The Political Culture of the American Whigs
Daniel Walker Howe, 1979
So election season is finally (mostly) over. Gone is the simplicity
of looking at polls involving candidates you'd never heard of and
knowing whom to root for based on the formula
Soon the Democrats will control the White House and both houses of
Congress. Committee chairs are being handed out. Obama is picking
his cabinet. And that (D) doesn't tell you a whole lot when everyone
in contention for a post has one after his or her name. Especially
since the Republicans have moved so far right over the years that the
Democratic Party now encompasses pretty much the entirety of the
isn't actively trying to bring about the end of days.
Political parties were not intended to be part of the structure of
the US government, but they sprang up pretty much immediately, as
the founders quickly divided themselves into coalitions of Federalists
and . However,
once the Federalists lost power in 1800, they never got it back:
upon attaining power, the Republicans adopted most of the
and the Federalist Party, which had opposed the War of 1812, essentially
dissolved in a that
followed the conclusion of that war. This left the US as a one-party
state. And I suppose that could have been that — from 1801
to 1829 we had one Republican government after another, with each
president's Secretary of State becoming the next president, and there's
nothing that says that sort of thing couldn't have gone on indefinitely.
What actually happened is what seems to me the more likely outcome:
after one ,
rivalries sprang up, and without a multiparty system to organize the
proceedings, the next election wound up as a four-way clusterfuck in
which no one secured a majority of the popular vote. Andrew Jackson
led with 99 electoral votes, but the House of Representatives elected
John Quincy Adams president.
What followed, according to all my old history classes, was a stopgap
two-party system in which Jackson's Democratic Party was opposed by a
collection of windbags and decrepit generals with no coherent ideology
who called themselves the Whigs. Daniel Walker Howe argues in this
book that all my old history classes were wrong and that Whiggery was
not just a cohesive strain of thought but actually a regional subculture
within antebellum America. It's quite a decent book: packed with ideas,
clearly laid out. Maybe I'll read his new one someday.
One of the reasons I read this book was that I'm very interested in
the way two-party systems sort of "choose up sides" where beliefs are
concerned. In the past I've used the example of Dennis Miller, who
hitched himself to the Republican wagon a few years back. When people
asked why, he said that "9/11 changed me," but while that might explain
his support for the wars, what does 9/11 have to do with going on The
Tonight Show to dismiss global warming as a hoax? You can say that
they're both parts of the Republican package, but why is that the package?
The Whigs serve as an interesting illustration that there's nothing
preordained about our current arrangement of bedfellows.
So what did the Whigs believe? First of all, they believed in
beliefs — specifically, that political affiliations should be
based on them. One reason it took the Whigs so long to coalesce is that
they shared George Washington's loathing of
"factions," which they considered to be little more than conspiracies.
Exhibit A was the Democratic Party, which in their minds was simply
a gang attempting to win the presidency in order to grab the money and
power and perks that went along with it, which Andrew Jackson would then
parcel out like a bank robber divvying up the big score among his henchmen.
It wasn't until the mid-1830s that they decided that it was okay to form
an official organization, so long as it was based on ideology and not
just a matter of mutual back-scratching.
As for that ideology, Howe's account suggests that a starting point might
be to think of the Whigs as the American Victorians. They believed in
"faculty psychology," the notion that the self functions on a hierarchy
of different levels: the purely physical "mechanical" level; the
instinctive, emotion-driven "animal" level; and the "rational" level
from which conscience sprang. The proper goal of a virtuous person was
to achieve a harmonious balance among the levels, using reason to
and abilities. Whigs were very big on "internal improvement." And that
went for both individuals and for the nation.
I was never very good at the first Civilization because the rules
were somewhat unbalanced. See, every AI civilization was given a value
that represented where it fell on the scale ranging from "perfectionistic"
(adding every possible building to every city as it becomes available) to
"expansionistic" (continuing to build new cities even if the current ones
aren't all they could be). In theory, you were supposed to find a happy
medium between these two approaches. In practice, the best strategy was
to plop down as many cities as you possibly could, building nothing in
them but the occasional barracks and not letting them grow past two or
three population units. The Whigs would have been horrified! While the
Democrats talked up America's "Manifest Destiny" to gobble up as much of
the Western Hemisphere as it could, the Whigs' signature issue was
infrastructure: more canals, more roads, more marketplaces, more schools,
more libraries... in short, more civilization in the territory the US
already held. If they'd had their way I'd be posting this from Mexico.
The Whigs had a number of reasons for opposing American expansionism.
Chief among them was that the part of America in line to do most
of the expanding was the southern half, and the socioeconomic system that
reigned there was anathema to the Whigs. The Whigs envisioned an America
of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, preferably evangelical Protestants,
living in medium-sized towns: not overflowing cities, not frontier hamlets,
and certainly not isolated plantations, but relatively self-sufficient
towns based on commerce and industry, supported by protectionist tariffs.
Note that the word they used was "commerce," not "trade." Commerce meant
internal exchanges within a diversified economy; trade meant that your
entire society specialized in one thing — say, growing
cotton — and foolishly hoped to be able to exchange that for
the necessities of life year after year on the unpredictable global market.
Another drawback of the plantation system, Whigs argued, was the way it
created a hereditary aristocracy. Not that they had anything against
social class: Whigs believed that just as one's baser instincts must
yield to one's higher nature, so too must the common man defer to his
betters. But they didn't believe that superiority was conferred by
accident of birth. Rather, they embraced industrial capitalism in the
belief that, coupled with access to moral and scholarly education, it
allowed hard-working, innovative people to flex their entrepreneurial
spirit and rise to the top. The companies these industrialists created
would enrich not just themselves but the commoners they employed, leading
to a rising tide of prosperity for all. This was a concern to some, for
as inheritors of America's puritanical tradition, Whigs were deeply
suspicious of "luxury" as a catalyst for spiritual decline. But the
argument that won the day was that, on the contrary, only the prosperous
could afford to be moral — that people in dire financial
straits are easy prey to the temptations of crime and gambling and the
escapism of liquor and debauchery. Whigs hoped to steer the lower
classes away from these ills by means of a living wage —
along with a long work day, a strict curfew, church on Sunday, and in
general treating them like children. I've written in the past about
how Americans have a disturbing tendency to imagine that the country
is a big family and that every four years they vote for a dad; the
Whigs' socioeconomic policy made this connection so explicit that it
came to be called "paternalism."
I found this philosophy very interesting in that it lies so far outside
our current political spectrum. This is far from scientific, but I went
to politicalcompass.org and
filled out the questionnaire according to Whig principles. The shaded
region below represents the current range of American discourse as
determined by the site itself. You've got your social conservatives at
the top corner, your corporate conservatives at the right corner, and
the Green Party at the lower left corner; the Democrats fall in the
middle of the triangle at about (4, 4). And the red dot represents
They aren't even in the same quadrant as any modern American political
figures! And when you try to imagine a modern Whig, it's a little
strange: clamoring both for school prayer and mass transit? Protesting
both Wal-Mart and Planned Parenthood? But then again, I suppose it
stands to reason that this juxtaposition seems weird. After all...
in the marketplace of ideas, the Whigs lost. Outside of , Whiggery never
gained much traction. And as a result, west of the
Mississippi — hell, west of the Hudson — America
didn't fill up with clean, well-policed industrial towns full of sober,
educated, churchgoing Victorians. Instead, as the Whigs predicted, we
got the Wild West.
Return to the Calendar page!