Modern history


The Whigs and Their Age

A cold and blustery March wind chilled the ceremonies for the presidential inauguration of 1841. But the old soldier at the center of attention spoke for an hour and a half. In an era when people took oratory seriously, William Henry Harrison delivered the longest inaugural address of any president ever, full of learned classical allusions. In implied but clear reproach to the Democrats, he promised to exercise executive restraint, serve but one term, and use the veto sparingly—the last not too risky a commitment since his party controlled both houses of Congress. He condemned hard money, the spoils system, and “the spirit of party.” He warned of the dangers of demagogues claiming to speak “in the name of democracy,” who perverted the commonwealth and stripped the people of their liberties. He cited Caesar and Cromwell as his examples, but all understood these as coded references to Andrew Jackson. The Whig victory had averted, just in time, the corruption of American republican institutions—“a calamity so awful, not only to our country, but to the world.”1

In claiming for the Whigs the toga of Roman virtue, Harrison’s inaugural address aimed at personal as well as national vindication. His background and lifestyle having been subjected to considerable distortion during the campaign by friend and foe alike, Harrison felt it time to start looking presidential. He had written his inaugural speech himself, though he allowed Daniel Webster to edit it; the senator jested that in abridging it he had “killed seventeen Roman proconsuls.”2 The erudition of Harrison’s address demonstrated that the incoming president was no humble denizen of a log cabin but a distinguished Virginia gentleman like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. And by delivering such a long speech in the cold with no overcoat, the author would demonstrate his hardy vigor—despite being, at sixty-eight, the oldest president inaugurated up to that time.3 Harrison’s opponents had made his age an issue, ridiculing him as “granny.” His proud defiance of their jibes may have proved literally fatal.

1. “Inaugural Address” (March 4, 1841), Presidential Messages, IV, 5–21, quotation from 20.

2. Quoted in Robert Remini, Daniel Webster (New York, 1997), 516.

3. Harrison’s record stood until the inauguration of sixty-nine-year-old Ronald Reagan in 1981.

William Henry Harrison brought to the White House creditable qualifications. Born into a prominent family, the son of Benjamin Harrison V, signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Virginia, William attended Hampden-Sydney College, entered the army, and distinguished himself in several important battles against Indians and British, including Fallen Timbers (1794), Tippecanoe (1811), and the Thames (1813).4Chosen by the legislature of the Northwest Territory their non-voting representative in Congress, he made himself the most influential such territorial delegate in history, crafting the major federal land legislation of 1800. Governor for a dozen years of Indiana Territory (larger than the later state), he nursed further political ambitions. Moving to Ohio, he served that state as legislator, U.S. representative, and senator, demonstrating sympathy for banking, tariff protection, and the extension of slavery. Secretary of State Clay sent him on a mission to Colombia as part of the effort to increase trade with South America. In 1828, he was mentioned as a possible running mate for John Quincy Adams, though in earlier years Harrison, with the hauteur of the Virginia aristocracy, had privately looked down on the “clownish” dress and manner of the merely bourgeois Adams.5Having shown himself the strongest Whig candidate in the presidential election of 1836, Harrison challenged Clay for the party’s nomination four years later.

This time around, the Whigs resolved to hold their first national convention. They called it early to give their nominee plenty of exposure, meeting at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in December 1839. Harrison arrived already bearing the nomination of the Antimasonic Party, whose supporters preferred him to Henry Clay because of the latter’s nominal Masonic membership. At the Whig convention, Harrison gained support from a number of nervous northern politicians who suspected that a military hero could outpoll Clay, by now carrying a lot of contentious baggage from previous years. Clay showed up with most of the southern delegates and a significant minority of northern ones behind him. The convention adopted a “unit rule” that state delegations would vote as blocs; this smothered the Clay votes in states where he did not command a majority. Disgusted at his convention delegates for allowing this rule, Clay later grumbled that they were “not worth the powder and shot it would take” to blow them up.6 General Winfield Scott, whose role in preventing war

4. The family’s eminence continued; in 1889 William Henry’s grandson Benjamin Harrison also became president of the United States.

5. William Henry Harrison to James Findlay, Jan. 24, 1817, quoted in Donald Ratcliffe, The Politics of Long Division (Columbus, Ohio, 2000), 225.

6. As reported by Henry A. Wise, in Seven Decades of the Union (Philadelphia, 1881), 171.

along the Canadian border had won favorable attention, attracted support as a possible compromise candidate. The wily Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania Antimason, contrived to turn a key group of Virginia delegates away from Scott and toward Harrison by leaking a document that aroused their fears for the security of slavery. Stevens somehow obtained a letter that Scott had written courting antislavery New Yorkers and deliberately dropped it where he knew the Virginians would find it. (In the light of Stevens’s later career as an architect of Radical Reconstruction, his role at the Harrisburg convention is ironic in the extreme.) With Daniel Webster backing Harrison and Scott no longer viable, the Whig convention nominated Old Tippecanoe on the third ballot, 148 to 90 for Clay and 16 for Scott.7

The victorious Harrisonians now offered the vice-presidential nomination to Clay himself or a candidate of his choice. But the despondent Kentuckian did not reply to their inquiry. It proved a costly fit of pique. Other Clay followers whom they approached, such as Senator John Clayton of Delaware, would not accept without his permission.8 In the end the Harrisonians turned to John Tyler of Virginia, who did accept. Tyler had been supporting Clay’s candidacy at the convention, but he felt no commitment to Clay’s nationalist program. An eccentric Virginia state-righter, Tyler had joined the Whig Party because he found Andrew Jackson high-handed. Surprisingly, Clay might even have been considering Tyler as his own possible running mate.9 If so, presumably Clay’s motive was to solidify support among southern sympathizers with nullification who had backed Hugh White in 1836 and who now appeared slow to identify with the Whig Party. The vice-presidential nomination is customarily dictated by concern to “balance the ticket.” But the Whigs’ choice of Tyler turned out to be one of the worst mistakes ever made by any political party.

Before the Whig convention adjourned, Clay recovered the good grace to give the party nominees his endorsement. The Harrison campaign moved quickly into high gear, borrowing techniques from the current experts on mass persuasion, the revival preachers. Harrison himself, deferring to nineteenth-century sensibilities, stopped actively campaigning once he received the Whig nomination and relied on supporters to electioneer

7. Michael Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (New York, 1999), 102–3.

8. Major Wilson, The Presidency of Martin Van Buren (Lawrence, Kans., 1984), 194.

9. Robert Seager, “Henry Clay and the Politics of Compromise,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 85 (1987): 14.

for him. His missionaries would come to a town on his behalf and hold a torchlight parade to whip up popular interest the evening before their main event. During the night, they would pitch a tent on the outskirts of town. The next morning a “barker” standing outside would begin encouraging people to enter and hear the speeches, punctuated by music and songs like “Van, Van, Van Is a Used-up Man,” or most famously, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” The historian Ronald Formisano has aptly called these activities “a form of political revivalism.”10 In the tent, the speaker would lambaste the administration, particularly its passivity in the face of economic disaster and public hardship. When the crowd had been wound up emotionally, they would be asked to make a commitment, in this case not to Christ but to the Whig ticket. It all must have had a familiar ring, because we know that the Whig Party appealed to many members of evangelical religious bodies. (In later years, Phineas T. Barnum would adapt the same techniques to his traveling circus.) Harrison’s campaigners also exploited new technology, moving their speakers from place to place via railroads and attracting attention with a giant transparency displaying Whig emblems.11

No incumbent president campaigned overtly for himself before Theodore Roosevelt in the election of 1904.12 Van Buren’s re-election campaign was headed by Amos Kendall, who resigned as postmaster general to devote full time to the effort, and Francis Blair of the Washington Globe, who formulated the Democratic case as follows: “The issue, then, is Martin Van Buren, a sound currency, and independence of the honest producing classes, against a spurious and fictitious bank currency, dependency, venality, and servility to the non-producers and aristocrats, the representatives of their available G. Harrison.”13 Kendall and Blair often invoked ex-president Jackson and the necessity to carry on his legacy—an approach that would have been more effective if Clay had been the Whig candidate. Seeking to outdo the earlier Whig convention, the Democratic convention issued the first official party platform in history. Of its nine clauses, six renounced any federal power to implement the American System or interfere with slavery; one endorsed the separation of bank

10. Ronald Formisano, The Birth of Mass Political Parties (Princeton, 1971), 128–36. Over one hundred pages of Whig song lyrics are printed in A. Banning Norton, Tippecanoe Songs of the Log Cabin Boys and Girls of 1840 (Mount Vernon, Ohio, 1888).

11. Donald Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton, 1984), 368–69.

12. President Andrew Johnson, however, conducted a “swing around the circle” to campaign on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates in the 1866 midterm elections.

13. Washington Globe, May 5, 1840.

and state; one promised “the most rigid economy” in government; and the last one opposed any curtailing of the rights of immigrants to citizenship. The theme running throughout this negativist document was fear of change. The statement said nothing about the depression.14 The Democratic convention proved unable to agree to renominate Richard Mentor Johnson, who seemed out of his depth in the vice presidency. But since no one else in the party then had the nerve to challenge the president’s choice, that crusty Kentuckian wound up on Democratic ballots again simply by default.

The Van Buren campaign of 1840 is remembered mostly for a blunder. A Democratic newspaper correspondent in Baltimore, intending to mock Harrison’s advanced age and suggest he was a better candidate for retirement than for the presidency, wrote, “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of a ‘sea coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy.”15 Although the suggestion of moral philosophy was probably the most plausible part of this fantasy, since Harrison read seriously, it did not become famous. Instead, the Whigs seized gleefully upon the log cabin and hard cider images, as providing their candidate with precisely that common touch he needed. From then on, cider barrels and miniature log cabins adorned every Whig banner and parade. Temperance advocates of course regretted the “hard cider” symbol but, interestingly, were not alienated from Harrison’s candidacy by it.16

The populistic, emotionally evocative campaign methods of 1840 by no means precluded a discussion of the issues. The medium was not the whole message the parties wanted to convey. In fact, 1840 was the first election in which both parties clearly and forcefully articulated their positions on the issues of the day—the most urgent of which was the depression. The Whigs campaigned for soft money and government intervention in the economy, adding executive restraint to remind people of Jackson’s presumptuousness. The Democrats defended hard money and laissez-faire. Evidence of the level of intellectual seriousness in the campaign is provided by such Whig pamphlets as Calvin Colton’s The Crisis of the Country, Henry C. Carey’s Answers to the Questions, and the historian Richard Hildreth’s The Contrast: William Henry Harrison versus Martin Van Buren. (Hildreth declared that the American farmer was no

14. National Party Platforms, comp. Kirk Porter and Donald Johnson (Urbana, Ill., 1970), 2.

15. [John de Ziska], Baltimore Republican, Dec. 11, 1839.

16. Richard Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (New Haven, 1993), 61–62.

longer the self-sufficient yeoman “described by poets” but “must have a market for his produce.”)17 On the Democratic side, Orestes Brownson asserted the existence of American class conflict in his provocative essay The Laboring Classes. The two parties’ stated policies were underscored by the programs they actually implemented, which voters could observe in action at the state level. There, Whigs supported chartering banks and subsidizing internal improvements; Democrats generally opposed these.18 One issue only the parties tacitly agreed to avoid: slavery. Both dissociated themselves from abolitionism.

As month after month of 1840 ticked by, the economy descended deeper and deeper into the tank, taking with it the hopes of the man Whigs now called “Martin Van Ruin.” The Magician had run out of magic. The Whigs won the state and local elections that gradually led up to the big contest in the fall. As a Whig presidential victory came to seem inevitable, the significance of the early date of the Whig convention became apparent. Some Whig politicians, particularly in the North, had supported Harrison for prudential reasons but would actually have preferred Clay as the true embodiment of the party’s principles. Now it seemed clear that Clay too could have won election—and that he would have gained the nomination had the convention been held later when the full impact of the Panic of 1839 had been felt. Clay himself commented bitterly that he had been “always run by my friends when sure to be defeated, and now betrayed for a nomination when I, or any one, would be sure of an election.”19

When the results came in, the Whigs indeed swept all before them: Harrison won 234 electoral votes to 60 for Van Buren; the Whigs would have majorities of thirty-one in the House and seven in the Senate. It was the only time in the party’s history that the Whigs won control of both the executive and legislative branches of government. Yet 1840 was no fluke; it had long-lasting significance. In fact, the election of 1840 has been rightly judged more important than that of 1828 in defining the Whig—Democratic political party system and the parties’ positions on issues.20 In earlier times, election campaigns had often focused on praising prominent local leaders as candidates for office. Jackson’s campaigns, which emphasized his personal popularity, did not altogether depart from this

17. Quoted in Wilson, Presidency of Van Buren, 199.

18. Holt, Rise and Fall of Whig Party, 108–12.

19. Wise, Seven Decades, 172.

20. Richard P. McCormick, “New Perspectives on Jacksonian Politics,” AHR 65 (1960): 288–301.

tradition. From now on, however, elections—state as well as national— focused unmistakably, on both sides, on parties and issues.

For too long historical accounts have attributed Harrison’s election to mindless hoopla. A Democratic contemporary came closer to the truth when he wrote Van Buren that “the second revulsion” (meaning the Panic of 1839 coming on top of that of 1837) “and no other cause whatever, has elected your opponent and would have elected any other man.”21 The most judicious modern scholarship concludes, however, that the voters did not just lash out at the incumbent party but rendered a judgment on which party’s policy they trusted to get the country out of hard times. The Whig campaign possessed “reason as well as rhyme,” as one historian has put it.22

A conspicuous feature of the 1840 election was the massive voter turnout of 80.2 percent of the qualified electorate, a dramatic increase over the 57.2 percent turnout four years earlier. It stands as one of the three highest national election turnouts in American history, all of them in the nineteenth century.23 The Whigs did particularly well among the many voters participating in their first election. The high voter participation of 1840 and the rest of the nineteenth century in general reflected the effectiveness of the parties’ efforts to get out the vote as well as the high state of public interest in politics by comparison with more recent American history.

“The spirit of the age,” the English visitor Frances Wright observed, was “to be a little fanatical.”24 She described American politics fairly. The Whig and Democratic parties took sharply differentiated positions on policy. Typically, they each endeavored to maximize their appeal, not by moderating their stands so as to win over people in the middle, but by energizing and mobilizing their own core supporters. Organizing the partisan endeavor were men with a personal stake in the outcome: officeholders and those who hoped to hold office. The broad reach of the patronage, with a postmastership in every little community up for grabs, tended to diffuse this kind of strong motivation throughout the public.

21. C. C. Cambreling to Martin Van Buren, Dec. 15, 1840, quoted in John Niven, Martin Van Buren and the Romantic Age of American Politics (New York, 1983), 471–72.

22. Quotation from Wilson, Presidency of Van Buren, 197. See also Holt, Rise and Fall of Whig Party, 76–82, 108–12.

23. The others were 1860 (81.2) and 1876 (81.8), both times when momentous sectional issues needed resolution.

24. Quoted in Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (Cleveland, 1969), 63.

The newspapers of the communications revolution, widely distributed and strongly partisan, prodded men to vote while also rousing general popular interest in political events. Some voters, somewhere in the Union, were casting ballots just about all the time, with the press avidly predicting or reporting the results. Aided by the disguised government subsidy of cheap postage rates, the partisan newspapers provided effective propaganda to their respective sponsors with only very modest party subsidies. Rank-and-file Democrats and Whigs paid subscriptions to their respective party newspapers, and advertisers paid to reach them. The general high level of political awareness maintained by the press meant that the parties could depend on a broadly based mass of donors; they also kept their financial costs to a minimum by receiving many contributions in kind, that is, free services from their supporters. Businesses (especially banks) gave money and favors to politicians, but except for the BUS most businesses were small. Political parties of the day, like the philanthropies of the evangelical “benevolent empire,” chiefly relied on pooling many modest contributions, not on soliciting a few large ones. We should not read the current political apathy of the American public back into the antebellum past. The public was not yet jaded then, and fewer rival sources of mass entertainment diverted popular attention and loyalty away from the political parties.25

Even more than the Democrats, the Whigs depended on literacy and the printed media. Whig support usually came from environments providing good access to information and an awareness of people and events beyond the immediate horizon.26 Of the many Whig journalists, the greatest undoubtedly was Horace Greeley, editor of the Log Cabin and other campaign periodicals. A self-made man who came from a hardscrabble New Hampshire farm, Greeley combined a practical, methodical business sense with idealistic politics (much as did Benjamin Franklin, with whom contemporaries compared him). Starting in 1838, Greeley hitched his talents to the reform-minded cause of New York Whigs William H. Seward and Thurlow Weed. In 1841, he founded the New York Tribune, which went on to become one of America’s great newspapers, with a circulation

25. On the parties’ strenuous efforts to get out the vote, see Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin, Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 2000). On the high general level of interest in politics then, see Mark Neely, American Political Culture in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill, 2005).

26. See Thomas Alexander, “The Basis of Alabama’s Antebellum Two-Party System,” Alabama Review 19 (1966): 276. Based on Alabama data, his finding is applicable more generally.

that reached 200,000 before the Civil War; its spin-off, the Tribune Weekly, reprinted its articles for a nationwide readership.27

No strong sectional pattern emerged in the election of 1840. Harrison carried both North and South, though by an overall popular margin of 53 percent to 47 percent—nowhere near as great as his preponderance in the electoral college. Of the seven states Van Buren carried, five were in the South. But, overall, the New Yorker’s long courtship of the slaveholders seems to have been neutralized by Harrison’s Virginia background and record in favor of the expansion of slavery into both Missouri and, earlier, the Northwest Territory itself. Whereas the National Republicans had been weak in the South, the Bank War had brought the Whigs considerable recruits in that section, especially among larger planters who recognized the benefits of a strong financial system for commercial agriculture. North and South, a relatively small percentage typically separated winners from losers in 1840, and this remained a striking characteristic of the second party system over the next decade. In antebellum times, more than half the seats in the federal House of Representatives were genuinely competitive, a striking difference from today when more sophisticated voter analysis enables the parties to protect their incumbents, leaving few “swing” congressional districts.28 Whigs and Democrats had created not only the first mass political parties in the world but also the only truly nationwide party system in America prior to the rebirth of the southern Republicans late in the twentieth century.

Contemporaries generally assumed men with greater income, education, and respectability more likely to vote Whig. But there were innumerable exceptions to such social categories, highlighted when prominent brothers made different political choices. The Whig James Barbour, senator from Virginia and John Quincy Adams’s secretary of war, was the brother of Democrat Philip Barbour, member of Thomas Ritchie’s Richmond Junto, rewarded by Andrew Jackson with a seat on the Supreme Court. Benjamin Tappan, Democratic senator from Ohio, was the brother of Arthur and Lewis Tappan, abolitionist admirers of John Quincy Adams. Data from North Carolina show virtually the same party breakdown between voters who could meet the fifty-acre freehold qualification to vote for state senators and voters who could not.29

27. See Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley (New York, 2006); for a brief assessment, Daniel Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1980), 179–97.

28. Joel Silbey, The American Political Nation, 1838–1893 (Stanford, 1991), 155–56.

29. Richard P. McCormick, “Suffrage Classes and Party Alignments,” in Voters, Parties, and Elections, ed. Joel Silbey and Samuel McSeveney (Lexington, Mass., 1972), 79.

Easier for historians to categorize than individuals are the voting patterns of geographical entities like counties. In 1840 and other elections, Whig majorities typically came from commercial areas where all classes had been hurt by the depression; Democratic majorities, from less economically developed regions where farmers practicing “safety first” agriculture could fall back on their subsistence crops and local barter to tide them over.30 The pattern would remain for the duration of the second party system. Occasionally, however, relatively poor areas would back the Whigs, hoping for government-sponsored development projects; such a region was eastern Tennessee. Cities and towns generally yielded Whig majorities. The most important exception to this rule was New York City, where both parties competed vigorously. The Democratic strength there reflected devotion to international free trade arising from the city’s role in cotton export, as well as ethnic bloc voting by immigrant groups.31 In 1840, embarrassingly, Van Buren failed to carry his home state, and the capable Whig governor William Seward won reelection.

The Whig adoption of publicity methods pioneered by evangelical preachers reflected an important dimension of the party’s constituency and program. Indeed, evangelical preachers, like the Whig campaigners, had been calling attention to the depression. The preachers saw it as a divine punishment visited upon the people for their sins both individual and collective, including cupidity, fraud, violations of the Sabbath, and injustice to the Indians. Americans, the preachers warned, were not living up to their high destiny to usher in the millennium.32 Harrison specifically courted evangelical voters with assurances of his sabbatarian, Antimasonic, and temperance principles. Despite having won fame as an Indian fighter, in the election year he published a sympathetic history of the Northwest tribes and carefully distinguished his own record toward them from Jackson’s injustices.33

With so many of the political issues of the age involving moral judgments, it is hardly surprising that different ethnic and religious groups

30. See Michael Holt, Political Parties and American Political Development (Baton Rouge, 1992), 151–92, esp. 181.

31. See Amy Bridges, A City in the Republic: Antebellum New York and the Origins of Machine Politics (New York, 1984); Anthony Gronowicz, Race and Class Politics in New York City Before the Civil War (Boston, 1998).

32. George Duffield, A Thanksgiving Sermon (Detroit, 1839); Richard Carwardine, “Evangelicals, Whigs, and the Election of William Henry Harrison,” Journal of American Studies 17 (1983): 47–75.

33. William Henry Harrison, Discourse on the Aborigines of the Valley of the Ohio (Boston, 1840).

often viewed such issues differently. The distinction between evangelicals and nonevangelicals proved particularly important. Supporters and opponents of evangelical revivalism generally lined up on opposite sides of the Whig–Democratic political debate. The moral and reforming outlook of evangelicals like Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney found the Whig ambition to improve America congenial. Indeed, the evangelical modernization of religion proved both a precursor and a model for the modernization of the economy that Whig political leaders embraced. Many of the skills and virtues promoted by the evangelical awakening helped establish preconditions for economic development: literacy, thrift, impulse control, respect for diligent work, honesty and promise-keeping, moral involvement with the world outside one’s local community. Not surprisingly, those whose Christianity prompted them to redeem the world, to agitate for penitentiaries instead of jails, insane asylums to replace locked cellars, or common schools instead of home instruction during the parents’ spare time, came to ally with politicians committed to an activist state and a developed economy. The interrelated benevolent projects of the Evangelical United Front bear a strong analogy to the integrated economic program of the American System. The Whig Party benefited from evangelicals who decided to enlist the power of the state on behalf of reform.34

To be sure, many good Christians followed the Baptist preacher John Leland and the Methodist itinerant Peter Cartwright in supporting the Democratic Party. The Democrats appealed more to those sects that remained outside the reformist Evangelical United Front. These were particularistic, liturgical, “confessional” groups like Roman Catholics and Missouri Synod Lutherans, concerned to bear witness to their traditional sacraments and creeds (“confessions” of faith) rather than to remake society at large through interdenominational voluntary associations. The Whigs exemplified a political postmillennialism, seeking to improve the world so as to render it fit for Christ’s return, endorsing a form of social progress that they believed was a collective version of redemption. Premillennialists, on the other hand, suspicious of worldly elites and looking to providential intervention for deliverance from suffering and oppression, often endorsed the austere tenets of hard-money Jacksonianism.35

34. Thomas Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” AHR 90 (1985): 339–61, 547–66; Howe, Political Culture of the American Whigs, 150–80.

35. Robert Swierenga, “Ethnoreligious Political Behavior in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” in Religion and American Politics, ed. Mark Noll (New York, 1990), 146–71, summarizes a large body of historical writing on this subject.

Reflecting such distinctions, some denominations acquired deserved reputations for partisan voting. Congregationalists constituted a Whig voting bloc, Antimission Baptists a Democratic one. Other denominations split: Low Church (evangelical) Episcopalians Whig, High Church (antievangelical) Episcopalians Democratic; New School (prorevival) Presbyterians Whig; Old School (antirevival) Presbyterians Democratic. Even some denominations kept outside the Evangelical United Front by their particular doctrines usually voted Whig out of support for the moral reform agenda: Quakers, Unitarians, and Reform Jews. Anticlericals and avowed secularists like Abner Kneeland (convicted of the crime of blasphemy under Massachusetts common law) worried about the power of the Evangelical United Front and found the Jacksonian party more congenial. Democratic leaders occasionally catered to their preferences, as Richard Mentor Johnson did when he rejected the sabbatarian petitions and Jackson did in resolving not to proclaim a day of prayer and fasting in response to the cholera epidemic of 1832.36

Denominations with a particular ethnic character seemed all the more likely to vote as a bloc in the presence of neighboring rivals. Thus New York state politics saw Dutch Reformed voters support the Democratic ticket against Yankee Presbyterian Whigs, despite a common Calvinist heritage; the two denominations also took opposing sides on the legitimacy of revivalism. Irish Catholics, resentful of Protestant evangelicalism even though somewhat analogous movements flourished within their own church, voted Democratic by nineteen to one. Scots-Irish Presbyterians who had been voting Democratic sometimes switched over to the Whig Party when Irish Catholic immigrants showed up nearby. Historians and sociologists call communities with such mutual animosity “negative reference groups.” In a world where people often defined themselves in religious and ethnic terms, negative reference voting was common.37 But evangelicals and the various antievangelical communities constituted the largest pattern of negative reference groups.

Then as now, voters acted out of various motives and did not necessarily sort them all out and classify them. Ethnoreligious and negative reference group voting influenced politics more in the North than in the South, since the North had greater ethnic and religious diversity. Southern politics

36. Daniel Howe, “The Evangelical Movement and Political Culture in the North During the Second Party System,” JAH 77 (1991): 1216–39.

37. The classic study of negative reference group voting is Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case (Princeton, 1961). See also Robert Kelley, The Cultural Pattern in American Politics (New York, 1979).

more often reflected geographical regions defined by their dominant local economies. Historians have come to accept that, overall, the political loyalties of the second party system involved both economic and ethno-cultural alignments.38 Both kinds of concern could be perfectly legitimate; to vote on the basis of moral principle or ethnic identity was no less rational than to vote one’s economic interest. In most cases, no doubt, several different kinds of consideration all pointed toward the same action at the polling place.

In debate, Democrats and Whigs alike employed the rhetoric of American republicanism, invoking popular “virtue” against “corruption,” though Democrats used it to denounce the money power and Whigs to denounce executive usurpation.39 Democrats more often invoked Lock-ean natural rights; Whigs, Anglo-American traditions of resistance to monarchical misrule. Both parties traced their origins to Jeffersonian Republicanism: Democrats to the Old Republicanism of Macon and Crawford; Whigs to the new Republican nationalism of Madison and Gallatin. (In 1832, Madison and Gallatin both supported Clay for president against Jackson.) For all that they had in common as American republicans, however, the Whigs and Democrats differed markedly in their conception of America’s future. They disagreed not simply over means but also over ends. The goals of the two parties’ voters added up to rival visions of the national destiny.

Democrats basically approved of America the way it was. They wanted to keep it economically homogeneous in the sense that they believed agriculture should remain the predominant occupation, though their party had nothing against the expansion of commercial opportunities for planters and farmers. Democrats enjoyed their greatest party strength in the South, where agriculture predominated even more than in the North. They expressed disapproval of government favors for privileged elites, of which a national bank seemed to them the prime example. Democrats celebrated “popular sovereignty” and the equal rights of common white men. They hoped America would remain culturally (that is, morally) heterogeneous, so that a variety of religious options could be exercised and local communities of common white men could govern themselves freely. This meant deciding for themselves whether to practice slavery, whether to fund education and internal improvements, whether to tolerate

38. See, for example, Daniel Feller, “Politics and Society: Toward a Jacksonian Synthesis,” JER 10 (1990): 135–61.

39. Major Wilson, “Republican Consensus and Party Debate in the Bank War,” JER 15 (1995): 619–48.

Native neighbors, and, for that matter, how to deal with deviants like criminals and the insane. The Democrats’ vision of America did not require central planning, since most matters could be left either to the marketplace or to state and local decisions. Jacksonians did, however, want a government strong enough to extend their agrarian empire across the continent, expelling or conquering any who stood in their way and protecting slaveowners from interference.

Whigs had a different vision. They wanted to transform the United States into an economically developed nation, in which commerce and industry would take their places alongside agriculture. While the Democrats favored economic uniformity and cultural diversity, Whigs favored economic diversity and cultural uniformity. They wanted to impose cultural (moral) homogeneity because they strongly believed in a society that would nurture and respect conscientious individual autonomy, in contrast to the Democrats, who valued the autonomy of the small white community. Much more than Democrats, Whigs worried about lawlessness, violence, and demagogy. Duties seemed to them as important as rights, and both individuals and the nation had a responsibility to develop their potential to the fullest. Causes like temperance and public education fostered these values and also helped produce a population ready for the demands of a developed economy. Whigs had a positive conception of liberty; they treasured it as a means to the formation of individual character and a good society. Democrats, by contrast, held a negative conception of liberty; they saw it as freeing the common (white) man from the oppressive burdens of an aristocracy.

The Whigs had the more imaginative program, requiring the transformation of America by conscious effort and therefore needing economic planning and strong government. Twenty-first-century readers will inevitably note with surprise that the party of the business community should be the party most sympathetic to central planning and government intervention in the economy, the reverse of the usual pattern in our own day. But the businessmen of that period realized the difficulty of mobilizing capital and just how little chance existed that private enterprise alone could create the needed infrastructure of transportation and education—particularly in the absence of a central bank. Whig ambitions to transform America were more qualitative than quantitative; sheer geographical extension of the nation’s boundaries appealed to them little unless it promised economic development.

A comparison between the parties does not reveal a perfect symmetry. The Whigs possessed a more coherent program: a national bank, a protective tariff, government subsidies to transportation projects, the public lands treated as a source of revenue, and tax-supported public schools. The Democrats of course denounced the Whig plans, but beyond this, they often displayed a set of generalized attitudes rather than a specific program of their own. Jackson’s program of Indian Removal, ambitious and centrally directed, was an exception, to be sure, but often the Jacksonians led by establishing an “emotional bond” with their followers rather than by policy initiatives.40 Democratic politicians, following the example of Martin Van Buren, learned how to evoke partisan feelings in the electorate while retaining considerable flexibility with regard to policy. The variation in their tariff and banking policies—indeed, the division among them between hard and soft money—manifested this. Accordingly, the Democratic leaders relied on invoking loyalty to the party rather than to a coherent program. They largely succeeded in transferring to their party the personal loyalty Jackson had aroused and wrapped it in his mantle as defender of the people.41

By contrast, the Whigs never came around to Martin Van Buren’s view that political parties were good things in principle, even in the heat of their campaign of 1840. Rather, they took the view that partisanship had been forced on them by the other side. As the Illinois Whig Abraham Lincoln put it, “They set us the example of organization, and we, in self-defence, are driven to it.”42 Although Harrison condemned Jackson’s spoils system, his postmaster general soon busied himself replacing Democrats with Whigs throughout the country. Fundamentally, however, the Whigs saw their party not as an end in itself but as a means to set policy. When they deplored what they called “the spirit of party,” it was not because they themselves had no party but because they resented a partisanship that substituted for policy. No doubt they resented all the more the fact that the Democrats’ practice proved so successful at the polls.

One policy that the Democratic Party embraced consistently was white supremacy. The centrality of white supremacy in Democratic policymaking helps explain that party’s hostility toward Clay’s American System. Democratic suspicion of government aid to internal improvements reflected not a horror of the market revolution but a fear that such a program might threaten the institution of slavery. The danger, from the slaveholders’ point of view, was twofold. In the first place, national plans

40. Matthew Crenson, The Federal Machine: Beginnings of Bureaucracy in Jacksonian America (Baltimore, 1975), 29.

41. See Thomas Brown, “From Old Hickory to Sly Fox: The Routinization of Charisma in the Early Democratic Party,” JER 11 (1991): 339–69.

42. Collected Works of AL, I, 205.

for internal improvements might be designed to wean areas in the Border States or Upper South away from slave-based agriculture toward a diversified economy in which slavery would become vulnerable to gradual emancipation. In the second place, national plans for internal improvements set a precedent for federal activity that might encourage interference with slavery—for example, by exercising the interstate commerce power over the interstate slave trade. Jacksonians welcomed transporting farm products to market, so long as it could be done without the centralized planning that raised the specter of emancipation.

As he did so often, the perceptive former president Adams saw to the heart of the matter. Solicitude for slavery constituted the real obstacle to federal internal improvements, he told his constituents.

If the internal improvement of the country should be left to the legislative management of the national government, and the proceeds of the sales of public lands should be applied as a perpetual and self-accumulating fund for that purpose, the blessings unceasingly showered upon the people by this process would so grapple the affections of the people to the national authority that it would, in process of time, overshadow that of state governments, and settle the preponderancy of power in the free states; and then the undying worm of conscience twinges with terror for the fate of the peculiar institution. Slavery stands aghast at the prospective promotion of the general welfare.43

Significantly, the constitution of the Confederate States adopted in 1861 forbade the central government to sponsor internal improvements.

Of course, the Whig Party too had to compromise with slavery if it were to remain a nationwide party. Unlike its successor, the Republican Party of Lincoln, the Whig Party was committed to a presence in the South. The attitude of both Whigs and Democrats to race and slavery varied from one geographical area to another, but with one constant: In every region, even the Deep South, the Whig Party took the less stridently racist position. For example, in the Alabama “black belt,” although most of the large slaveowners voted Whig, it was the Democrats who beat the drums most insistently for protecting slavery from the dangers of abolitionism and strong central government.44 In the great debate over slavery in Virginia following Nat Turner’s Uprising, a majority of Jacksonians defended the institution, and a majority of future Whigs sympathized with gradual

43. John Quincy Adams, “Address to his Constituents,” Sept. 17, 1842, in Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams, ed. Adrienne Koch and William Peden (New York, 1946), 392.

44. J. Mills Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society (Baton Rouge, 1978), 133, 137.

emancipation, although the division was primarily geographical. “While both parties practiced the politics of slavery in their partisan rhetoric, Whigs and Democrats stood in distinctly different places on the spectrum of attitudes and behaviors that constituted the slavery issue,” writes the historian of Virginia politics in this period.45 Throughout the South, the Whigs showed significantly less enthusiasm for the expansion of slavery than the Democrats. In the North, Whigs, who tended to accept social differentiation, could easily adopt a condescending paternalism toward nonwhites. Ironically, the Democrats’ great insistence on the natural equality of all white men prompted them to make a more glaring exception of non-whites. Taking seriously the motto “all men are created equal,” Democrats called into question the very humanity of nonwhites in order to keep them unequal.

Henry Clay as a young man had backed gradual emancipation for Kentucky at the state constitutional convention in 1799. Remarkably, he remained critical of slavery even as a national party leader. In 1827, as secretary of state, he told the American Colonization Society that he would be proud if he could help “in ridding this foul blot,” slavery, from both Kentucky and Virginia. Addressing the U.S. Senate in 1832, he expressed the hope that “some day” the country as a whole “would be rid of this, the darkest spot on its mantle,” though of course he added that it was entirely up to the states.46 But when making his bid for the Whig nomination in 1839, Clay determined to solidify his southern support. He decided this required a major policy address disavowing the abolitionists and distinguishing his own antislavery position from theirs.

Clay made his statement in the Senate on February 7, 1839. In it, he reasserted his lifelong conviction that slavery was evil and should not have been introduced into America. Abolitionists exercised their constitutional rights when they petitioned against it, he affirmed; Congress should receive their petitions but not grant them. The evil of slavery must be tolerated at the national level, he asserted, while waiting for it to be addressed at the state level. Slaves represented $1.2 billion in capital, Clay estimated conservatively, and the abolitionists made no provision to cushion the

45. William Shade, Democratizing the Old Dominion (Charlottesville, Va., 1996), 12, quotation from 221. See also Lacy K. Ford Jr., “Making the ‘White Man’s Country’ White,” in Race and the Early Republic, ed. Michael Morrison and James B. Stewart (New York, 2002), 135–58.

46. Life, Correspondence, and Speeches of Henry Clay, ed. Calvin Colton (New York, 1857), I, 189, 191. See also Harold Tallant, Evil Necessity: Slavery and Political Culture in Antebellum Kentucky (Lexington, Ky., 2003), 49–52.

economic impact of sudden emancipation. Ultimately, Clay, like Jefferson, framed the issue in terms of the dangers of emancipation to the white race. In many places in the South, blacks were so numerous that emancipation risked either black domination or race war. Most whites in the South would cling to slavery despite its evils, as a guarantee of white supremacy, he declared. Should southerners have to choose, Clay predicted, they would value slavery above the Union.47

By rejecting gradualism, compensation, and colonization, those Clay called the “ultra-abolitionists” made the resolution of the slavery question more difficult. By endorsing equal rights for all, they made intermarriage (“amalgamation”) inevitable. By inveighing against the wickedness of slavery they arrayed section against section and threatened the Union. Without their heedless agitation, Clay supposed, the causes of gradual emancipation and colonization would still be alive and well in Kentucky. In a political climate favoring partisan extremism, in a society entertaining millennial hopes, Clay offered sober moderation, a sense of limitations, and watchful waiting.

I am, Mr. President, no friend of slavery. The searcher of all hearts knows that every pulsation of mine beats high and strong in the cause of civil liberty. Wherever it is safe and practicable, I desire to see every portion of the human family in the enjoyment of it. But I prefer the liberty of my own country to that of any other people; and the liberty of my own race to that of any other race. The liberty of the descendants of Africa in the United States is incompatible with the safety and liberty of the European descendants.48

The speech shows Clay loyal to the Jeffersonian moral position on slavery—probably more faithful to it, in fact, than Jefferson himself had been in old age. Like the Sage of Monticello, Clay looked to providence and posterity to find a solution. The outlook he expressed, for all its tragic limitations, would represent the starting point for Abraham Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery.49

The most remarkable thing about Clay’s speech is that it served its political purpose in the South. Southern Whigs accepted its logic. They did not insist, as Calhoun and other southern Democrats already did, that

47. “On Abolition” (Feb. 7, 1839) in The Works of Henry Clay, ed. Calvin Colton (New York, 1857), VIII, 139–59.

48. Ibid., 158.

49. Lincoln quoted extensively from Clay’s views on slavery in his speech at Edwardsville, Illinois, on Sept. 11, 1858. Collected Works of AL, III, 93–94.

slavery must constitute a “positive good,” a benefit to both races. They expressed satisfaction with Clay’s position, and Harry of the West went off to the Whig convention with the solid backing of southern delegates.50 In the South, the difference between the parties on slavery remained the difference between endorsing the “peculiar institution” as right and advantageous, and accepting it as an unfortunate social system to which there seemed no feasible alternative.

In the North, however, Clay’s speech did him no good. There, some Whig politicians diminished the distance between themselves and the abolitionists—for example, by supporting their right to petition Congress. The northern Whig propagandist Calvin Colton, writing as “Junius” in 1844, declared, “We do not yield to the Abolitionists a whit in our opposition to slavery; we differ from them only as to the mode of getting rid of the evil.”51 In the mean time, Clay’s anti-abolitionist speech prompted northern Whigs to consider Harrison and Scott as alternatives for the nomination. When the convention came, Clay received the votes of no northern state save little Rhode Island. The effects of Clay’s antiabolitionist speech illustrate the supreme difficulty of bridging the sectional gap on the slavery question within the Whig Party—even for so skillful and principled a moderate as Henry Clay.

There is an ironic footnote to this speech of Clay’s. When warned by a sympathetic fellow senator that this remarkably full exposition of his position would make an inviting target for extremists on both sides of the slavery issue, perhaps jeopardizing his presidential campaign, Clay responded, “I had rather be right than be president.”52 It became probably his most famous quotation. One can only wish that this profession of virtue had been voiced on behalf of a more morally courageous statement. Still, though never president, Clay was often right.


“There never was a President elected who has a more difficult task imposed upon him than General Harrison,” observed one cautious Whig. “Too much is expected of him.”53 The public did have strong expectations, and the new President Harrison confronted his challenge head on. He appointed a capable cabinet, headed by Daniel Webster as secretary

50. William J. Cooper, The South and the Politics of Slavery (Baton Rouge, 1978), 123–24.

51. [Calvin Colton], Political Abolition, by Junius (New York, 1844), 2.

52. Papers of Henry Clay, ed. Robert Seager (Lexington, Ky., 1988), IX, 283.

53. J. Mitchell to John McLean, Nov. 28, 1840, quoted in William Brock, Parties and Political Conscience (Millwood, N.Y., 1979), 72.

of state. He summoned a special session of Congress to deal with the depression and enact the Whig economic program. His meetings with Henry Clay, who would be the dominant power in the legislative branch, revealed that the two men had not yet transcended their rivalry for the Whig nomination. At one point, when the senator pressed advice upon him too presumptuously, Harrison snapped, “You forget, Mr. Clay, that I am the president.”54 But their personal feelings could probably have been subsumed within their broadly common goals. Harrison would have been a mainstream Whig president, enjoying cordial relations with many northern party leaders, if not with Clay, and in any case committed on principle to respecting the will of Congress. He held meetings of his full cabinet and had confidence in its collective judgment.

But within days, Harrison fell ill. At first it seemed a bad cold, presumably caught when chilled at his inauguration. Then it turned to pneumonia. Being president, he of course received the best medical care available—perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to him. His doctors administered the “heroic” treatments of the age: “topical depletion,” harsh laxatives, and blistering. Their favorite remedy, bloodletting, they postponed.55 It was all too much for the veteran of many a battle. Exactly one month after his inauguration, President Harrison died. The Whig electoral triumph had turned to ashes.

It was the first time a president had died in office. “When a Christian people feel themselves to be overtaken by a great public calamity, it becomes them to humble themselves under the dispensation of Divine Providence,” declared his successor, in proclaiming May 14, 1841, a day of national prayer and fasting. Charles Finney preached one of his greatest sermons for the occasion, calling on the bereaved country to repent of its sins, which ranged from slavery and the treatment of the aborigines to desecration of the Sabbath, mercenary values, intemperance, and political corruption.56

Vice President John Tyler, also a Virginia governor’s son, came like Harrison from the tidewater aristocracy. The running mates shared little else in common. Where Harrison had been the oldest chief executive, Tyler at fifty-one became the youngest so far. Rejecting the title “acting president,” Tyler successfully insisted that he had fallen heir to the presidency itself.

54. Quoted in Norma Peterson, The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (Lawrence, Kans., 1989), 34.

55. “Report of the Physicians” (April 4, 1841), Presidential Messages, IV, 31.

56. Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1996), 198–203.

Six feet tall and slender, when his ailing wife, Letitia, died in 1842 he wasted no time courting the beautiful twenty-four-year-old New York heiress Julia Gardiner. Their wedding, the first of an incumbent president, initiated a period of virtually regal luxury in the White House.57 Like other vice presidents who have succeeded to the presidency, Tyler came into power on short notice and unprepared. At first he retained Harrison’s cabinet; perhaps he would defer to their advice, some supposed. They were wrong.

It would be easy to demonize Tyler as a sinister frustrater of the popular will, wrecker of the Whig Party’s only clear mandate, and the president who prostituted the Constitution to evade the requirement that the Senate ratify treaties. But the historian’s duty is to understand, not simply condemn. In his own mind, John Tyler exemplified high principles. He had entered politics at the age of twenty-one and served as both governor and senator from Virginia. He was a dedicated Old Republican and a faithful disciple of Thomas Jefferson, devoted to both state rights and national expansion. He construed the Constitution strictly in defense of state rights and broadly in asserting executive authority to extend American sovereignty and commercial interests. Like Jefferson, he owned slaves while professing regret for the institution of slavery; like the master of Monticello, he left behind black people claiming descent from him.58

Tyler had joined the Whig Party because he objected to Jackson’s strong response to nullification and to his withdrawal of the deposits from the BUS. In 1836, the Virginian had been Hugh White’s running mate. Tyler’s views on public policy, however, left him in a highly anomalous position within the Whig Party. Many of the former sympathizers with nullification, such as members of the old State Rights Party in Georgia, had not only joined the Whig Party but also had embraced Clay’s views on a national bank. As major producers of commodities for export, these planters understood the importance of banking, currency, and credit. They preferred a revived national bank to continued dependence on New York City financiers.59 Government intervention in the economy did not fill all southerners with horror; many of them wanted public funding to dredge river channels or construct railroads, for example. Of those

57. Robert Seager, And Tyler Too (New York, 1963), 243–66.

58. See Dan Monroe, The Republican Vision of John Tyler (College Station, Tex., 2003); Edward Crapol, John Tyler, the Accidental President (Chapel Hill, 2006). On the issue of Tyler’s slave children: Crapol, 64–67.

59. For how former nullifiers turned into Whigs, see J. Mills Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society (Baton Rouge, 1978).

southerners who still shared Tyler’s views on strict construction, most had followed John C. Calhoun back into the Democratic Party once Jackson himself had retired. Indeed, in Tyler’s own Virginia, most tidewater Old Republicans had never left the Democratic Party. A large majority of Virginia’s Whigs sided with Clay, not Tyler, when the choice had to be made.

John Tyler was also a politician. Throughout his four years in the White House, he assiduously pursued election to a term in his own right. His isolation within the Whig Party complicated matters, but Tyler stuck with his goal and displayed remarkable ingenuity in furthering it. In the end the odds against it were simply too great, but in the course of pursuing it he inflicted huge damage on the Whig Party.

Harrison had called the special session of Congress to meet on May 31, the earliest date practicable in that age of slow communication and travel. “We come here to relieve the country,” declared a Whig from New York when the Congress had assembled. “The eyes of the nation are bent upon us with an intensity which has never before been experienced.”60 Clay and the other Whig congressional leaders knew what they wanted and they wanted it quickly. (Democrats suspected that Whig haste betrayed a fear that the economy might begin to recover before their program could take effect; in the event, no such early recovery occurred.) The Whigs repealed Van Buren’s Independent Treasury Act, then drew up legislation to establish a third national bank. Tyler signed the repeal, but his reaction to the other bill remained the subject of much speculation as it moved through Congress. The new president offered no alternative proposal. Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Ewing, trying to fill the void, suggested a bank of limited powers. Clay preferred to press ahead with his original plan, making, however, two concessions to strict construction: the bank would be based in the District of Columbia, and states would enjoy a limited right to refuse the establishment of its branches. Clay believed the Whigs had a mandate from the electorate, which was true, and persuaded himself that “Tyler dare not resist”61—which was wishful thinking. Tyler waited the full ten days allowed by the Constitution, whether out of indecision or secret pleasure in making Clay squirm, then vetoed the bank bill on August 16, 1841. Unpersuaded by the existence of two previous national banks for a total of forty years, or by the opinion of the Supreme Court, Tyler insisted that such an institution was unconstitutional.62

60. Representative Christopher Morgan, quoted in Holt, Rise and Fall of Whig Party, 130–31.

61. Quoted in Peterson, Presidencies of Harrison and Tyler, 57.

62. “Veto Message” (Aug. 16, 1841), Presidential Messages, IV, 63–68.

The Whigs did not have the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto, but they did pass another bank bill, this time in the form that Secretary Ewing had proposed, in the hope that Tyler would accept it. They gave the revised bank a euphemistic name, “fiscal corporation,” and forbade it to establish any branches in states without their consent. Tyler’s fellow Virginian, Whig congressman John Minor Botts, who represented the urban-industrial constituency of Richmond, declared that although he would vote for it, Ewing’s bank was so weak that investors would shun it, making the plan unworkable and exposing Tyler’s economic ignorance. Botts’s claim both infuriated and convinced Tyler. He vetoed the Ewing bank bill as well—thus denying the financial community the chance to fulfill Botts’s prediction. In the last analysis, Tyler had no interest in reaching an accommodation with Clay. If a compromise bank bill passed, Clay would remain leader of the Whig Party and its next presidential nominee. Tyler was challenging Clay for leadership of the party. No longer possessing either Van Buren’s Independent Treasury or a reconstituted BUS, the federal government once again resorted to placing its money in private banks. The solution of the soft-money Democrats prevailed by default over those of the hard-money Democrats and the Whigs.

Despite the deadlock over the national bank, the Whigs managed to pass some items of their program. One of these was the Land Act of 1841, which Whigs hoped would stimulate land sales and strengthen their party in the West. It provided that settlers on government-owned lands would from now on enjoy the right to buy 160-acre homesteads at the minimum price without having to compete in an auction. This made permanent the “preemption” privilege that squatters had been granted from time to time retroactively. The law gave preemption rights to any male citizen over twenty-one or heading a family, and also to widowed women, provided the settler already owned no more than 320 acres of other land. It constituted a long step toward the altogether free homesteads for settlers that the new Republican Party would enact a generation later. Indeed, a careful scholar of federal land policy has declared the Land Act of 1841 even more important than the later law in encouraging western settlement by farmers of modest means.63 For years, the Jacksonian Thomas Hart Benton had struggled for such a “prospective preemption” law. Ironically, when it finally passed, it did so on a party-line vote with Whigs supporting and Democrats opposing. The reason for Democratic opposition was that the bill included “distribution” of the proceeds of land sales to the states.

63. Roy Robbins, Our Landed Heritage, 2nd ed. (Lincoln, Neb., 1976), 91.

Whigs intended the distribution of funds to the states to stimulate internal improvements without running afoul of any constitutional scruples. They had been waiting for this measure ever since Jackson vetoed Clay’s distribution bill of 1833. But Tyler, like Calhoun and most Democrats, wanted the proceeds from land sales to go to the federal government so tariffs could remain as low as possible. He therefore insisted that distribution of land proceeds not occur if any tariffs exceeded 20 percent, the ceiling set by the old Compromise of 1833.

The president also approved a depression-relief measure, the Bankruptcy Act of 1841. The Constitution specifically empowers Congress to pass uniform national bankruptcy legislation, so even a strict constructionist could not object. The law applied to individuals, not banks or other corporations, allowing them to declare bankruptcy and start financial life over. No previous federal legislation permitted individuals to seek the protection of bankruptcy, and only a Whig Congress would have passed such a law. Democrats disapproved of voluntary bankruptcy for somewhat the same reasons that they disliked bank notes; they saw it as encouraging people to borrow beyond their means and then defraud their creditors. During the one year the law operated (1842–43), forty-one thousand persons took out bankruptcy under it. The experience chastened some of them (as Democrats thought it should); others plunged back into the whirl of commercial life (as Whigs hoped they would).64

The depression had brought hard times to American manufacturing while simultaneously so reducing federal revenues that the surplus of Jackson’s day had given way to a deep deficit and the national debt reappeared. As a result, both the impulse to protect domestic industry and the government’s need for revenue indicated that the Compromise Tariff of 1833 should be terminated (or reinterpreted) at the close of its nine-year time frame. Twice Tyler vetoed Whig bills to increase the duties; eventually, however, persuaded by the need for revenue if not by its protective features, he signed the Tariff of 1842.

But when the Tariff of 1842 breached the 20 percent ceiling on duties, the distribution of land revenues to the states automatically ceased. Whigs tried to get Tyler to relent and change the law, but he was adamant. Southern Whigs had relied upon distribution to get money for internal improvements and to sweeten the bitter pill of higher tariff duties to their cotton-growing constituents; New York’s Governor Seward had

64. Charles Warren, Bankruptcy in United States History (Cambridge, Mass., 1935), pt. II; Edward Balleisen, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill, 2001).

hoped for distribution to enable him to help the anti-rent movement. Southern Whigs also felt especially disappointed at the failure to establish a national bank; northerners had stronger state and regional banks of their own and needed a third BUS less urgently. Tyler hoped the disaffected southerners and New Yorkers would blame their troubles on Clay and rally behind his own banner.

But the president underestimated the Whig Party’s cohesion and dedication to its program. In protest against his bank vetoes, in September 1841 the entire cabinet resigned, save Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who was involved in serious negotiations with Britain over the Maine boundary. The same month, a caucus of Whig members of Congress took an extraordinary action unparalleled in American history: They expelled a sitting president from his political party. But Tyler would not abandon his bid for Whig Party leadership. Webster had fancied himself Harrison’s prime minister and hoped to become his heir; when the old man died, Webster was reluctant to give up on this aspiration. Tyler exploited the New Englander’s vanity to prolong ties with his branch of the party. But by the summer of 1842, Tyler’s attempt to turn the Whig Party around had clearly failed. At this point the president switched to a new strategy: He would form a party of his own. With this in mind, he undertook a wholesale purge of the Whig appointees from federal offices, replacing them with state-rights men, most of them Democrats.

The midterm elections of 1842–43 inflicted terrible reprisals upon the Whigs. Their Senate majority was trimmed and their majority in the House lost altogether; the number of Whig representatives plummeted dramatically from 133 to 79. The depression continued, the party had not made good on its promises, and despite its repudiation of him, Tyler had muddied the waters enough so that many voters viewed the Whigs as a party rent by internal division and incapable of governing. The first-time voters whom the Whigs had recruited in 1840 now felt disillusioned and stayed away from the polls in droves. Furthermore, by purging the Whigs from their patronage, Tyler had robbed the party’s local leaders of the usual incentives and opportunities to mobilize supporters. Reapportionment following the census of 1840 compounded these effects and cost the Whigs many seats in states where Democratic legislatures had redrawn the constituencies.65

Tyler continued to delude himself that he could create a third party by the use of patronage, though as a practical matter he needed support from the congressional Democrats. The latter rested content to apply the

65. Statistics presented in Holt, Rise and Fall of Whig Party, 140–60.

principle of laissez-faire and wait for the country to struggle out of the depression as best it might. The Democrats showed no interest in Tyler’s Exchequer Plan, his belated attempt to craft a substitute for Van Buren’s Independent Treasury and the Whigs’ national bank—despite the plan’s intrinsic merits.66 In the spring of 1843 Webster, his treaty with Britain safely concluded and his dream of using the State Department as a springboard to the White House finally abandoned, resigned from the cabinet and returned to the Whig Party. Contrary to Black Dan’s advice, Tyler had begun to pursue the annexation of Texas.


Campaigners for Harrison in Illinois throughout the months of 1839–40 included the thirty-one-year-old Whig state legislator Abraham Lincoln. Though a strong admirer of Clay, Lincoln had backed Harrison even before the party convention. Much in demand during the campaign, Lincoln spoke before many audiences in varied circumstances—in the state assembly wearing his best sixty-dollar suit, out on the stump dressed in jeans, or traveling about the state debating against a young Democrat named Stephen Douglas, as the two men would do again in their more famous confrontations eighteen years later. Lincoln denounced Van Buren’s Independent Treasury and demanded a third national bank to replace it. The partisan presses reported that he also told jokes, poked fun at local Democrats, and matched wits with hecklers. The Democratic papers wrote him off as a “traveling missionary” for Harrison; Whig papers found him effective.67

Still a frontier agricultural state in 1840, with many Butternut settlers from the South, Illinois went for Van Buren in spite of Lincoln’s efforts. In Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, however, voters engaged in commerce, industry, and the professions delivered a majority to the Whigs.68 Lincoln’s political party reflected his choice of occupation and way of life, as well as, in a larger sense, his personal values. The son of a farmer, Lincoln had left home like countless other young Americans and struck out on his own. First he tried his luck in the tiny village of New Salem, clerking in a store. But New Salem never managed to get connected to

66. On the Exchequer Plan, see Peterson, Presidencies of Harrison and Tyler, 96–98.

67. Robert Gunderson, The Log-Cabin Campaign (Lexington, Ky., 1957), 212–16; Reinhard Luthin, The Real Abraham Lincoln (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1960), 54–55; Collected Works of AL, I, 159–79.

68. Kenneth Winkle, “The Second Party System in Lincoln’s Springfield,” Civil War History 44 (1998): 267–84.

any transportation that could sustain its commerce; Lincoln moved away to Springfield and helped it become the state capital. New Salem ended up one of the West’s countless ghost towns.

Lincoln took the experience of New Salem to heart; he early became and long remained an ardent supporter of internal improvements. The revolutions in transportation and communications captured his imagination. On one occasion, to demonstrate the potential of the Sangamon River as an artery of commerce, he took charge of a steamboat himself and piloted it along the stream from Beardstown to Portland Landing. Later, he even tried inventing a device to enable steamboats to float themselves off when they stuck on shoals; although he actually got a patent for the idea, he never marketed it. (Lincoln envisioned buoyant air chambers, collapsed when not needed and inflated to raise the boat and diminish its draft.)69 But mostly Lincoln worked through the political process to provide subsidies for canals and railroads. Remembering what the Erie Canal had done for New York state, he confided to his best friend his ambition to become “the DeWitt Clinton of Illinois.”70

Like a good Whig, Lincoln would have preferred to see federal money spent for internal improvements, but when this was not forthcoming, he heartily endorsed state funding: “the Illinois System,” his plan was called, a small-scale American System. During the legislative session of 1836–37, by now Whig minority leader, Lincoln worked with the Democratic majority in the legislature, led by Stephen Douglas, to achieve this end, showing that Democrats too were happy to enable farmers to market their crops. When the Panic of 1837 ruined the economy of Illinois, however, Lincoln demonstrated much more reluctance than the Democrats to give up on the Illinois System.71 He differed from the Democrats even more in his insistence that the West needed credit and that a third national bank constituted the safest and most practical source of such credit. In the absence of a national bank, Lincoln defended the Illinois state bank against the Democrats. In a famous incident, while trying to protect the state bank, Lincoln and some other Whig legislators jumped out the window of the statehouse in a vain attempt to prevent a quorum.

69. David Donald, Abraham Lincoln (New York, 1995), 43–44; “Application for a Patent,” Collected Works of AL, II, 32–36.

70. Abraham Lincoln to Joshua Speed, quoted in Richard Carwardine, Lincoln (London, 2003), 12.

71. For Lincoln and the Illinois System, see Gabor Boritt, Abraham Lincoln and the American Dream (Memphis, Tenn., 1978), 13–39. For Lincoln and the Illinois Whig Party, see Joel Silbey, “Always a Whig in Politics,” Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association 8 (1986): 21–42.

Most fundamentally, Lincoln differed with the Democrats in broad political outlook. Democrats thought primarily in terms of local white communities; their nationalism consisted of a desire to extend across the continent the area where these communities could flourish. Lincoln and the Whigs thought in terms of an integrated nation, its diverse occupations, classes, and regions harmonized in economic complementarity. The protective tariff, a subject to which Lincoln devoted much attention and study, seemed to him to guarantee home markets for both agriculture and industry while saving on transportation costs. Within an economically developed and integrated nation, Lincoln believed, individual autonomy could flourish as never before. As his biographer David Donald sums it up, the Whig Party embodied for Lincoln “the promise of American life,” an opportunity for people to make something of themselves. For Whigs like Lincoln, this involved more than material betterment or upward social mobility. It meant a whole new kind of life away from the farm, the chance “to escape the restraints of locality and community,” as the historian Allen Guelzo puts it, “to refashion themselves on the basis of new economic identities in a larger world of trade, based on merit, self-improvement, and self-control.”72 To Lincoln, then, his membership in the Whig Party typified the new life he had made for himself. He remained an active and loyal Whig until the newly organized Republican Party absorbed most northern Whigs in the mid-1850s. This new party represented for Lincoln a continuation of the same aspirations as the Whigs, for the modernization of American society and the creation of new opportunities for personal self-fulfillment.73

An important part of Lincoln’s life as a Whig was his marriage to Mary Todd. Daughter of a prominent Whig family in Lexington, she had known Henry Clay personally all her life. Mary made no secret of her political opinions. She and her husband shared a strong loyalty to the Whig Party, though in the mid-1850s they briefly disagreed on what that implied: She backed Fillmore for president in 1856 when Abraham backed Frémont. Mary was a devout Christian (Episcopalian until 1850; thereafter Presbyterian), while Abraham never joined a church— not an uncommon pattern, for many more wives than husbands belonged to churches. Nevertheless, Abraham had absorbed biblical culture and a Calvinist sense of fatalism from his Baptist upbringing.

72. Donald, Abraham Lincoln, 110; Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1999), 57.

73. See “Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society” (Sept. 30, 1859), Collected Works of AL, III, 471–82.

When the Civil War came, his spirituality would deepen profoundly.74 In the meantime, he participated in some of the same redemptive reforms as the Evangelical United Front. One of these was the temperance movement.

While the Democrats celebrated the natural man and held up Andrew Jackson as his prototype, Whigs like Lincoln celebrated the artificial—that is, self-constructed—personality. An address Lincoln delivered to the local chapter of the Washingtonian Temperance Society in Springfield’s Second Presbyterian Church reveals much about his ideal of the self-controlled, autonomous personality. A teetotaler himself, Lincoln declared forthrightly, “The world would be vastly benefited by a total and final banishment from it of all intoxicating drinks.” Nevertheless, he spent the first part of his speech criticizing temperance advocates for their self-righteous denunciations. The strength of the Washingtonian movement, he declared, was that it comprised reformed alcoholics, who understood at first hand the meaning of resolve and self-control. They should lead the “temperance revolution,” a worthy successor to “our political revolution of ’76.” In this new revolution, “we shall find a stronger bondage broken, a viler slavery manumitted, a greater tyrant deposed.” Like so many other American reformers of his day, Lincoln roused millennial expectations. “Happy day,” he concluded, “when, all appetites controlled, all passions subdued, all matters subjected, mind, all conquering mind, shall live and move the monarch of the world. Glorious consummation! Hail, fall of Fury! Reign of Reason, all hail!” Lincoln’s version of the millennium was the supremacy of rationality over impulse and passion. And, like most other American millennialists, he made a special place for his own country: “When the victory shall be complete—when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth—how proud the title of that Land, which may truly claim to be the birth-place and the cradle of both those revolutions.”75 Temperance and antislavery partook of the same moral impulse, for both sought to redeem humanity from bondage, whether to the passions of others or to those of oneself.

74. For recent interpretations of Lincoln’s religion, see Carwardine, Lincoln, 28–40; Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln, 149–58, 312–24; Ronald White, Abraham Lincoln’s Greatest Speech (New York, 2002), passim; and Stewart Winger, Lincoln, Religion, and Romantic Cultural Politics (DeKalb, Ill., 2003).

75. “Temperance Address” (Feb. 22, 1842), Collected Works of AL, I, 271–79, quotations from 276, 278, 279. I say more about Lincoln’s conception of the constructed personality in Making the American Self (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 138–49.


Under Jackson, the Democratic Party celebrated popular sovereignty and expressed relative indifference to the rule of law when this conflicted with the will of “the people” as defined by the party. Even violence had been shrugged off when directed against unpopular minorities. Whigs, on the other hand, emphasized that the people had imposed legal limitations on their own sovereignty; in controversies like deposit removal they cast themselves as upholders of the law. The late 1830s saw a continuation of this pattern. Both Arkansas and Michigan drew up state constitutions without waiting for legal authority from Congress. Democrats and Whigs disagreed about whether to accept such behavior and admit the territories as states, but the Democratic predilection for popular sovereignty eventually carried the day. More worrisome was the Democratic proposal to circumvent amendment in favor of popular sovereignty as a method of changing the constitution of Maryland in 1836; Maryland voters, however, opted for the legal procedure by a large margin. In 1838, a Pennsylvania mob inflamed by Democratic editorials burst into the capitol building in Harrisburg, sending the state senators fleeing. Although the Van Buren administration refused the governor’s request for aid, state militia managed to restore order.76 Then, in 1842, the bizarre episode in Rhode Island known as the Dorr Rebellion (or, more hyperbolically, as the “Dorr War”) provoked both Democrats and Whigs to reaffirm their principles in the light of experience.

Alone among American states, Rhode Island had not drawn up a new constitution since the Revolution, and as late as 1842 operated under its colonial charter of 1663. Extraordinarily democratic by seventeenth-century standards, the charter had been rendered anachronistic by the industrial revolution. The charter conveyed “freemanship” (the right to vote, sue in court, and serve on juries) to native-born adult white males who either owned real estate or were the eldest sons of freemen. What fraction of Rhode Island men could meet these archaic qualifications in the 1840s is unclear; modern estimates range from 40 percent to two-thirds.77 The system favored farmers at the expense of residents in the new textile mill towns, not only in the voting requirements but also in the apportionment of the state legislature. While the city of Providence had one-sixth of the state’s population and contributed two-thirds of its taxes, it chose only one-twentieth of the state representatives.78 Rhode Island’s

76. David Grimsted, American Mobbing (New York, 1998), 205–9.

77. George Dennison, The Dorr War (Lexington, Ky., 1976), 14 (40 percent); Grimsted, American Mobbing, 209 (two-thirds).

78. Peter Coleman, The Transformation of Rhode Island (Providence, R.I., 1963), 270.

old charter endured for reasons both procedural and substantive. In the first place, the document contained no provision for its own amendment. (Originally, it had been assumed that the Privy Council in London could change it; now that was out of the question.) Second, the two major parties had come to terms with the charter. The Democrats won the state in 1836; the Whigs in 1840. Would-be reformers disagreed about what changes to make. The textile mills had recruited French Canadian and Irish immigrants, mostly Catholic in religion; a free Negro population dated back to the days when Rhode Island had been a center of the Atlantic slave trade. If the suffrage were to be expanded, Democrats wanted to include immigrants but not black men; Whigs preferred the opposite.

In 1834, a Rhode Island state assemblyman named Thomas Dorr formed a Suffragist movement calling for a new constitution on the basis of universal manhood suffrage. The Suffragists contested the annual state elections as a third party but never gained more than 10 percent of the vote. Dorr himself seemed a quintessential patrician reformer: from a wealthy family, a graduate of Phillips Exeter and Harvard, antislavery, a Whig. His diverse followers included disfranchised workers and artisans, the labor leader Seth Luther, and also middle-class men who objected to the archaic amateurism of the state courts under the charter and the legislature’s power to intervene in judicial cases.

The Rhode Island Whig Party became impatient with Dorr’s third-party activities and expelled him for splitting the Whig vote. The Democrats then recruited him, not because the local politicians liked him (they didn’t) but at the urging of out-of-state party leaders who saw in Dorr’s cause a way for the Democratic Party to show its support for popular sovereignty. In 1841, with working-class discontent exacerbated by hard times, Dorr’s Suffrage Association held an unauthorized convention that drew up a document called the “People’s Constitution” of Rhode Island. This People’s Constitution was “ratified” by a referendum in which all white men in the state could vote. Of course, this referendum had no legal status, although the authorities allowed it to take place. The Dorrites asserted that more than fourteen thousand men voted for their constitution, but without any impartial monitoring this result cannot be trusted.79 The number was critical, since it represented just over half of the adult men in the state and gave the Suffragists their claim to constitute the popular majority.

Events moved rapidly in April 1842. An election for state officials under the charter occurred; seven thousand men voted in it. The reformers staged a parallel poll of their own even though the state legislature this

79. Grimsted, American Mobbing, 212.

time declared it illegal. Some six thousand voters, Suffragists claimed, unanimously elected Thomas Dorr state governor. Dorr announced that his followers would seek to enforce the outcome of this election rather than that of the authorized one. He addressed cheering thousands in rallies and appeared in public with hundreds of armed men. He listened to Democratic politicians in other states, such as Silas Wright and Mike Walsh of New York, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, and former Treasury secretary Levi Woodbury, encouraging him to bold action. Ex-presidents Jackson and Van Buren expressed support. Francis Blair of the Washington Globe, leading organ of the Democratic Party, warned the charter government that if it dared try to suppress the rival state government, force would be met with force.80

Rhode Island governor Samuel King felt sufficiently alarmed to request military help from President Tyler in maintaining law and order. Tyler did not rush to support a Whig governor against a movement enjoying Democratic Party support at a time when he too was courting Democrats. On the other hand, he could hardly appear unsympathetic to a state’s plea for aid against insurrection, the southern white nightmare scenario. So Tyler ruled King’s request premature, adding, however, that in the event an insurrection materialized, he would intervene to sustain constituted authority, without any inquiry into “the real or supposed defects of the existing government.”81 (Tyler would have been mindful that his own Commonwealth of Virginia at this time retained a state constitution with property voting qualifications and a malapportioned legislature.)

On May 3, Thomas Dorr’s supporters inaugurated him as governor of Rhode Island, along with a “People’s Legislature” that met in a deserted factory. This convinced Tyler that the time to dispatch a few federal troops had come. It turned out they were not needed. The eighty would-be legislators in Dorr’s shadow government had no real stomach for confrontation. They met for only two days before adjourning and laid no plans for a resort to force. The constituted authorities, by contrast, displayed organization and decisiveness. On May 18, Dorr foolishly led some armed men in an attempt to capture a state arsenal under cover of fog. When the mist lifted, it revealed the arsenal bristling with defenders. Dorr’s followers wasted no time fleeing; the authorities then clamped down on his movement. Democratic politicians, national as well as state,

80. John Ashworth, ‘Agrarians’ and ‘Aristocrats’: Party Political Ideology in the United States, 1837–1846 (London, 1983), 116–27.

81. John Tyler to Samuel King, April 11, 1842, printed in “The Recent Contest in Rhode Island,” North American Review 58 (1844), 398.

sensed that the Rhode Island public was not really ripe for revolution and did not attempt to intervene on behalf of the Suffrage Association. Dorr found himself arrested, convicted of treason against the state of Rhode Island, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The charter government meanwhile summoned a legal constitutional convention; the document it drew up became known as the “Law and Order Constitution.” In November a referendum ratified this constitution, 7,032 to 59, with the Dorrites boycotting. Surprisingly little differentiated this constitution from the “People’s” one. The legally proposed document gave the right to vote to all native-born men who paid at least a dollar a year in taxes and to any immigrants who could meet the traditional property requirements. Like the “People’s Constitution,” it reapportioned the legislature, providing substantial equity of representation in the lower house, though not in the state senate. Both basic laws included a bill of rights and left the judiciary subordinate to the legislature. The most important difference between them was that the “People’s” document had not required a property qualification of immigrants. On the other hand, the “Law and Order” constitution enfranchised taxpaying black men, where the “People’s” constitution had restricted voting to whites.82

After he had served a year in prison, the state legislature ordered Thomas Dorr released; his conviction was annulled in 1854, not long before he died. Although Dorr had succeeded in intimidating an unresponsive system to change its constitution, much in Rhode Island politics went on as before. The two political parties in the state found no difficulty adjusting to the new system. James Fenner, a bitterly anti-Dorrite Democrat, ran as the “law and order” candidate with Whig support and won the state governorship in the first election held under the new constitution. Although more men were enfranchised, the turnout of qualified voters remained the lowest of any northern state’s.83

Outside Rhode Island, both political parties pointed to the Dorr Rebellion to illustrate their respective political philosophies. The Democratic press proclaimed Dorr a hero and martyr of popular sovereignty. Whigs, on the other hand, accepted the judgment of Henry Clay that Dorr’s uprising typified the dangers to “the permanency and stability of our institutions” along with nullification, Jacksonian illegalities, and the repudiation

82. Both constitutions are reprinted in Arthur Mowry, The Dorr War (Providence, R.I., 1901), 322–46, 367–90.

83. William Gienapp, “Politics Seem to Enter into Everything,” in Essays on American Antebellum Politics, ed. Stephen Maizlish and John Kushma (College Station, Tex., 1982), table on 22.

of state bonds.84 Clay might well have added mob violence and the anti-rent movement to his list. In 1845, well after the issue had become moot, Democrats forced a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on resolutions endorsing Dorr’s claim to the Rhode Island governorship and condemning his imprisonment. Democrats voted 107 to 7 in favor; Whigs voted 67 to 7 against. The uprising highlighted the different political philosophies of the two parties, popular sovereignty versus constitutional order and restraint.85

When a case involving a dispute over legal authority in Rhode Island came up before the U.S. Supreme Court, Daniel Webster defended the charter government’s actions; his argument constituted a classic statement of Whig constitutional philosophy.86 While the high court was hearing the case in 1848, revolutions by disfranchised townsmen and workers rebelling against archaic, undemocratic political systems swept across Europe. What Americans called “the Dorr War” in their smallest state seemed a miniature counterpart to these revolutions. If other states had waited until after industrialization to liberalize their voting requirements, they too might have undergone similar crises. Popular sovereignty had explosive implications in the world of the 1840s. Under these circumstances, and perhaps reflecting that his home state practiced slavery, Chief Justice Taney ruled against the “People’s Constitution” and validated the charter government. Despite his party’s rhetorical affirmations of popular sovereignty, the chief justice preferred prescriptive authority.87


A week after the first day of spring, Atlantic seaboard weather still felt wintry on March 28, 1841. In Washington, President Harrison had fallen ill. In East Cambridge, Massachusetts, a thirty-nine-year-old unmarried schoolmarm visited the county jail to give a Sunday school class, substituting for the regular teacher. She noticed (along with the debtors, minor

84. Henry Clay, “Address at Lexington, Ky.” (1842), in his Works (New York, 1904), IX, 359–84.

85. Ashworth, ‘Agrarians’ and ‘Aristocrats,’ 230. See also Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (New York, 2005), 539–45; William Wiecek, “Popular Sovereignty in the Dorr War,” Rhode Island History 32 (1973): 35–51.

86. “The Rhode Island Government,” Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster (Boston, 1903), XI, 217–42.

87. Luther v. Borden, 48 U.S. (7 Howard) 1–88 (1849). The case involved interpreting the “republican form of government” guarantee in the U.S. Constitution. Taney ruled that enforcing the guarantee belonged to the federal executive and legislative branches, not the judiciary.

criminals, and defendants awaiting trial) the local “lunatics” confined in an unheated cell. Dorothea Dix not only took it upon herself to provide them with some warmth, she kept coming back, reading up on the situation of the indigent insane, and composing a petition to the state legislature. When published, her Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts proved a bombshell. “I tell what I have seen!” she proclaimed—and much of it she found “revolting.” She had seen people “Chained, naked, beaten with rods, andlashed into obedience!”88 Miss Dix had found her true vocation, combining the talents of a publicist who mobilized public opinion with those of a lobbyist who could make things happen.

The treatment of the indigent insane in Massachusetts was actually relatively enlightened, Dix discovered, compared with what went on in other states. Typically, societies at the time incarcerated the indigent insane under whatever conditions cost the least; this could mean private basements or cages. Dix took her crusade on the road. Tall, slender, with angular features and her hair pulled back severely, Dorothea Dix embodied the Victorian image of female dignity and rectitude. She appealed to both heart and head. Her impassioned humanitarian outrage could move audiences, while her writings marshaled statistics and evidences of neglect. Dix spent time at the York Retreat in England, where she saw the Quakers apply principles of faculty psychology to the treatment of mental disorders. She cited the latest scientific papers by “alienists” (as psychiatrists were then called) about the efficacy of “moral” (that is, psychological) treatment as compared with traditional physical remedies for insanity (mainly bloodletting and blistering—the same as the remedies for almost every illness). Herself a Unitarian disciple of William Ellery Channing’s doctrine of the perfectibility of human nature, she could preach Christian compassion with an evangelical power that transcended denominations. “Raise up the fallen, console the afflicted, defend the helpless, minister to the poor, reclaim the transgressor, be benefactors of mankind!”89

Dix’s solution to the problem of the indigent insane was to place them in state-run asylums. The word “asylum,” of course, means “haven,” and she envisioned asylums as homelike places of tranquility and treatment. Those who recovered could be released; the others would at least be treated humanely. For years Dix traveled all over the United States and Canada, taking her campaign to one legislature after another with remarkable effectiveness. Since states confined the insane in a variety of

88. Dorothea Dix, Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts (Boston, 1843), 3–4.

89. Dorothea Dix, A Review of the Present Condition of the State Penitentiary of Kentucky; Printed by Order of the Legislature (Frankfort, Ky., 1846), 36.

institutions, she sometimes needed to address issues involving prisons and almshouses. But two issues she scrupulously avoided. By not mentioning women’s rights, she got politicians to take her seriously; and by staying well clear of antislavery, she brought southern state legislatures on board.90 Dix proved instrumental in founding a multitude of asylums for the mentally ill.

Dix’s core support came from Whigs, who found her cause compatible with their disposition toward redemptive reform and positive government. Like the reformers of schools and prisons, she addressed the shaping of human character. She maintained a long friendship and correspondence with Millard Fillmore, the New York Whig who became Zachary Taylor’s vice president and successor. Dix also cultivated Democratic politicians whenever she could. But when she shifted her attention to the federal level, a Democratic president frustrated what would have been her greatest achievement. In 1854, after years of lobbying by Dix, a bill setting aside 10 million acres of public lands to fund insane asylums finally passed Congress, only to fall before the veto of Franklin Pierce, a neo-Jacksonian strict constructionist. “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for making the Federal Government the great almoner of public charity,” he explained.91

Dix’s career illustrates a general principle of the growth of women’s political participation in nineteenth-century America. As women achieved more education, as the transportation and communications revolutions broke down their isolation, as the evangelical movement reached out to them, and as the industrial revolution enabled more and more of them to earn their own money (both within and without the home), women became increasingly active in public life. In the South as well as in the North, in free Negro communities as well as among whites, religious and benevolent causes benefited early from women’s energies and talents. These kinds of activity seemed most compatible with prevailing assumptions about women’s roles. A good “republican mother” could there exert leadership without appearing to break out of her proper “sphere” and challenge male authority. While men were acknowledged to be self-seeking, aggressive, and competitive, a woman like Dix could assume responsibility for making society compassionate and providing the helpless

90. This discussion of Dix draws upon that in Daniel Howe, Making the American Self (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 167–75, as well as two recent biographies: David Gollaher, Voice for the Mad (New York, 1995); and Thomas Brown, Dorothea Dix (Cambridge, Mass., 1998).

91. “Veto Message” (May 3, 1854), Presidential Messages, V, 249.

with a home away from home in the form of an asylum. Female reformers could also address, with some show of legitimacy, problems directly affecting women and children, such as intemperance, prostitution, prison reform—and, ultimately, slavery.92 Nudging their way into political controversy, women had participated in the sabbatarian movement and in opposition to Indian Removal. They had signed abolitionist petitions to Congress.

Of the two major parties, the Whigs did more to encourage women’s political participation than did the Democrats. As the party of evangelical benevolence and government activism, the Whigs found it made sense to enlist the support of women even though they could not vote. In recruiting women and then relying on them to influence their men, the Whigs followed the example of the evangelical revivalists. Contemporaries commented on the presence of women in a presidential campaign for the first time in the Harrison demonstrations of 1840. Women not only cheered from the sidelines and of course prepared the food and decorations for the rallies, they marched in the parades themselves. The Whig women of Richmond invited Daniel Webster to come address them; twelve hundred of them turned out to hear him. “Though it be out of the common course for you to take part in the political strife,” the Mississippi Whig Sergeant Prentiss told the Whig women of Portland, Maine, “yet it is your right and your duty to come forward at a time like this, and say by the interest your presence manifests, how much you have at stake.” Occasionally women defied prevailing custom enough to make the speeches. One Jane Field roused the Whigs of Lincoln’s Springfield with her rhetoric, calling out that “Every hill, and vale, and mountain crag shall echo the heart cheering shout of Harrison and Liberty.”93 Lucy Kenney of Fredericksburg, Virginia, published, under her own name, several Harrison tracts, including one entitled The Strongest of All Governments Is that Which Is Most Free. (Kenney, who was nothing if not entrepreneurial, offered her campaign services to the Democrats as well, but Van Buren spurned them, while the Whigs paid her a thousand dollars.)94

92. There is an enormous scholarly literature on this process and its ramifications; a good introduction to the subject is Paula Baker, “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780–1920,” AHR 89 (1984): 620–47.

93. Elizabeth Varon, We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill, 1998), 71–81; quotations from A. Banning Norton, Reminiscences of the Great Revolution of 1840 (Dallas, 1888), 243, and Gunderson, Log Cabin Campaign, 136.

94. Varon, We Mean to Be Counted, 75.

The extent to which the Whigs mobilized women dismayed their rival party: “This way of making politicians of their women is something new under the sun,” admitted a Georgia Democrat. “We have been pained,” declared a Democratic newspaper, “to see our fair countrywomen unsex themselves” by getting involved in politics.95 Democrats continued to lag behind Whigs in organizing women in the election of 1844. They did enlist women in the movement to secure clemency for Thomas Dorr, but this and the journalism of Anne Royall remained exceptions within the insistent masculinity of Democratic ranks. The Democratic Party’s principal constituencies—small farmers, immigrants, and the working class— held more cautiously traditional attitudes toward women’s political involvement than did the commercial middle class. On the whole, the Democratic Party would remain less responsive to women’s rights than its opponents until long after the Civil War.96

Recognizing that theirs was the party of the middle class, the Harrisonians presented their candidate as the custodian of the domestic values cherished by the middle class, as the guardian of hearth and home. The symbol of the log cabin, handed to them by the Democrats, suited this strategy to perfection. Women supporting Harrison could see themselves as acting within the bounds of Victorian conventions, not necessarily as social rebels. They discussed the legitimacy of certain tactics: Should a woman threaten to break off her engagement if her boyfriend would not promise to vote right? Whig women seem to have supported their party for much the same reasons that men did—economic, religious, cultural—and not to score points for their gender. The Harrison campaign shows women taking an active interest in the public, civic sphere, though not yet in their own rights as such. But that would not be long in coming. In 1840, six-year-old Abigail Scott climbed a tree and called out to the other children her enthusiasm for Old Tippecanoe; as an adult, Abigail Scott Duniway crusaded for women’s suffrage.97

The involvement of women in the public arena owed much to the printed media, just beginning to discover women as a potential audience.

95. Quotations from Gunderson, Log Cabin Campaign, 135, and Robert Dinkin, Before Equal Suffrage (Westport, Conn., 1995), 32.

96. For women’s participation in Tennessee political campaigns, both Whig and Democratic, see Jayne DeFlore, “Come and Bring the Ladies,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 51 (1991): 197–212.

97. Ronald and Mary Zboray, “Whig Women, Politics, and Culture in the Campaign of 1840,” JER 17 (1997): 277–315; Rebecca Edwards, Angels in the Machinery (New York, 1997), 19.

The magazines of the day not only printed articles for and about women, they hired women to write them; and before long women appeared in editorial offices as well. A modern scholar has identified over six hundred female magazine and newspaper editors in nineteenth-century America.98 The greatest of them, undoubtedly, was Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, editress (she always insisted on the gendered form of her title) of the Boston Ladies’ Magazine from 1828 to 1836, the first magazine directed entirely to women; and then, in Philadelphia, of Godey’s Ladies’ Book from 1837 to 1877. At the eve of the Civil War, Godey’s had a circulation of 150,000, making it the most widely read magazine in the United States, and certainly one of the most influential.99 The roster of authors whom Hale’s magazines published included most of the famous and popular American writers of the day, among them Edgar Allan Poe, James K. Paulding, Lydia Sigourney, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick.

A small-town New Hampshire girl, Sarah Josepha Buell had been brought up by parents who believed in equal education for the sexes and saw that she acquired at home the equivalent of a college education. She married a promising lawyer, David Hale, who shared her intellectual interests. For nine happy years they pursued mutual self-improvement and parenting. Then, in 1822, David suddenly died, four days before the birth of their fifth child. Like Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert, Sarah Hale wore black for the rest of her life. A widow with a family to support, Hale turned to her only asset—her literary skills. In a year a volume of poetry appeared; in five years, a successful novel, Northwood, established her reputation and created the chance to edit theLadies’ Magazine. In 1830 she published a book of verses for children aimed at the Sunday school market; it included the enduring classic, “Mary’s Lamb.”

A profound irony characterized Sarah Hale’s career: this hardheaded successful businesswoman put out magazines that defined and celebrated female domesticity. A full participant in the market economy herself, she imagined a female world apart from it, a separate sphere. Hale made herself the arbiter of taste for middle-class women in matters of dress, housing, cooking, child-rearing, literature, and morality. Through the medium of print, she constructed and disseminated that polite culture to which her readers aspired. But Hale also wanted to enrich and expand the women’s sphere. She labored early and consistently for women’s education and helped found Vassar College. Her magazines promoted concern for women’s health, property rights, and opportunities for public

98. Patricia Okker lists them in Our Sister Editors (Athens, Ga., 1995), 167–220.

99. William Huntzicker, The Popular Press, 1833–1865 (Westport, Conn., 1999), 82.

recognition—though not suffrage. By reading her magazine, which reached one hundred pages per issue in the 1840s, women all over the country kept in touch with what seemed to them the wider women’s world. Respecting the wishes of Louis Godey, her magazine’s owner, Hale avoided explicit references to party politics. But she found other ways to get across her message of pro-Union Whiggery, and her nationalism has been usefully compared to that of Daniel Webster.100 She attached much importance to her efforts on behalf of the construction of Bunker Hill Monument and the preservation of Washington’s plantation home, Mount Vernon, as patriotic shrines that North and South could agree to honor. Her most important legacy for Americans today is the holiday of Thanksgiving, originating in New England, which she worked for many years to nationalize and which finally achieved presidential sanction under Lincoln.101 Hale believed that women had a special role in American society, to counterbalance the harsh competitiveness of male-dominated capitalism and to reconcile sectional conflict through the invocation of sentiment. If Dorothea Dix represented the moral reform side of Whiggery, Sarah Josepha Hale gave voice to its conciliatory, national unionist aspect.


John Quincy Adams and other northern antislavery Whig congressmen like William Slade of Vermont and Joshua Giddings of Ohio deeply embarrassed the southern Whigs. In the South, the Whig Party felt vulnerable to the charge that it was soft on abolitionism, much as, in the 1950s, the Democratic Party worried about being thought soft on Communism. William Cost Johnson’s gag rule of 1840 represented a southern Whig attempt to prove the Whig Party’s loyalty to southern interests. Representative Johnson, a Maryland Whig, had few slaves in his district and supported colonization and gradual emancipation for his state, but he insisted as strongly as any member from the Deep South that the slavery question was one for southern whites only to sort out. In January 1840, Johnson reintroduced the extreme version of the gag rule, the one Calhoun had originally demanded, under which the House of Representatives would not even receive antislavery petitions. Calhoun had by now rejoined the Democratic Party, and it was an election year, as it had been when the

100. William R. Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee (Garden City, N.Y., 1961), 92–119.

101. See Angela Howard Zophy, “A True Woman’s Duty ‘To Do Good,’” in The Moment of Decision, ed. Randall Miller and John McKivigan (Westport, Conn., 1994), 155–72.

first gag was adopted. So the House Democratic leadership refused to be outbid for the support of slaveholders. They accepted Johnson’s proposal and implemented it: The House adopted the tighter version of the gag rule by a close vote, 114 to 108. But this version was harder for northern members to swallow; over half the northern Democrats voted against it, and not a single one of the northern Whigs followed their Maryland colleague’s lead.102

When Harrison’s Whig-dominated Congress assembled in 1841, antislavery members seized the opportunity to raise the question of the gag rule. Two weeks of the bitterest wrangling and parliamentary snarls ensued. Three times the House voted to repeal the gag rule and three times then reversed itself—all by narrow margins. The problem came down to this: Although the Whigs had a majority of forty in the House, forty-five of their members were southerners. Eventually, faced with the urgency of the economic crisis, the exhausted Whigs abandoned their effort to deal with the gag rule so they could take up the rest of their program. The Democratic minority supported the gag, partly because it tied up the Whig majority. Later, when Tyler split from the Whigs, his little band of southern state-righters led by Henry Wise of Virginia continued as they had always done to join with the Calhounites in support of the strictest enforcement of the gag.

In January 1842, John Quincy Adams presented a petition from forty-two residents of Haverhill, a town in his constituency, requesting the dissolution of the Union (to free the petitioners from complicity in slavery). Of course Adams disagreed thoroughly with the petition that he thought it his duty to lay before the House. But Henry Wise demanded the former president be censured. Adams turned his ensuing trial before the House into a vindication. Seventy-four years old, unintimidated by threats and hate mail or the invective of outraged southern members, he spoke brilliantly for a week in his own defense, embarrassing his prosecutors (ruining the political career of his chief prosecutor, Thomas Marshall of Kentucky) and rallying enthusiastic support among northern Whigs. The press treated it as a sensation. Rather than let this go on for another week, his adversaries threw in the towel and “tabled” the censure motion. Adams, in a gesture of triumph, laid two hundred other petitions before his stunned colleagues. Afterwards the old man toured the North, feeling somewhat awkward in his unaccustomed role of popular hero.103

102. Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 345–52.

103. I tell about the censure motion in a little more detail in The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1979), 60–62.

By this time northern Democratic congressmen had become anxious; the signatures on antislavery petitions now included not only Yankee evangelical spinsters (as Jacksonians had alleged) but working-class people and Democratic voters, especially in the “Upper North” above Pennsylvania. Even some southerners, beginning with Wise, could see that the gag rule (like the war against the Seminoles) was costing more than it was worth and should be abandoned.104 The number of northern Democrats in the House voting to continue the gag steadily declined. Finally, in December 1844, the House voted 108 to 80 to repeal the gag rule. Northern Whigs as usual voted unanimously for repeal, and this time they got strong support from northern Democrats, who voted 54 to 16 to get rid of a rule that had become a clear liability. Old Man Eloquent had won his long fight to vindicate democratic freedom of expression. The cause he had embraced out of conviction had proved an effective vehicle for shaping public opinion. Characteristically, he gave credit to the Almighty: “Blessed, forever blessed, be the name of God!”105


The Whig Party, despite its strength in the electorate, its talented leadership, and the coherence of its program, was robbed by a cruel fate and its own appalling blunder (the death of Harrison and the choice of Tyler as his running mate) of the chance to carry out the mandate it had received in the election of 1840. As a result a national bank was not reconstituted, nor Clay’s comprehensive American System enacted. And never again did the party control the presidency and both houses of Congress at the same time. Still the Whigs had their impact on American society, although in ways less direct than national political control would have permitted. Through reform movements like that of Dorothea Dix, through influencing the culture as Sarah Hale did, by working for literacy and economic development at the state level as Abraham Lincoln did in Illinois, and by holding up moral wrong to public examination as John Quincy Adams did in Congress, the Whigs brought their distinctive value system to bear. The Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island, where the Democrats’ felt urgency regarding white manhood suffrage conflicted with the Whigs’ commitment to law and order, illustrated one of the contrasts between the parties’ priorities. The common characterization of this period

104. Edward Magdol, The Antislavery Rank and File (Greenwood, Conn., 1986), 102–13; Leonard Richards, The Slave Power (Baton Rouge, 2000), 143–48.

105. Diary entry for Dec. 3, 1844, Memoir of John Quincy Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Philadelphia, 1874–77), XII, 116.

as “the age of Jackson” has obscured the contribution of the Whigs. Yet, as economic modernizers, as supporters of strong national government, and as humanitarians more receptive than their rivals to talent regardless of race or gender, the Whigs deserve to be remembered. They facilitated the transformation of the United States from a collection of parochial agricultural communities into a cosmopolitan nation integrated by commerce, industry, information, and voluntary associations as well as by political ties. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we can see that the Whigs, though not the dominant party of their own time, were the party of America’s future.

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