Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1999). ISBN 0-19-505544-6. 1180 pages + illustrations, bibliography and index.
This is a massive enterprise at the highest level of American scholarship. 985 pages of text are followed by 191 of notes and a bibliography that lists 297 manuscript collections. It is also a topic that has for long demanded attention.
The chronological balance of Michael Holt’s book is weighted in favor of the later years in the party’s history. Seven chapters cover its origins, its 1840 victory in 1840, and 1844 defeat; eighteen continue the story to its disappearance as a national party and of them seven deal with attempts to revive and restore after 1852. This emphasis needs no defense because far too little attention has been paid to opposition before the sudden rise of the Republican party.
There was a time when historiography or the period was dominated by men committed to Jackson’s and Polk’s Democracy who made little attempt to understand the party that won the presidency in 1840, lost it in 1844 by the narrowest of margins, and won again in 1848. Holt’s book makes this neglect impossible in all future histories of the period. Even in 1852 the Democratic landslide concealed the fact that the Whigs won 44 percent of the national vote and under 40 in only seven states. One state carried by the Whigs in every presidential election from 1840 to 1852, was Tennessee – home state of Jackson and Polk!
All this raises an intriguing question: was the Whig party an aberration or the first of those with a conservative orientation that have won so frequently in democratic America? In a sense however those who denied the Whig party a place in the mainstream, had a point. It contained so many different groups, interests, and regional affiliations that ist only common denominator was opposition to the Democrats. This is the major theme of Michael Holt’s book and entails extended treatment of innumerable minor rivalries, avoiding tedium only because he writes so well.
Some will complain that in Holt’s political history ideas are omitted. He might reply that real political life consists of innumerable short term decisions to meet immediate problems and that most of time most voters played to win a game not an ideological battle. They turned out in very large numbers to serve local economic interests, to decide who controlled local patronage, or which party appointed the federal postmaster. Minor parties and factions could embrace moral imperatives but it was the concern of party managers to push them to the side lines. On rare occasions large portions of the electorate were swept along by righteous indignation and Holt agrees that these upheavals changed the course of history, but that the immediate response by politicians was conditioned by the numerous minor decisions taken in previous years.
This is a perfectly sound approach to political history, but it can mean that local controversies usurp the place traditionally given to conviction and long-term strategy. Thus in 1850 'the key to Seward’s speech on March 11' (failing to support President Taylor’s policy and invoking the higher law) was to be found in Albany and concerned the feud within the New York Whig party between Vice-president Fillmore’s friends and Thurlow Weed. In dealing with numerous internal party rivalries Holt has done a job that no one need to do again, but questions raised about political culture and decision making remain open.
Selwyn College, Cambridge