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Image The Whig Omnibus, 1840-52

In 1834, Andrew Jackson’s many enemies joined together to found the Whig party. The name they chose revealed the root of their distrust of his border-chieftain politics. But coming as they did from every cultural region in the United States, they found it difficult to stand together. In consequence, during the election of 1836, the Whigs ran not one but three presidential candidates, in hopes of winning pluralities within each region and forcing the election into the House of Representatives. They simultaneously supported Daniel Webster in New England, Hugh Lawson White in the highland south, and William Henry Harrison, a Virginia gentlemen who had moved to Ohio.

This stratagem failed. Webster won only the votes of New England, and White carried only Tennessee and Georgia. Enough of the Jacksonian coalition held together to carry Jackson’s lieutenant Martin Van Buren into the White House. But one of the Whig candidates, William Henry Harrison, proved to be unexpectedly popular in many regions. Thus was born a new strategy in presidential politics—the omnibus candidate. William Henry Harrison was an aged military hero: an unknown soldier in politics with few discernable opinions to divide the electorate. An omnibus image was carefully created for him. In 1840, Harrison was nominated as the only Whig candidate, and won 80 percent of the electoral vote.

The election of 1840 was something new in American politics—the triumph of an omnibus campaign carefully designed to appeal to all cultural regions, not by issues but by symbolic identities. Harrison was a Virginia gentleman, a backcountry settler and the candidate of a political party which showed some sympathy for New England ideas of ordered liberty and moral reform. His party mounted its classic “log cabin and hard cider campaign,” by combining many different cultural symbols: the western log cabin, thegravitas of the Virginia gentleman, and hard cider which was a temperance alternative to hard liquor.

This omnibus strategy succeeded brilliantly for the Whigs, not only in 1840 with William Henry Harrison’s election, but again in 1848 for Zachary Taylor. Both men were military heroes, Virginia gentlemen, western settlers and unknown soldiers who ran strongly in every cultural region.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders struggled to keep alive the memory of Old Hickory. In 1844, they won the presidency for another border captain from Appalachia, James Knox Polk, who was called Young Hickory. Polk’s Jacksonian foreign policy led to the Mexican War, a war of conquest which was immensely popular in the coastal south and southern highlands, and strongly opposed in the Delaware Valley and New England. Northern critics of the war invented a new form of politics called civil disobedience, which in substance and form expressed the values of those cultures.18

The omnibus candidates of both Whigs and Democrats reached across regional lines. In the 1840s New England was divided in its party allegiance. The state of Massachusetts voted Whig in every presidential election from 1836 to 1852; so also did Vermont and Connecticut throughout the 1840s. But New Hampshire and Maine were Democratic, and Rhode Island went its own way.

The southern states were also split. Virginia consistently produced Democratic pluralities in every presidential election from 1836 to 1852; as did Alabama, Missouri and Arkansas. Kentucky and Tennessee, on the other hand, voted Whig throughout the period. Three other states (North Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia) were divided, and South Carolina as always was sui generis.

The midland states were equally divided. New York and Pennsylvania changed their party allegiance in every presidential election—Democrat in 1836, Whig in 1840, Democrat in 1844, Whig in 1848 and Democrat in 1852. These reversals were caused by the shift of only a few votes. The states of the old northwest were also bitterly contested.

The period from 1840 to 1848 was the only era in American history when every major cultural region and most states were deeply divided in their party allegiance. This extraordinary effect was produced by the breadth of the Jacksonian appeal and also by the success of the Whigs’ omnibus strategy. Individual voting patterns became highly complex—compounded of class, ethnicity, and religion. Regional patterns became more muted in this era than in any other period of American history.

In the presidential election of 1852, the Whigs tried their omnibus strategy yet again. They put up General Winfield Scott, a Virginia gentleman, a long-time resident of the west, and a hero of two wars. But Scott was also highly intelligent, intensely conservative and outspoken in his political opinions—not at all what was wanted in an omnibus candidate.

Against this formidable figure, the Democrats tried an omnibus strategy of their own. They adopted the ingenious expedient of nominating a New England Jacksonian and gentleman-Democrat named Franklin Pierce. His party called him “Young Hickory from the Granite Hills,” and his ticket was perfectly tailored to attract support in every political culture. This Democratic omnibus succeeded brilliantly. “Young Hickory” from New Hampshire carried all the states in the union except the Whig bastions of Massachusetts, Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee.19


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