Sunday, May 11, 2014
I recently finished a tome I affectionately refer to as “Dad’s Whig Book,” and I’d like to deviate from my series on Mississippi’s Whig, John Lusk Alcorn, and do a review of Michael Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. I’m holding my local Whig in abeyance, so to speak, for the bigger picture. As an aside, it wasn’t me who dubbed that 985-page monster “Dad’s Whig Book.” That honor belongs to his kids. From sheer size alone, I can guess the work impacted their lives to no small extent, just as it’s had a harmless impact on mine for months now. I can no longer stay up and read until the wee hours of the morning, evening respites put me to sleep. I have, therefore, taken to rising ahead of everyone else still hanging around the old homestead and making myself a cup of coffee. I then relax for an hour or more with my book of choice. For months now, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party has helped me usher in daybreak; and though now anxious to dive into supplementary reading to build on all I’ve learned, I’m gonna miss it.
The book is neither a difficult read, nor an easy one. You need to be interested in the political history of the period leading up to the War Between the States. Doctor Holt is witty and entertaining. He also possesses extensive knowledge of his subject and is meticulous in his research. He has one hundred and ninety-three pages of footnotes nestled onto the end—I read every one (some are quite meaty)—and twenty pages of bibliography. I’ve already made my list of what to read next.
The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party is a detailed history of that party from its founding in 1833 as the primary opposition to the Democratic Party, through its demise and the rise of the Republican Party, dark child of its northern wing [my take on the Republican Party, not Professor Holt’s]. The Whig Party’s tumultuous twenty plus years highlight the men and the forces that led to sectionalism and finally war. One of the things I particularly liked was the detail with which Professor Holt delves into politics within the individual states and how the needs/demands of the states affected politics/political parties at the national level. In my opinion, one can’t develop a good appreciation for what went wrong without those details.
Though the book is about the Whig Party, its story cannot be complete without reference to the Democratic Party (primarily) and the third parties prone to pop up in 19th C. politics (i.e. Free Soil, Nativist, and the Know Nothings), which proved adept at provoking a reaction from the Whigs. Over the party’s lifetime, Whig reactions led to the perversion of Whig policies until, in the end, the party no longer represented its core values—at least not with enough constituents to sustain itself. And another point: the leadership of these splinter parties did not necessarily mean new faces on the political scene—some of these characters jumped from one party to the next depending on ideals, egos, the mindset of their constituents, and/or the social mores of the day—among other reasons. I think of such lapses in character as political “expediency.”
The book deals with politics. Comparatively speaking there is less detail given to economic conditions and political corruption within both parties at the local, state, and national levels. I infer such corruption must have been rampant given the sudden rise of the Know-Nothings in the early 1850s and the havoc their “no party” philosophy created for both Whigs and Democrats. I do not fault the author for this—the book is already just under 1,000 pages and its focus is politics. I am merely informing the reader. For economics and corruption I suggest consulting Professor Holt’s bibliography.
I loved the work, but though Professor Holt admits an admiration for the Whig Party, I do not. Nor do I suffer from admiration for the Democrat or Republican Parties. For me, political parties are necessary evils—kind of like disease to keep populations in check. But political forces make and break nations, they wage war, and impact our daily lives. I simply want to understand and be able to discuss the driving forces of that era, which led to disunion and the subsequent destruction of the South and with it the Republic. In his conclusion, Professor Holt alludes to his possibly being identified as a purveyor of the now discredited argument that a “blundering generation of narrow-minded or misguided political leaders” were the cause of the Civil War. Shoot, I didn’t know it was discredited. Apparently today the official (historian’s) line is that “the war’s coming…resulted from basic social, economic, and ideological differences between the sections deriving from the presence of African-American slavery in the South and its absence from the North. In its cruder—and more common—formulation, the ‘forces’ that caused the war were self-generating and operated toward their inevitable conclusion almost without the need of human agency.”
[Gee whiz, I do believe the proponents of this argument are saying “it was nobody’s fault.” Are you kidding me? Well, darn, that pretentious, politically-correct reference to “African-American slavery” vice just “slavery” speaks volumes about not only the argument’s recent evolution but also the mindset of whoever formulated this latest analysis of the causes of the Civil War. I hope not one drop of Southern blood flows through their veins. Oh, well, no matter what, I’d bet my next paycheck it didn’t emanate from the brain of a Southern layman. We know what caused the war—Yankees, that’s what. Yankees who didn’t live up to their side of the bargain and betrayed us! There. You have it in a nutshell.]
Seriously, Professor Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party leaves no doubt in my mind that selfish, hate-filled, and “expedient” politicians played a major role in causing the Civil War—not that I believed differently when I started the book. Economics most definitely played a role as did ideological differences over slavery—fed, more often than not, by the above mentioned selfish, hate-filled, and “expedient” politicians of the day. Professor Holt, page after page, showed ’em doing it. “…self-generating and operated toward their inevitable conclusion almost without the need of human agency” my patootie!
The book is an excellent asset to any student of that period. If you like attempting to figure out what went wrong, you’ll love this work. I can’t promise you’ll come to any conclusion—other than there were alot of folks at fault—but you will enjoy the journey.
I’ll be back with my Mississippi Whig next time.
Thanks for reading,