Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Whigs, An Introduction to the Series

This post introduces a series dealing with the Southern Whigs. 
At this juncture, I’m taking a detour from the main narrative on Alcorn to address an important aspect of Reconstruction that is, I’ve come to believe, less a thread woven into the story’s fabric than it is the material basic to the weave. I refer to the Southern Whigs. My objectives in this brief series are to provide the reader with the evolution of the Whig Party and its role in the South and to identify the Southern Whig’s role during Reconstruction, which is my ultimate purpose for this adjunct. For a detailed history of the Whig Party, I refer the reader to Michael Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party and to Arthur Charles Cole’s The Whig Party in the South. Holt’s book is a monster, weighing in at 985 pages in the paperback, and that does not include the notes, but the work is an essential reference for those interested in the subject. Cole’s 1911 doctoral dissertation (it was published in 1913 and is now in the public domain) remains the definitive history of the Whig Party in the South.

The American Whig Party emerged from a split between the Madisonian-leaning, Federalist-infiltrated National Republicans and the Old Republicans, the latter being the primary branch of the Jeffersonian Republican Party. The National Republicans represented the monied, industrial, and banking interests of the Northeast, adhering to government promotion of a national economic program, more in line with the old Federalist doctrines, tempered by kinder/gentler “Madisonism.” The Old Republicans, truer in spirit to our third president, represented the populist, democratic ideals of the common man in the South and West who believed less government computed to greater individual liberty. Jeffersonian Republicans had despised Federalists back in the day of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams and were appalled by this growing faction within the old party. 

During the eight years of Andrew Jackson’s presidency (1829-1837), men from both factions of the Jeffersonian Republicans and from all sections of the country embraced the Whig Party in opposition to an overreaching executive, a factor that took primacy over the conflicting interests of the participating allies. In the end, some twenty years later, these conflicting interests proved a greater (negative) impact on the Whig Party than the anti-Jacksonian cause that had given birth to it. These conflicts, which resulted in its demise, were inherent to the Whig Party from its inception. As far as I’m concerned, these issues, which dealt, fundamentally, with the role of the national government and the role of the states in the Federal system were major disconnects. I will delve deeper into the highpoints in upcoming posts, and I will do so more to focus on the principles and evolution of the Southern Whig and his growing estrangement from his Northern fellows than to narrate the history of the party. For now, suffice it to say that Southern Whigs, like all things Southern, were a different breed from their Northern counterparts. I’d go so far as to suggest the only true Whigs were the Southern ones and the Northern ones were really Federalists in drag, but as my faithful readers know, I am prejudiced in my opinions; furthermore, I’m a far cry from being an expert on Whigs.

In reading histories of that long-ago war, one often reads/hears the term “unionist” bandied about in reference to some Southerners. More often than not, its antecedent is a Southern Whig, but this allusion demands clarification. Southern Whigs, though they idolized Henry Clay and espoused the “principles” of the Whig Party (or what they perceived the principles of the Whig Party to be), did indeed love the “Union”, but not as the inviolable entity Daniel Webster claimed  to have predated the states—that is New England hogwash. Southern Whigs adhered to the Union for the safety and stability it afforded them under the Constitution in the routine conduct of their business and daily lives. If you’ll recall, one of Alcorn’s primary reasons for accepting the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 was because kowtowing was the means by which Mississippi could re-enter the nation, get her representation back in Congress, receive the protection provided by the Constitution, and divest herself of the Yankee contagion—okay, those last are my words.  

Southern Whigs were the largest and wealthiest group of slave-owners in the South. During the antebellum years, they often dominated politics in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana, and they had healthy pluralities in a number of other Southern states. During the twenty-odd years spanning the party’s existence, Whigs represented thirty percent (roughly one-third) of the voters and members of the legislature in Mississippi. As a group, these men opposed secession both in theory and in fact, but when the Democratic fire-eaters won out and war came, the Whigs backed their states and their region with money, with arms, and with their blood. For those who do not realize it, opposition to secession and opposition to slavery are two different things, just as being a unionist does not mean being “pro-North,” but rather expresses a preference for the status quo. Drawing such simplistic parallels is worthy only of non-thinking adherents to the modern mainstream’s revision of Civil War history. When the choice finally had to be made, the vast majority of Southern Whigs never questioned where their loyalties lay. Oh, yes, Whigs always questioned Democrats, and they questioned the wisdom of Jefferson Davis, but not out of love for Lincoln or Union or a belief in freedom for the black man. Those particular questions sprang from love for the South and the principles of our Founders’ Republic and the very real danger now threatening their way of life. Perhaps Southern Whigs never belonged in the Whig Party any more than their states belonged in a Federal union perverted by Northern economic interests.  

Next time a more detailed look at the embryonic Whig Party and the rise of the Southern Whig.
Thanks for reading,  



  1. This article goes very well with the book I'm currently reading, Thomas J. DiLorenzo's "Lincoln Unmasked" which mentions Northern Whigs but not much else about them.

  2. Karen, I hope to show by the end of this series the significant divide within the party from the start--that being the difference in principles and goals between the Northern & Southern wings--as well as the role Southern Whigs played in Southern politics throughout Reconstruction & Redemption---and beyond. I've only a superficial knowledge of the Southern Whigs, but their role from ante-bellum times onward was very important, not only in the South, but within the Whig Party itself.


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