March 08, 2009

Whigs and Democrats Partisanship and Policy

America has had the same two parties overwhelmingly dominate all but one election since the 1860’s –a record unmatched by any other Democracy. The Democratic Party dates back in fairly clear institutional continuity (broken slightly in 1860 ) to at least the late 1830’s or even befor. This author would date it to the 1820’s at the absolute earliest though other’s would date it to Jefferson’s party confusingly called the Republicans- to the bafflement of generations of students).

The Republican Party on the other hand is a much younger party dating back to at the earliest the early 1850’s. They first won a Presidential Election in 1860 and first came second in 1856. However in 1852 there were two parties that got an overwhelmingly majority of the vote over 90% of the vote. As the above implies one of these parties was the Democrats the other was the Whigs.

The Whigs unquestionably were a united National Party by 1840-at least outside the South they built very heavily on the National Republican Party that had dominated New England in the 1820’s Even in the South they built on the “White “Presidential Movement that had been strong in the South in 1836 and the roots of which can be seen beforehand.

So what separated the two parties? The clearest distinctions in this period were in national economic policy-where the lines were as clear as those which separate Democrats and Republicans today. Andrew Jackson the Democratic party's first president had been a huge opponent of the bank of the United States ( a private-public partnership which had essentially performed the functions of a weak central bank) and his party followed him. Indeed in the Presidency of Martin Van Buren they went so far as to seek to place government deposits in secure safes rather than banks! .The Whigs were much more sympathetic to a government bank (though were often not outright supporters-almost certainly the product of fear) and to private and public partnerships. Similarly the Whigs were much more supportive of government expenditure on roads and other internal improvement than the Democrats (who often supported them anyway). Democrats often argued that “internal improvements” were unconstitutional due to lack of a specific part of the constitution saying the federal government could fund such.. Finally the Whigs were in favour of higher tariffs partly to pay for these improvements and partly to "protect" business

The parties also varied on slavery though less so. The Key difference on the issue was not on party lines but between those states where slavery was legal (the “south”) and those where it was banned (the North”) and even between smaller sub regions New England for example was notorious for its anti-slavery zeal widely allocated at the time to religious fanaticism. But it would be fair to say the Whigs were the more hostile to slavery. In the North those who believed the federal government should seek to ban slavery on “federal territory” (that is territory owned by no state) were mostly Whigs. Those who believed it should be decided by white men locally who could do what they wanted were Democrats. In the South those who were most fervent in defending “southern” and slave owner’s rights were mostly Democrats.

These concerns were reflected at the state level though the debate often varied from state to state. It’s important to remember that in America in this period most functions of government were performed at the state level. Indeed there is a strong case that for most regulatory functions the United States government was less relevant to the American of this period than the EU is for the average Brit today.

Again divisions were sharper on economics. Whigs supported higher spending on economic development particularly on transportation whether Railways (the early 19th century equivalent of the internet) or Canals. They also sought to promote banking including government banks that operated as a form of weak central bank. Democrats varied in their attitude to banking. In some states they were for free" (ie more or less unegulated) banking in other states they placed enormous restrictions on it and even on the use of bills of exchange. But their hostility to government involvement in banking was fairy consistent. In most states government involvement in the economy dived the parties clearly

There were differences though on other issues-though not necessarily so clearly. In society and welfare as with the economy the Whigs were the party of more active government- and they were also the party of uplift and piety. They tended to be more fervently in favour of regulations to control social behaviour- whether restrictions on alcohol, sexual behaviour, on the rights of immigrants. They were more likely to support schools to improve the labour force (and to promote Protestantism and other values they saw as Americans). They were more hostile to any hint of violence or revlution-they tended to be for penal reform -and were also much hostile to the "Dorr" rebellion to attaain universal white manhood suffrage in Rhode Island (leading northern Democrats like Martin Van Buren by contrast were fairly sympathetic.)

The Whigs were more sympathetic to recognising African Americans claims (whichwas often not much). In the South Whigs were more likely to support regulations that restricted the “freedom” of slave owners (to separate married slave couples for example). In the North Whigs were much more likely to support the vote and other rights for African Americans- it helped that African Americans cast their very few votes overwhelmingly in favour of the Whigs in what became a self sustaining cycle.

The picture by the way is of the 1844 election- the election the two parties were most closely balanced- the greatest leader of the Whigs Henry Clay was beaten by James K Polk.

I hope to explore the philosophy and coaltions of the two parties-and some of the great historical literature . For now I hope i have given some insight into both how different the issues were of the era- and how much they mattered. Indeed registered voters were actaully more likely to turn out than they are in the modern US.