whiggery seems quaint by today's standards, it is not possible to understand the forces leading to the Civil War without taking into account the impact of Whig thinking. I say put this book on your shelf next to those by Foner, Potter, Holt, Donald - among others.