Sunday, April 15, 2012

A History of American Political Parties, Part III

Read Part II

A major shift in partisan politics occurred in the 1830's, following the rise of Andrew Jackson's new party, the Democrats.  The popularity of this new, largely agrarian, party led to the demise of the short-lived National Republicans, who had been made up of the remnants left over from the collapse of the Democratic-Republican party, which had dominated U.S. politics since about 1800.

Out of the ashes, in the 1830's, grew another party to oppose Jackson and his Democrats: the Whig Party.

The name of this party has sometimes caused confusion for students of history.  The term "Whig" was a common term in colonial America, and referred to those members of the British parliament who were opposed to the powers of the monarchy.  During the American Revolution, this term came to be associated with anyone who was opposed to tyranny.  Most Americans of the 1770's would have called themselves "Whigs" - not as members of any party, but as ideological opponents of kings and monarchs.  As a result, many of America's earliest statesmen are sometimes referred to as Whigs - Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, even George Washington.

When the Whig Party was formed in the 1830's, the name was chosen for the very simple fact that Whigs were known to have been supporters of the Republic, and enemies of the king.  The name, then, was meant to imply what the members stood for.  It didn't, however, have any direct connection to the Whigs of the British parliament or of the American colonial period.

As an alternative to the Jacksonian Democrats, the Whig Party believed in protectionism (taxing foreign goods very highly in order to generate revenue for the government, and make competition easier for American companies), and believed in a largely ceremonial role for the president.  For Whigs, it was Congress who should really have most of the power.  The president, they believed, should concern himself primarily with foreign affairs and with being the figurehead of the Republic.  This, of course, was perfectly in line with the anti-monarchy beliefs of colonial-era Whigs.

One of the ways the Whig Party put this belief into practice was by pushing for the elimination - or at least the dramatic limitation - of the president's veto rights.  With the ability to veto any legislation passed by Congress, the president had been given an enormous amount of power, which could easily be used to dramatically influence American society. Whigs wanted this largely unregulated power overturned.

In 1836, the Whigs had their first chance on the presidential stage.  Andrew Jackson had decided to retire after two terms, so the Democrats nominated his vice-president, Martin Van Buren of New York.

The Whigs, however, were still a new party without a whole lot of widespread unity.  As a result, they were unable to agree on a single candidate, and ended up nominating four different people for president.  William Henry Harrison was on most of the ballots in the North, while Hugh White was the Whig candidate in most of the South.  In Massachusetts, however, the Whig candidate was Daniel Webster, and in South Carolina, William Mangum.

How, exactly, could the Whigs hope to win with none of their candidates on all the ballots?  Quite simply, they hoped for a repeat of the 1828 election, when no candidate won a majority of the electoral votes, and the House of Representatives was forced to choose the president (which is a stipulation of the 12th Amendment).  They figured that their four candidates would secure enough electoral votes to keep Van Buren from winning a majority, and they believed they had enough influence in the House of Representatives to ensure that one of their own candidates would be chosen as president.

It didn't work.  Van Buren ended up winning 170 electoral votes, far more than the 148 needed to win a majority.

Despite its loss, the Whig Party slowly became united during Van Buren's term, eventually engulfing a prominent third party called the Anti-Masonic Party.  This party had evolved in the late 1820's with its central platform opposed to the influence of Freemasonry in American politics.  In time, it moved away from this focus on Freemasonry, and eventually began embracing many of the same beliefs held by the Whigs - most notably an opposition to a powerful executive office.  During the 1840 election, both the Whigs and the Anti-Masonic Party nominated the same person for the presidency, and afterwards, the Anti-Masons effectively ceased to exist.

That double nomination went to William Henry Harrison, one of the Whig candidates from 1836, and the one Whig who had had the best showing against Martin Van Buren.  The Whig cause was helped by an economic recession under Van Buren's watch, the so-called Panic of 1837.  That, coupled with an effective campaign by Harrison, swept him into office in 1841 as the first Whig president.

The good feelings didn't last long.  Just one month after taking the presidency, and before he really did anything other than give a few speeches, Harrison came down with an illness and died.  His vice-president, John Tyler - who was also a Whig - took over.

Things went downhill for the Whigs after that.  Tyler almost immediately put himself at odds with his own party by vetoing two major banking bills sponsored by Henry Clay, the leader of the Whig majority in Congress.  Outraged not just at Tyler's refusal to support Whig legislation, but at his presumption of using the veto in a way that Whigs were ideologically opposed to (they believed a veto should only be used when the constitutionality of a bill was in question), the Whigs voted to expel Tyler from the party.  They eventually went so far as to try to impeach him, though the bill for impeachment never got off the ground.  His expulsion from the party made him, effectively, an Independent throughout the remainder of his presidency - the only non-partisan president since George Washington.

Despite its disastrous first attempt at putting a Whig in the White House, the Whig party managed to maintain its influence throughout the 1840's, losing the 1844 election by just a few thousand votes, in an election that turned heavily on the issue of territorial expansion - which Whigs generally opposed, but Democrats supported.  In 1848, however, the Whigs won again, placing war hero Zachary Taylor into office and giving them not just their second president, but their second war-hero president.

The Whigs, however, just didn't have much luck when it came to presidents.  Taylor, much like John Tyler before him, proved to be independently-minded, and frequently found himself at odds with Whig platforms and policies.  He had personally never been affiliated with any political party before running for president in 1848, and during that election, both parties had courted him as a war hero.

Then, in 1850, just 18 months after taking office, he got sick and died.  As such, in less than 10 years, the Whigs had put two men in the White House, both won primarily because of their records as great war heroes, and both died from illness before completing even the first half of their first term.  In Taylor's case, however, the Whigs got a good consolation prize - Taylor's vice-president, Millard Fillmore, had first entered politics with the Anti-Masonic Party, and had joined the Whigs by 1832.  As such, he was an ideological and loyal Whig.

Despite this, even Fillmore managed to do things to harm his reputation with some Whig factions, particularly his signing of the Fugitive Slave Act, which many northern Whig abolitionists saw as essentially favoring the South and supporting slavery.

In 1852, the Whigs - again in disarray by sectional disputes - chose not to renominate Fillmore, and instead gave the nod to Winfield Scott, yet another war hero.  Unfortunately, three times was not the charm for the Whigs; Scott was defeated in one of the biggest landslides in history, losing by 7 percentage points in the popular vote, and more than 200 in the electoral vote, to Democrat Franklin Pierce.

This disastrous election proved to be the downfall of the Whigs, and the entire party collapsed into ruins during the 1850's as the issue of slavery began to put a stranglehold on the nation and split party loyalties.  In 1856, the Whigs did gather to make a nomination for the presidency, but they opted instead to support the nomination of the new American Party, which had nominated former president Millard Fillmore.  Afterwards, the party effectively ceased to exist, and the Democrats won an easy victory, putting James Buchanan into the White House.

The American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party, had grown largely out of the ashes of the Whigs, but so had another party, formed in 1854 and known simply as the Republican Party.  This party would grow to dominate American politics for the next 80 years.