Monday, February 6, 2017

Identifying Those Earliest Southern Whigs and Where That Has Led Me

This is post number seven in a series detailing Southern Whiggery. See the sidebar for earlier posts.

The proof is in the pudding, and by that I mean the “truth” is in the pudding—in the taste, not in the pretty picture on the box. Calhoun and his fellow nullifiers from South Carolina were the Whigs and the original anti-Jackson “party” as opposed to a mere “faction” of the Old Jeffersonians. If the Whig Party had looked at the beginning like what it evolved into (over a relatively short period) there would have been no reason to involve the Southern state righters. The National Republican faction (which already contained Southerners) would have simply broken with the Jacksonian Democrats (which had a lot more Southerners) and life would have continued pretty much as it eventually did anyway. Ah, but Henry Clay would have had no more Southern support in 1836, 1840, or whenever, looking into the then unforeseeable future, than he’d had in 1832 when Andrew Jackson smashed him in his second win of the presidency. Southern Whiggery, at its inception, was not an endorsement of Clay’s policies, but was anti-Jacksonian in its own right. The National Republicans and the state righters making up the new “Whig Party” were allies operating on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding Constitutional interpretation and were personified in the beings of Clay and Calhoun.

From the very beginning, there were Americans in the young Republic, in then much less polarized sections, who fought liberal interpretation of the Constitution. But with the end of the War of 1812, a spirit of nationalism swept the country and found a home in the hearts of many Southerners, Calhoun among them. Recall that Federalist New England had opposed the war because, simply put, blockades and embargoes declared necessary by the central government hurt her interests. As a result, focus was placed on the interests of the nation as a whole, which meant using the powers of the central government for the “general welfare” of all. By the 1830s the “revenue” only tariff had morphed into a high protective tariff benefiting New England (and Midwestern) mercantilists to the detriment of everyone else, in particular the agrarian South. The by now more pragmatic ex-young nationalist John C. Calhoun had stopped second-guessing what had gone wrong and was determined to set things right. Funny thing about setting precedents, once that cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to get him back in. A generation of American leaders had failed to heed what the political theorists of the founding generation had warned against, utilization of a centralized state to promote self-aggrandizing, un-republican values. Folks tend to cite Thomas Jefferson here, and I certainly have no problem with that, but he did support ratification of the Constitution. My favorite is Patrick Henry who warned us not to ratify the thing with its nominally limited central government...the first and biggest precedent of all.

Another, who was still around and kicking at the time, was North Carolina’s Nathaniel Macon, who also opposed ratification, but represented his state in the House and later the Senate almost from the inception of the new government. The focus of his career of thirty-seven years was keeping the central government limited as decreed by its charter. An original opponent of the Federalist Party, Macon never fell under the spell of its brand of economic nationalism, forwarded in turn by Clay and the National Republicans. The fact remained that a central government had been created and what would follow would be generations of self-serving men seeking to control it. Their weapon of choice and, not coincidentally the one most conducive to wheedling power and money from the people in the name of common good, was the general welfare clause.

By the time the nationalistic ardor created by the War of 1812 had cooled and the stark reality of having fallen victim to its passion struck home, dramatic action was called for. President Andrew Jackson, an ardent nationalist of the Jacksonian mold (I’m being facetious, but I can’t think of a better way to say it—he was an anti-New England Unionist) struck against Biddle’s National Bank to the cheers of the common folk in the South and the West and the jeers of the National Republicans regardless of section. Calhoun (and South Carolina) struck against the tariff. Ah, but a strike against the tariff was a strike against the national government, which the nationalist Jackson could not tolerate. Jackson’s counter was to propose a military strike against South Carolina. That was something the Jacksonian-Democrat state righters—even those not in sympathy with Calhoun—could not sit idly by and abide. The nullifiers were limited in number and weak, but Southerners were plentiful, and Jackson was pushing the envelope (and Southerners made up a good chunk of his base).

But the Nullification Crisis didn’t occur in a vacuum. Many wealthy and powerful Southerners (the sugar planters of Louisiana, Kentucky hemp-growers, the mining industries of western Virginia) supported a protective tariff, but also of significance in the abandonment of Jackson by some state righters was the issue of the U.S. National Bank, an entity which had Southern supporters in the aforementioned sugar merchants, miners, and hemp-growers as well as black-belt cotton planters. These men were primarily of the National Republican variety, but the existence of nominal supporters of a national bank among state righters does have purchase. A national bank stabilized the money and banking in general. The problem with Biddle’s bank was its partisanship; it catered to and was supported by, a certain, finite, class of people.

[I believe an argument could be made that support of Biddle’s bank was not necessarily the same as support for a national bank for which, at a number of junctures in our early history, an amendment to the Constitution was suggested to accommodate.]

To rehash, Dr. Michael Holt in the Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party states that at the opening of Congress, December 1833, there were twenty National Republicans and twenty Jacksonians squaring off in the U.S. Senate along with two nullifiers and six Southern state-rights senators who had abandoned the Jackson camp in the wake of Jackson’s overt threat to South Carolina. These eight senators held the balance of power in the Senate. Neither Holt nor Arthur Cole in History of the Whig Party of the South identified precisely who these men were. South Carolina’s nullifiers, of course, are easy to identify: John C. Calhoun and William C. Preston. I’m not absolutely sure who the other six were, but having done a little research, I hereby take a stab at identification: Gabriel Moore of Alabama, John Black and George Poindexter of Mississippi, Willie P. Mangum of North Carolina, John Tyler of Virginia, and Joseph Kent of Maryland.

Originally a Jacksonian, Mangum is on record for warning his fellow Southerners to trust no administration forcing the South to wear the chains of the American System, and in 1833, he broke with Jackson for doing what he perceived as that very thing.

Just for the record, at the same time the anti-Jacksonians seized control of the Senate, the House gained an additional eleven Southern anti-Jacksonians and five additional nullifiers—four of the latter from South Carolina and one from Alabama. Of course, it made no difference in the House, where Jacksonian Democrats had things locked up.

In the course of searching for the identity of those six senators, I came across a 1954 article by Princetonian Charles Grier Sellers in The American Historical Review titled “Who Were the Southern Whigs.” From the title, as you may have guessed, I had hoped for specific identities of those six men, but his article didn’t deal with the U. S. Senate, but rather focused broadly on the House and on state legislatures. Mr. Sellers’ argues it was the Bank War, not state rights, that shaped the Southern Whig Party. He appears to be challenging the prevailing belief 63 years ago that state rights shaped Southern Whiggery. Perhaps this is still the prevailing academic position, particularly among Southerners. I admit that I have trouble seeing the Southern Whigs as state righters, but I have less of a problem seeing them as strict constructionists, and therein might be the problem—using the term “strict constructionist” interchangeably with “state righter”. Swap nullifier and secessionist for strict constructionist and the problem increases. Those latter were definitely strict constructionists, but does it follow that all strict constructionists were secessionists?

[Now, in my mind, if you apply strict construction to the Tenth Amendment, then you believe in the right to secede—how could you not? Whether you’re in favor of secession or not is a different question. But that’s me.]

Throughout their history, Southern Whigs compromised their strict-constructionist stance, condoning violation of the Constitution only in “certain situations.” But who determines what constitutes those “situations”? One cannot simply qualify what is necessary and proper under certain conditions, then proceed with the violation in the name of an arbitrary, so-called good. Not, that is, and remain a strict constructionist. A “so-called good” is relative, all too often, to one’s self-interest, and the basest form of self-interest is greed. This is a classic un-republican concept. Further, one can’t advocate the sanctity of Union, then vote for secession, which is what a lot of them eventually did, indicating the Union wasn’t quite so sacred after all. Pondering that, when push came to shove, sounds like the Southern Whigs’ state-right colors bled through.

I’m gonna close the post at this juncture because the story of Southern Whiggery is as much about what the Southern Whigs were as it is about who they were. Throughout its evolution, the character of Southern Whiggery varied from state to state and was shaped not only by the interests of the individual states, but by the interests of different sections within each state. The story is as rich and varied as everything else about the South and goes hand in hand with what can be detailed about the opposition Southern Democrats. Each state had a healthy, viable two-party system before sectionalism (and nationalism, darn it) clouded the political horizon. I think it’s a story worth telling and is, in my humble opinion, critical to understanding what led to sectionalism, war, discord within the Confederacy, Reconstruction, Redemption, and eventually the solid “Democratic” South.

So, my anticipated “brief” junket into the history of Southern Whiggery has taken on a life of its own. I will continue with who/what were the Southern Whigs next time. At the same time I plan to return to Alcorn and the dark days of Reconstruction, and the two series will parallel each other.

Thanks for reading,


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