America’s Long Journey: Whigs and Republicans

Whigs and Republicans

What we call the two-party system wasn’t always only two parties, and when it was, the two parties weren’t always Democrats and Republicans. The third of the five party systems that formed and reformed between 1800 and 2000 began with the coming of the Republicans and the passing of the Whigs. The founding of the Whigs had created the second. For convenience, we will look at the brief but significant history of the Whig Party in America from its birth (in response to Andrew Jackson) to its death (in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act).

The first party system of Democratic-Republicans versus Federalists had ended with the fading away of the Federalists during James Monroe’s presidency, as we shall see. Beginning in 1824, the Democratic Republicans split into two factions, one headed by Andrew Jackson, which became the Democracy, and one by Henry Clay, which became the Whig Party. The name Whig harked back to the time of the American Revolution, when the Whig party, which was seen as the friend of the colonists’ cause, as opposed to the Tories, who were the party of the old landed interests and the King.

Just as the English Whigs represented wealthy merchants and the emerging industrial interests, so in America Whigs tended to advocate government support for manufacturing and what they called internal improvements, meaning construction and improvement first of canals and then of railroads. Whigs saw Jackson as a monarchical reactionary who was both uncomprehending of, and hostile to, modernizing forces that were transforming the country.

The Democratic-Republicans who formed the Whig party were led by Senator Henry Clay and (former president) Congressman John Quincy Adams. Clay devised what he called the American System, consisting of high external tariffs (to protect nascent American industry), support for a flexible money supply based on a national bank, and an extensive program of road and canal construction (this being before the era of railroads) funded by revenue from the sale of public lands, given proportionately to the various states. Jackson opposed the whole program, pretty successfully..

Perhaps the chief asset of the Whig Party was its support from Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, which circulated, in a weekly edition, far across the northwestern territory. But his was only the most important of many Whig newspapers. The Whigs particularly attracted professionals, bankers, merchants, factory owners, and larger farmers and planters. But the Whigs lost ground throughout the 1840s, as the Democracy won the votes of most Irish Catholic and German immigrants, and more and more of the western states. The Democrats argued that Clay’s American System would create a politically powerful caste of rich aristocrats.

The central issue in the 1840s was Manifest Destiny. Most Democrats supported it, even if it meant war with Great Britain over Oregon and/or war with Mexico over Texas. Most Whigs opposed it. There was no American consensus for imperialism. But, as we have seen, Manifest Destiny led to the Mexican War, which led to the acquisition of new territory, which led to disputes over the expansion or containment of slavery. That’s what destroyed the Whig party (and created the Republican Party), and that’s what would split the Democracy a few years later. Once slavery became the predominant issue in American political life, economic alignments became secondary.

In 1848, the Free Soil party opened a crack in the Whig ranks, but they won nonetheless. Staunch old Zachary Taylor was firmly opposed to the Compromise of 1850, and committed to the admission of California as a free state. He had promised to take military action to prevent secession, if necessary, but in July 1850, he died, and the Compromise – which had been first proposed by the Clay – passed. Included in the Compromise was the Fugitive Slave Act, which made reconciliation of the sections impossible.

By 1852, anti-slavery Whigs were strong enough to deny re-nomination to Millard Fillmore, but were not strong enough to get their own candidate elected, losing to Democrat Franklin Pierce. Then, in 1854, came Kansas-Nebraska, and the foundation of the Republican Party.

On March 20, 1854, in Ripon, Wisconsin, a new anti-slavery party took its name. Its first official party convention took place in Jackson, Michigan, four months later. The new party drew Northern men from the Whigs, the Free Soilers, and anti-slavery activists in general, including Democrats who couldn’t stomach Kansas-Nebraska. In 1856, under the slogan “free labor, free land, free men,” the Republicans nominated explorer John C. Fremont, for president, and did well enough to show that it was the new political power in the North. By 1858, the Republicans dominated the Northern states.

The Republican Party came to power in 1860, of course, with Lincoln’s election and Republican control of Congress and most Northern state governments.

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