The Political Culture of the American Whigs

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by Daniel Walker Howe
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From 1834-1854, the Whigs were one of America’s two major political parties. Although dissolved just before the Civil War, the Whigs produced a number of prominent leaders, including Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, and advocated a program of economic modernization for America. Yet according to Howe: “Whiggery was as much a cultural or moral posture as an economic or political system.” Whigs were deeply concerned about national morality, which they saw as the basis for a free and prosperous society. In Howe’s words:

The Whigs proposed a society that would be economically diverse but culturally uniform; the Democrats preferred the economic uniformity of a society of small farmers and artisans but were more tolerant of cultural and moral diversity.

The Whigs were committed to three major principles. The first was improvement, both economic and moral. The second was morality. While Jacksonian Democrats emphasized moral rights, Whigs emphasized moral duties. The third was a belief in social unity and harmony. According to Howe:

Whereas the Jacksonians often spoke of the conflicting interests of ‘producers’ and ‘nonproducers,’ the ‘house of have’ and the ‘house of want,’ the Whigs were usually concerned with muting social conflict.

Despite their modernizing tendencies, Whigs thought of themselves as conservatives – not necessarily in the political sense, but in the sense of taking part in a centuries-old political tradition. American Whigs cast themselves as the opposition party, much like the Whigs in Britain. They also dedicated themselves to the study of oratory, which for them stretched back to the period of classical antiquity. “Even in mid-nineteenth-century America, political orators sprinkled their discourse with Latin quotations as a way of authenticating their message.” According to Howe, Whigs were heavily influenced by the legacy of Greece and Rome:

The image of the republican patriot was one men of that generation coveted, and the image included prowess as an orator . . . Webster was likened to Demosthenes, Clay to Themistocles, and Edward Everett to Cicero.

America’s most celebrated orators during the antebellum period were almost invariably Whigs. They used their talents in the service of morality, as embodied by the popular Scottish Common Sense school of thought. “Ethical norms were considered objective,” and “relativism . . . was rejected.” Through the Whigs, moral philosophy permeated the nation’s political discourse.

In the end, Whig morality cracked in the face of slavery. The party, which tried to represent both tradition and morality, was ripped apart by the war over abolition. Yet Abraham Lincoln, the man who ended slavery, was a Whig. The moral convictions which Whiggery supplied, and the moral duties it instilled, compelled him to eradicate that institution. In this sense, the Whigs were ultimately triumphant.  

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