My Issue with the Whigs

I’ve been reading a lot of stuff that touches on American political history during the second party system.

Jacksonian Democrats intrigue me, I have to admit. In part, because it’s a party that attracted a lot of the people I’m most interested in studying– the urban workers of the Northeast. I also have a soft spot for any group that evokes the Jeffersonian mythos of the yeoman farmer– something I internalized at a very young age, this romantic image of autonomous self-reliance. I’m always interested when political movements gain momentum that want to diminish the power of monied elites. And there’s such characters in the Democratic party of that time– people have spent whole careers trying to piece out what was going on in Andrew Jackson’s head.

But at the same time, the Democratic party was more adamantly pro-slavery– this was the party of Jefferson Davis– and more bellicosely expansionist– the party of Jackson, who as a general invaded Florida without any real presidential or congressional mandate, and James K. Polk, author of the Mexican-American War, the first real war for Empire America undertook.

Daniel Walker Howe, in his book What Hath God Wrought wears his heart on his sleeve, and his heart belongs to the Whig party, in particular John Quincy Adams. While his appreciation for Adams verges on hagiography at times, Howe definitely does offer some strong reasons to like the Whig party: they were more open to abolitionists and anti-slavery people, it was the party Lincoln began with, they were for a strong national government that invested prudently in infrastructure and improvements, they opened up to organizing by women, even if they didn’t call for women’s suffrage. It was the more progressive party.

And usually, that will bend my ear. But I have a hard time loving the Whigs.

I finally figured out why, today. The Whig Party had a good, sensible, progressive platform. But they weren’t sexy enough. Their issues just don’t grab me or excite me the way that the Democrats’ do. They don’t excite the passions, and their leaders seem to lead less passionately. While progressive, they were voices of moderation, industry, and self-discipline.

It’s just hard to get excited about the party whose rallying cry seems to center around banks, canals, paper currency, and temperance.

Andrew Jackson looked– and acted– like a wildman. In terms of the politics of his time, he was a rock star.

John Quincy Adams just looks like he wants you to turn down that noise you call “music” and go clean your room:

John Quincy Adams