Sunday, November 6, 2016

Book Review: "The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party" by Michael F. Holt

The short history of the Whig Party in the United States is usually presented as thus: A party is formed in the 1830s to oppose President Andrew Jackson, his Democratic Party, and their policies, but the new party's members have little to unite them other than their opposition to Jackson.  Ironically, their only success in winning the Presidency is to run two old soldiers who remind the voters of Jackson, and when a third old soldier can't defeat an appalling Democratic presidential prospect such as Franklin Pierce, the party, already divided over slavery, rolls over and dies.
Michael Holt's 1999 book "The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party" brilliantly makes it clear, over the course of a thousand pages, that nothing could be farther from the truth.  Holt uses numerous historical sources and exhaustively studies voter turnout in the states that made up the Union between 1834 and 1856 to show how the Whig Party was more than just reflexive opposition to the Democrats.  Holt presents the party, founded largely by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, as a cohesive political organization intensely devoted to preserving republican self-government and economic vitality and opposing the Democrats' disdain for active government while advocating for a system that provided opportunity to all Americans rather than let the economy sort itself out.  Holt presents a fascinating story of principled Whig politicians in both the North and the South who strove for a strong Union and fought to balance sectional interests to keep the country together.  
Holt doesn't necessarily say that the slavery question could have been settled once and for all without a civil war, but he credits the Whigs for their efforts to avoid such a conflict.  He seems myopic, though, by suggesting that the Whigs might have prevented a war as bad as the one that actually transpired.  Historians have argued whether the United States was destined for Armageddon, as Michael Harwood once put it, in settling the slavery issue, but Holt doesn't seem to probe this question far enough.
The book's most obvious fault - an overemphasis on the inner workings of politics - is also, perversely, one of its biggest strengths.  Holt shows how differently American politics operated in the antebellum years, and the reader comes to understand how the Whigs prospered before they eventually withered.  Their basic program - low tariffs, a national bank, improved infrastructure - sustained them early on.  But Holt demonstrates how numerous issues - the war with Mexico, the struggle to craft the Compromise of 1850 that tried to handle slavery expansion territories ceded by the Mexicans, the undermining of the bonds between northern and southern Whigs over the Kansas-Nebraska Act - caused disagreements within the party.  The party's leading figures - Clay, Daniel Webster,  John Quincy Adams, Thomas Ewing, William Seward - are large players here, of course, but the roles of lesser-known Whigs like Robert Toombs, Truman Smith, and John Bell are also highlighted here.  And the party's two last Presidents - Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore - are reassessed as major figures of their day in their efforts to govern the nation and preserve the Union.  
Holt also describes the efforts at new Union parties and a new party around President Taylor in great detail, with  a dissection of how factors in addition to slavery - the growing irrelevance of old issues such as banking and tariffs, patronage, disputes between conservatives and moderates in state Whig organizations, the divisions caused by the rise of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing movement - divided the party and set it on a course for extinction.  Despite the academic, dry prose of Holt's text, the central argument of why the Whig Party died - it became too out of step and too slow to realize changes in the American body politic - becomes clearer with each passing chapter.  With the two-party system in America at a greater risk of collapsing than at any time since the 1850s, this book is required reading for anyone who might want to save the dying parties . . . or figure out how to start a new one.    

No comments: