March 09, 2009

What's in a Name-The American Whigs

We have now considered the politics of the mid nineteenth century United States and why the "Democrats" the party that still exists today chosethat name initially. But what about their less successful rivals-the Whigs? What was the basis for their name? It took a long time for them to settle on this nominator -which only came into common usage in the mid/ late 1830's.

The immediate historical resonance of the name would have been the "Whigs" in the sense of "Patriots"- that is those who had opposed George III's (in American eyes) arbitrary personal rule and stood up for the rights of the colonial legislatures. They in turn had intended were seeking to bring a resonance with the British Whigs of the late 17th and early 18th century-who at least in American popular memory had opposed the arbitrary powers of kings and stood up for the rights of the legislature. It should be noted if had next to nothing directly to do with the "Whigs" of early 19Th century Britain-whose connection to the earlier Whig party was extremely tenuous.

The Whigs started off as a coalition of those opposed to Andrew Jackson-and in particularly his supposedly arbitrary and personal rule. Many southerners in the Whigs professed admiration for Jackson but were clearly uncomfortable with his latter policies on banking for example. Many argued that his use of the veto was an example of this. The US President in a legacy of the British monarchy can veto legislation. This is used fairly routinely today but in the early republic there was a widespread consensus that it should be used sparingly and only when the president believed the legislation unconstitutional. Jackson was the first president to use it when he just disliked a policy.

Even his constitutional veto's were more common (he vetoed more bills than all previous five presidents put together) and more controversial The Whigs generally took a more "loose" view of the Constitution-simply the "general welfare" power of Congress included the bank so congress could authorize it. The Democrats took a stricter one pointing to the lack of any specific banking power and the 10th amendment's limitation on the powers of the federal government.

Together these veto's were seen as a revival of monarchical power in the eyes of Jack sons' critics reminiscent of George III in its dangers. A new Whigs were needed to counteract this dangerous threat. Indeed the Whigs were to make a fetish of objecting to the Veto. Whig presidential candidates would make opposition to it a major part of their platform-it was a frequent Harrison pledge for example.

The economic agenda of the (or rather most) Whigs as outlined here fit in well with this view of the presidents function. The structure of congress was such as to provide at least an element of the Whigs' programme naturally. In particular congressmen would "log roll" internal improvements . Moreover at least earlier in Jackson's tenure congress was fairly supportive of the bank and even opponents of the bank were often sympathetic to a bank.For example one in the District of Columbia(not a sovereign state of the Union) rather than one that hind ed state rights by being in a state Pennsylvania and immune from Pennsylvanian states taxes. This proposal many Southerners who supported Jackson in 1832 were keen on. Thus the veto was the most obvious obstacle to so much of the Whig programme.

Similarly the Whig Programme had prospered in the era of "no party" often dubiously called "the era of good feelings"-where the Republicans were so dominant the distinctions had cracked down. A new bank had been rechartered and a programme of internal improvements and the like had flourished. It was Jackson's party or the "democrats" who seemed to provide an effective obstacle to this. Inspired by Van Buren they embraced a party in principle-as an obstacle to big government and "aristocracy". The earlier Whigs (though they soon forget this) tended to see themselves as a machine with a temporary function to break this party-to end "tyrannical" and "monarchical" rule and then return to this lost golden age. This was another reason to take this name it emphasised their temporary nature-at least at first. The very fact that the earlier "Whigs" had died after the American revolution/ War of Independence had succeeded was the very model the latter Whigs wanted to take. Jackson and Van Buren were the wicked Tories of the day seeking to promote arbitrary government and forging a party to threaten republicanism.

However it was another action of Jackson which for Whigs was pro bally the most outrageous. This was the removal of the deposits. In this Jackson withdrew the deposits from the Bank of the United States before its charter was up . This sent it it into bankruptcy and in the short term causing a massive contraction of credit partly deliberately encouraged by the banks management in a counterproductive effort to cause public outrage against Jackson. But for Whigs (including many who were Jackson men in 1832) this was simply an abuse of power- Congress had chartered the bank to hold government deposits. Jackson was behaving like George III-and down this route lay the prospect of a new George III-a tyranny crushing free born Americans under foot. Like Charles I Jackson had removed subordinates who refused to go along with his wishes. Ironically subsequent scholars have provided convincing reasons why Jack sons actions may well have been constitutional. Nonetheless the Whigs outrage was sincere. Indeed a majority of the Senate (including former supporters censured Jackson-only for the Democratic Party to regain control and then obedient to Jackson to the last expunge the censure's very record. This in turn further fed Whig fear and paranoia that the days of monarchy were returning.

This concern about the arbitrary nature of Jack sons actions there could appeal to politicians and voters who did not share the normal Whig economic programme. The same was even more true of outrage over another Jackson act-his opposition to the attempts by South Carolina to ignore federal custom duties and to refuse to pay them. Jackson supposedly threatened to "hang them higher than Haman" if resistance was given to federal officials. The great leader of dissent on this was John C Calhoun who helped found the Whigs even though his views on most issues were in agreements with the extreme end of the Southern Democratic party -very pro slavery and more relevantly very hostile to most activities of the federal government(tariffs for example)-indeed Calhoun helped give the Whigs initial control of Congress and censure Jackson over the deposit removal. Though he left them shortly afterwards some sympathisers remained in the Whig party. One of them John Tyler was the successful Whig candidate for vice president in 1840 ( a decision made very casually). Then President Harrison died and Tyler ended up using the veto to frustrate the large majority of the Whig economic platform-and then by annexing Texas beginning the Territorial expansion that the Whigs were to make a major cause of opposing. This life is full of ironies and the Tyler presidency is a useful reminder of this fact. Jackson created a coalition of opponents whose own divisions were huge and explosive.

This picture shows Jackson as the Whigs saw him as wittingly or unwittingly a King threatening tyranny to the United States.


Vino S said...

Interesting article. Do you see any ideological similarity between the Whigs of the 19th century in Britain and in the US? Both seem to have an opposition to monarchical power, but the Whigs in Britain seemed to be in favour of widening the franchise and a less strident state church [issues that had already been resolved in the US].

Also, I read that the main party in Liberia was called the True Whig Party in the 19th and 20th centuries. Interesting how the name lived on in what was the US's only African 'colony'.

lady macleod said...

I feel very informed, now how to start a conversation today with my manicurist so I can off handedly ease this into the conversation?

Sulla said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sulla said...

Vilno as fellow Anglo Saxon countries I'd say there were obviously similarities but allowing for that they just don't see that similar to me. Their names and ideology have a common historical root-but beyond the fear of the executive little in common. Even there the British Whigs are arguably mainly hostile to an active political role by the Crown-not the executive in the way the American Whigs are at least initally.

I'd say the British Whigs were much less pro wide franchise than the American- by the 1860's they were arguably dubious about the 1868 reforms. I think it depends on time period how much ht Whigs want a less "strident" or disestablished state church. Incidentally those groups who had supported / benefited from the New England established churches the previous political generated. voted overwhelmingly Whig.

The Liberian "True Whig" Party was i'm pretty certain inspired by the American one. The Whigs were more pro black and anti-slavery and tended to be overrepresented in colonization societies (societies that sought to colonize Blacks "back" to Africa) . Henry Clay for examples a slave owner who didn't like slavery was a huge supporter. And it was essentially out of this Liberia came into existance-why it was independent long before nearly all other African states.

Lady Macleod lol- perhaps say you "know the Democrats used to oppose black people voting" or something of that nature! :)