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The Political Culture of the American Whigs
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VINE VOICEon 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.
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on September 14, 2015
Informative and interesting, this book is well organized and fulfills its objective. It is very personality oriented. If I were to add anything to it, that would be the addition of a few of the speeches mentioned in an appendix. However, those speeches are usually readily available from other sources.
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on May 20, 2009
Daniel Walker Howe's THE POLITICAL CULTURE OF THE AMERICAN WHIGS is a tour de force of mid-19th century American politics. Howe focuses on the often misunderstood, now largely forgotten, Whig party. Ingeniously, he focuses on 12 leading Whigs John Q. Adams to Abraham Lincoln. Reading the book I swung back and forth between the Whigs and the Republican party of the mid to late 20th century. The parallels are stunning. The question now is if the current Republican party will die the same death as the party that gave it life in 1856.

Talented in his prose as he is in his research, Howe's book is a must read. Highly recommended.
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on September 8, 2014
Excellent history by a noted historian.
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on April 7, 2015
Howe is an incredible writer, and the Whig party was never more fascinating. Howe is an essential historian of the antibellum political culture and his work on the Whigs is a poli-sci must read
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on March 1, 2014
I enjoyed the book overall, it fit an area of interest, but the writing could have been more succinct and more to the point in some chapters.
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VINE VOICEon June 27, 2004
In this book, originally published in 1979, Danial Walker Howe seeks to understand the ideological origins and development of American Whigs, a political party that emerged in the 1830s but collapsed in the first part of the 1850s. Led by such enigmatic politicians as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, the Whigs captured two presidential elections--in 1840 and 1848--and a host of state governments. This excellent book takes a largely biographical approach toward analyzing the key aspects of the Whigs.
In the process, Howe overturns the long-held perspective that the Whigs were aristocratic, rational, paternalistic, and economically stolid. Those were characterizations, he argues, that their political rivals, the Jacksonian Democrats, assigned to the Whigs. He suggests that the Whigs should be viewed, instead, as a party trying to deal evenhandedly with myriad practical political problems. They believed in moderation, self-restraint, and a "rational persuasion" that helped create a balanced political order, economic growth, and social harmony. They also seemed to share an underlying conviction that the Jacksonians demonstrated little common sense in dealing with the most divisive issues of the antebellum era: economic concerns, race relations, class tensions, and sectional rivalries.
Historian Daniel Walker Howe has eloquently called the Whig Party the champions of "the positive liberal state," which is arguably his most significant contribution to the reinterpretation of the Whigs. Howe wrote that "This ideal implied the belief that the state should actively seek `to promote the general welfare, raise the level of opportunity for all men, and aid all individuals to develop their full potentialities.' The Democrats, by contrast, believed in a `negative liberal state,' which left men free to pursue their own definition of happiness. A great advantage of this distinction between the parties is that it implies a connection between the economic and moral aspects of Whiggery. In both cases, the Whigs believed in asserting active control. They wanted `improvements,' both economic and moral, and they did not believe in leaving others alone" (p. 20). Perhaps the most persistent aspect of the Whig world view was the party's resoluteness in using political power for the furtherance of those ideals that it believed were valuable.
As Howe shows, the Whigs throughout their existence were optimistic about the prospect for the United States' economic progress, consolidation, and stabilization. As a group they adopted as an economic goal the creation of a mixed economy that made room for industry, trade, business, and agriculture; included entrepreneurs both large and small; and where bourgeoisie and proletariat and any other group could achieve justice and opportunity. They saw the need for government to foster the creation of both a climate and an infrastructure that would further that mixed economy. The establishment of a government bank with the power to regulate the money supply and the building of harbors, roads, and making other internal improvements were only two specific efforts to foster national economic growth and stability.
While some of the Whig economic programs were beneficial to only certain groups--such as a tariff directed at protecting American industry--other efforts advanced the fortunes of diverse groups. Through these efforts, the Whigs sought to bring order to the U.S. economy and to free it from dependency on the mercantilism of Europe. The Whig economic ideal was thus more inclusive than that held by the Jacksonian Democrats with their emphasis on agriculture, hard currency, and small business.
More than thinking on economics, Howe argues that the Whigs became a strong political party that could run closely with the Democrats in national elections only after they articulated their vision of American society and culture. Whereas, they were ever optimistic about the nation's economic prospects and could devise legislation to help further it, they were always wary of the problems inherent in achieving social and moral balance. Inextricably tied to their conception of society was a sense that there was a commonality of interests between all Americans whether yeoman farmer or planter or factory worker or industrialist or professional. Pulling together to enlarge national wealth would, they argued, eventually help everyone. Equality of opportunity was thus a persistent theme in their rhetoric, as they urged the electorate to exhibit greater thrift, industry, productivity, and self-dependence.
The Whigs believed that inequity could be overcome only with greater moral rectitude and social responsibility. At the same time, the social structure of young America was viciously stirred by the Whig emphases on moral reform. In election after election, as well as in the workaday environment of the Congress and the state house, seemingly disparate issues ranging from banking to Indian removal were couched by the Whigs in the context of social reform.
This is a superb study of the American Whig party between the 1830s and 1850s. It helps to recast the structure of the political debate of the time while bringing to the fore the ideological origins and social context of this unique political party.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon April 22, 2004
This well written book is a group portrait of the Whig party/movement. The Whigs were one of the components of the "second American party system." Following the demise of the Federalist party in the early 19th century, the Whigs emerged as an amalgam of former Federalists, Madisonian Democrats, and other groups opposed to the dominance of the Jacksonian Democratic Party. The Whigs existed as an important part of American life until the party fell apart under the dual stresses imposed by the crisis over slavery and territorial expansion.
Daniel Waler Howe's approach is to present a series of biographical sketches of major Whig figures, with one or two figures illustrating different important aspects of the Whig movement. The figures discussed include individuals who are still known well, such as John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, and less well known individuals like the preacher Lyman Beecher and the economic theorist Henry Carey. This is not a narrative history but a thematic exploration of the ideology and motivations of the Whig movement. Walker Howe's emphasis is not solely on political history, though he provides ample and excellent analysis of the political contributions of the Whigs, but also on how the Whigs reflected and channeled larger currents in American life.
The Whigs were both a political party and representatives of a broader movement aimed at reforming American society. Like all such movements, they were a coalition of different groups. A common theme among Whig partisans was a effort to reform American life and an interest in using governmental institutions to effect some of those changes. Whigs supported tariff barriers to encourage diversification of American industries, internal improvements like public highways and canals (what we now call infrastructure), a central bank, and public education. Psychologically, Walker Howe shows that many important Whigs the goal of social improvement mirrored, or perhaps reflected, an equivalent preoccupation with personal transformation. Whiggery, however, had a strong paternalistic element and some of their concerns reflect upper class fears of losing social control. Many of the Whigs were directly or indirectly connected to the Second Great Awakening of evangelism in the early 19th century, which had a particularly optimistic theology and tended to promote reform movements of various types. The religous spirit of the Second Great Awakening tended also to promote belief in the powerful Victorian notions of progress, which is a strong element of Whig ideology.
Walker Howe presents many of the Whigs as very attractive figures. Many Whig leaders were anti-slavery and some were actually abolitionship in sentiment. Some prominent Whigs attempted to defend the Southern Indians from the vicious actions of the Jackson administration. Walker Howe may, however, present too rosy a picture of the Whigs. The Whigs were at times allies with nativist elements whose anti-immigrant policies and religous bigotry were repulsive.
Overall, this is a very valuable book. As Walker Howe points out, traditional historical interpretations of this period have tended to focus on the Jacksonian Democrats. Walker Howe's attempt to rectify the balance is very successful.
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