Are the Republicans Going the Way of the Whigs?

One often hears commentators argue that the Republican party is in danger of following the Whig party into oblivion. The implication is that the Whig party was as out of place in the modern world as the Stegosaurus, and that the contemporary Republicans resemble them in their quaint archaism. This is of course unfair to the Whigs, who on most cultural, economic, and moral issues were more forward thinking than the Democrats of the Jacksonian era were, and, as the pro-business party of their era, embraced a noblesse oblige public spiritedness very different from the predatory social Darwinism of their immediate successors, the Republicans of the Gilded Age. More than this, however, the analogy betrays an inaccurate understanding of what brought the Whig party down.

The Whig party was destroyed because it sought compromise and accommodation on issues about which the majority of Americans had chosen to confront each other. This choice put them on the wrong side, or more precisely on neither side, of the defining issue of their day, the conflict over slavery. Northern and Southern Whigs alike mostly opposed the Mexican War. Their reasons differed, but their aims were the same. Northern Whigs opposed the Mexican War because they saw it as an immoral war of aggression designed to secure more territory for the expansion of slavery. Southern Whigs opposed the Mexican War because they (correctly) feared that divisions about the future of slavery in the conquered territories would disrupt the Union.

In one of the smaller ironies of history the most important commanders in the Mexican War were Whigs, and both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott would run for the presidency at the head of Whig tickets. Taylor, although the owner of a large Louisiana plantation, pursued what amounted to antislavery policies. When he came into office in 1849 Californians had already organized a state government on a free-state basis, and Taylor sought the immediate admission of California to the Union, tilting the political balance in the Senate to the Free States. To foreclose contention about the future of the rest of the land seized from Mexico, the Utah and New Mexico territories, Taylor sought their immediate admission as states as well, bypassing a period of territorial government under federal supervision. Utah and New Mexico too would have entered the union as free states, since their sparse populations opposed slavery, which had been forbidden under Mexican law. Taylor’s strategy proved too confrontational for his party’s leaders in Congress, who embraced instead the Compromise of 1850, in which admission of California as a free state, the end of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and settlement of the Texas border in New Mexico’s favor, were balanced against the Fugitive Slave Act, the federal assumption of the Texas national debt, and a discrete silence about the future of slavery in Utah and New Mexico.

The Compromise of 1850 was mostly embraced by the desperate minority factions of both parties, the Southern Whigs and the Northern Democrats, who amounted to about a quarter of Congress. Both compromising factions represented wings of parties whose center of gravity was in the other section, and neither could prosper under conditions of intense sectional confrontation. The package deal designed by Henry Clay and defended by Daniel Webster, both dying Whig giants, served only to unite antislavery Northern Whigs and proslavery Southern Democrats against the compromise. Democrat Stephen Douglas was able to save the compromise only by separating its measures, so that the compromisers and the Northern Whigs could give a majority vote to the north-favoring measures and the compromisers and the Southern Democrats could give a majority vote to the south-favoring measures.

The result was a compromise that neither side felt bound by, except to the extent that professing allegiance to it could give them a pretext to blame the other side for its failure. Repelled by the Fugitive Slave Act, the Whigs repudiated the compromise in their 1852 platform, but mollified Southern Whigs by nominating Winfield Scott, who had favored the compromise. Democrats destroyed Scott’s candidacy by demanding to know whether he supported his party’s platform; Scott could not afford to answer the question either way, and went down to disastrous defeat, bringing the Whigs’ chances as a national party down with him.

Despite the catastrophe of the 1852 elections, the rump of the Whig party continued to seek to mediate the conflict over slavery. Sam Houston and John Bell, both southern Whigs, for instance, opposed the 1854 Kansas Nebraska Act, which reopened to slavery most of region where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. They felt that this act would enflame sectional tensions over slavery in a way that would possibly destroy the union (and would certainly destroy their party), and they did not see the point of a conflict over slavery in regions which were mostly too dry or too cold to grow cotton anyway. They hoped to make common cause with northern Whigs against the Act, on the basis of a claim that the Act was inflammatory and inexpedient. Once northern Free Soilers, led by figures like Salmon Chase and Charles Sumner (who had been Democrats rather than Whigs), took the position that the Kansas Nebraska Act was (in their words) “an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own States, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves,” Northern Whigs could no longer oppose the Kansas Nebraska Act as being merely “inexpedient” but had to see it as the fruit of a sectional conspiracy (as it can still plausibly, but inaccurately, be said to be). This put southern Whigs in an impossible position. They could unite with northern Whigs against the bill if they both saw it as inexpedient and divisive, but they could not unite with northern Whigs who made this conspiracy charge without being seen as sectional traitors. They could not save themselves by supporting the Kansas Nebraska Act either, because they could not hope to beat the Democrats in the race to the bottom they had long been engaged in, since the southern Democrats had been holding a knife to the throat of the union for years.

The debate over the Kansas Nebraska Act destroyed the last shred of legitimacy of the Whig party in the South. But the Whig party had a kind of afterlife in the American party, better known as the Know Nothings. In the North, the Know Nothings drove down the Whigs by frankly embracing the Nativism the Whigs had always approached ambiguously. In the South, however, the Know Nothings were not a nativist party but a unionist one; it was where unionist Whigs had to go once there was no longer a Whig party to call home. Even in Illinois in the presidential election of 1856, the Know Nothings’ Millard Fillmore (who in fact did not have any deep nativist convictions) mostly appealed to former Whigs who feared the Republican Frémont’s radicalism about slavery and opposed Buchanan’s pro-Southern leanings. As late as 1860, the so called Constitutional Union party, led by two unionist Whigs, John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts, and whose platform consisted of nothing but a promise “to recognize no political principle other than the Constitution of the country, the Union of the states, and the Enforcement of the Laws,” kept alive the cautious, and it must be said fatuous, compromising habits of the Whigs. But the Constitutional Unionists were not a joke. The 1860 election was essentially two separate elections, with the Douglas Democrats and the Republicans competing in the northern states and the Constitutional Unionists competing with the Breckinridge Democrats in the South. Bell’s party ran respectably in the border South, winning the electoral votes of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. And Bell’s supporters played key roles in the creation of West Virginia and in keeping Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri loyal to the Union.

Nobody could say that the contemporary Republican party is being destroyed, as the Whigs were, by an obsession with compromise. If the Republican party of the last two decades resembles anything, it resembles the southern Democrats of the 1850s. They share with the 1850s southern Democrats not only their intransigent rule or ruin mentality, but also their ultimately suicidal quest for purity of commitment, in which party leaders compete to show their loyalty to extremist principles in ever more extravagant ways and are quick to brand even the slightest hesitation within their party as a kind of treason. The 1850s southern Democrats did not collapse as the Whigs did, and indeed kept their political cohesion well past their defeat in the Civil War. Although divided along class lines into Populist and Redeemer factions at the end of the nineteenth century, they nevertheless were able to enforce political conformity on racial issues from their defeat of Reconstruction to the first stirrings of the Civil Rights movement in the Truman Administration. In their singleminded ideological ferocity despite their profound divisions, contemporary Republicans resemble the 1850s southern Democrats, not the Whigs. Unlike the Whigs, the 1850s southern Democrats did not collapse. They forced the collapse of the Union instead.

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