To paraphrase Henry Clay, the purpose of the Whig Party was to rescue liberty from an overreaching executive [that being Andrew Jackson]. Throughout the party’s relatively short and tumultuous history, many Whigs cherished that mission—I think in the end the bulk must have been in the South or else it clearly indicates the Republicans didn’t spring from the Whig party, because if there was ever an overreaching executive, Lincoln was one, but he was not the first. Truth is the Whig party was an incongruous political entity from the git-go and the Republicans most assuredly did spring from the Whig Party; in fact, for what my two cents is worth, their trek from Federalist to Lincoln’s Republicans is as clear as spring water. But that path the Federalists carved through the National Republicans and later the Whigs represents only one Whig faction. If not for its enmity to Andrew Jackson, the Whigs probably would have never come into being. Without a doubt, the National Republican and Old Republican factions comprising the Jeffersonians as of the early 1830s would have split, but I’m not qualified to guess what would have happened to the state-rights group within the Old Republicans, those strict-constructionists who split with Jackson during the nullification crisis and ultimately joined the Whigs. Tracing this latter group is the purpose of this series. On that note, and for the purpose of continuity, I want to rehash some history that many of you probably already know. For that, I apologize, but I think it’s necessary in order for the reader to follow my rationale.
Let’s go back to the beginning, to John Adams and the Federalist Party, proponents of Alexander Hamilton’s diversified national economy in which government played an important role in shaping and supporting the private interests of those promoting a national direction. The fruits of that party's policies, nominally, were to benefit all, but this was especially true for those who owned the industries. This concept of a government-supported economy [or more cynically, government manipulated by private interests] was opposed by Thomas Jefferson’s Old Republicans who believed the only way individual liberty was to persevere was through republican institutions that put the general good before private interests. It was the responsibility of office holders to protect said liberty from both public (government) and private interests (banks and industry). This very basic argument was fundamental to what kind of nation the United States would become.
By the time Henry Clay, founder and guiding light of the Whig Party, was a young man, those left of the Founding generation had faded from the limelight. Enabled by Hamilton’s coup with his “implied powers” argument, which secured the United States its First National Bank, the new generation was toying with the founding wisdom—bending the Constitution’s words to shape self-aggrandizing agendas. Arguments ensued as to what constituted the common good and general welfare and how much could government interfere before it was encroaching on the rights of the states and those of private citizens. Socially, there was a divide between materialism and the speculative market of the economic nationalists, homed primarily in the Northeast, and the simplistic agrarian/artisan economies of the regular folks, more popular among people of the South and West. The Federalists had pretty much done themselves in with their seditious activities during the War of 1812 and many of their number forsook the floundering party and found a home with the National Republican faction (recall, the kinder gentler Madisonian nationalists) of the Jeffersonians. John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts was one such “émigré.”
Flush with the victory of the War of 1812, young Jeffersonians such as James Monroe, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun evolved into ardent nationalists who believed in a strong national government and the prospects (albeit in some cases “qualified”) of a government-supported economy in tandem with “necessary” internal improvements. Further, civic duty was by then being equated favorably to economic self-interest—after all, if a public policy, reputed to be favorable to all, happened to ease the promoter’s wants, what did it hurt? This was “common good,” at its best. As of the boon times of 1817, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, John C. Calhoun, and, of course, Henry Clay and the rest of the National Republicans dominated the party, and the Old Jeffersonians chaffed over the direction nationalism and speculation in a boon economy were leading the nation.
In 1819, the speculation resulted in an economic downturn, which the Midwest and the Southeast blamed on the Bank of the United States and the eastern elite whom Clay served. For years after, this crisis flamed Congressional debates over the tariff, internal improvements, and land policy. From the yeoman’s point of view, the cause of the crisis was the banking policies of the elite, who suspended species payments in response to the crisis then continued merrily on their way, unaffected by an economy that forced many a common man off his land and out of his home.
Then in 1824 came the Missouri Compromise, the culmination of a two-year struggle within the Jeffersonian ranks to prevent Missouri’s entering the Union as a slave state. The divide had been between the National Republicans led by the New England mercantilists and the Old Republicans comprised of strict constructionists and state righters. The Old Republicans claimed the “party” had, to its shame, become involved in a nationalist program of aggrandizing national power onto itself. If New England interests could interfere in a state yet to enter the Union, then eventually it would acquire the power to interfere in existing states. The time had come, they said, to rededicate the party to state rights and strict construction. Thus the Panic of 1819, and the obvious sectional divide over economic interests, empowered the Old Republicans and shifted the balance of power away from the National Republicans.
That same year (1824), five men vied for the presidency. John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War under Monroe, dropped out of the competition, opting instead for the Vice Presidency. This left four:
John Quincy Adams, son of founder John Adams of Massachusetts and the darling of the New England set and a strong proponent of national legislation to promote economic development.
Henry Clay of Kentucky who, in the eyes of the North, was a Southern slave-holder with interests vested in the South. Further, Northerners believed he conceded too much to the South in the Missouri compromise. To the South, he was an opponent of strict construction and to the West, an agent of the hated national bank that had created the economic havoc that had ruined so many good men. To both the West and the South he was an opponent to Jackson’s Indian wars and removals.
William H. Crawford of Georgia, Secretary of the Treasury under Madison and Monroe and the candidate of the Old Republicans’ state-rights wing. But Crawford had been nominated by congressional caucus, a tool by then regarded as anti–republican (his being chosen by politicians rather than the people). Their principled choice tarnished by the circumstances of his nomination, the state-rights constituency turned to the fourth contender, the populist Andrew Jackson. As a new senator, Jackson had voted for the protective tariff and internal improvements, but was nevertheless the foe of the haughty Northeast and the corruption eating away at the Republic.
Jackson won the plurality of both the popular and electoral elections. Adams came in second. Crawford’s popularity was confined primarily to parts of the established South (Virginia and his native Georgia). Clay carried only his home state of Kentucky and neighboring Ohio.
With no one candidate getting a majority of the electoral vote, the contest went to the House, where Clay, utilizing his formidable influence, proved the difference in Adams’ victory over Jackson. This computed to a victory for the New England elite. Once in the executive mansion, Adams made Clay his Secretary of State, and the Jackson camp cried “foul.” To the common man in the South and in the West, Jackson was a fundamental Republican. John Quincy Adams was a snobbish New England elitist. The tariff and the sweeping national agenda under the “general welfare” clause offended those who believed in state rights and strict construction. Adams was openly hostile to slavery [or is that euphemistic for being hostile to slave owners?], and in the West, he failed to take what voters there felt to be appropriate action against the Indians. In Clay’s defense, he had always supported the national-economy camp and opposed Jackson on Indian issues.
Nevertheless, the election of Adams was perceived to be a rejection of the popular will and has been passed down through history as the Corrupt Bargain. It haunted Clay for the rest of his career, ended Adams’ as soon as his “misbegotten” term was up, and four years later sent the martyred Jackson to the White House with enough popular support (reflected in the victories of his constituents in the Congress and the state houses), to allow his subsequent abuse of executive office to threaten the Republic.
At this point, I want to reference Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, the heretofore missing link to what would evolve into the Whig Party. Webster had been a young Federalist at the time of that party’s demise. In 1824, he backed John Quincy Adams’ administration. In the short term, he would flirt with the Jackson administration, but in the end he settled on “Yankee Whiggery,” the Federalist Party incognito.
So, by the next election in 1828, the National Republicans of Adams and Clay were the minority faction within the Jeffersonian Party. Clay believed it was the persona of Andrew Jackson, hero of New Orleans, man of the people and enemy of the Indians that got him elected, not the common man’s aversion to the National Republican’s economic nationalism and its leadership by political elites. Thus, the Old Republicans evolved into the Jacksonian Democrats. Jackson had cemented his hold on the Old Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson with, supposedly, adherence to state rights and strict construction. In reality, what gave him purchase was his general opposition to the political elite. But here’s the problem with Jackson—he’d won the South and the West, they’d put him in the White House, but once there, he curried favor with the Northeast and the Midwest by supporting the tariff and internal improvement programs, just as he had back in his senatorial days. I don’t think it was politics; he didn’t like those elitists anymore than his constituents did. I think he was a nationalist, and he believed in internal improvements to strengthen the nation and, by default, the tariff that funded them. But that policy spat in the face of those adherents to the Old Republican principles. Certainly, he believed in a strong, “unquestioned” executive, and sorry folks, strict constructionist that ain’t.
John C. Calhoun of South Carolina split with Jackson over the tariff [yes, I know there were other things, but the tariff is what is relevant here]. Despite his growing anti-Jackson stance, Calhoun did not end up in the National Republican Party, the principles of which distanced him from it as he evolved as a political theorist and a statesman. Even when Southerners started to question Jackson on the nullification issue, the policies of the monied elite generally discouraged Southerners from entering the National Republican Camp. Similarly in the North, outside New England, the states showed little concern for the national issues touted by the National Republicans and were offered alternatives to the National Republican Party for venting their opposition to Jackson. The National Republicans, focused as they were on national economic issues [again, I interpret that to mean economic issues that affected them personally], failed to recognize what mattered at the grass-roots level. This was the era of the populist, pro-farmer Antimasons, who were against urban control of rural areas and promoted the idea of political candidates coming from the people, not professional politicians. They did not favor the National Republicans who were well-grounded in the 18th century belief in a republicanism practiced by the elite for the public good. The Antimason movement became very large throughout the North. Whereas the National Republicans focused their campaign on converting the “leadership” of the opposition to the National Republican cause, believing the people would follow, the Jacksonian Democrats and the Antimasons and other splinter groups, focused on converting the voters. In time, the Jacksonian Democrats usurped the Antimason cause in the Northern states.
[That’s an interesting thought on smaller, intrastate parties. We need more of those today. The people of a state should have legislatures and governors focused on them and not vested in a national party from whom they take marching orders.]
But I digress.
In the early 1830’s the National Republicans were in sore need of a “cause” large enough to counter the peoples’ grievances against a powerful elite and its corruption—both inimical to republics. These are what caused the voters to rally to and continue to stand behind Andrew Jackson. It would be Jackson himself who filled the National Republican need. Calhoun’s interposition, Biddle’s bank, and the birth of the Whig Party next time.
Thanks for reading,
This is a great article. I shared it to Twitter and Facebook and emailed it to my brother. I also bookmarked it to refer to again when I get confused on where the Republicans came from.ReplyDelete