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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Shaky Coalitions and Bogus CW

I finally got around this weekend to using a Borders gift certificate I was given for Christmas, and picked up (or more accurately, hefted) a book I’ve been eyeing for a while: Michael Holt’s massive and magisterial Rise and Fall of the Whig Party, a 1999 study of the antebellum party that died a sudden death in the slavery crisis of the 1850s. I managed to steal enough time from sleep and domestic chores to get through a key section on the runup to the 1840 presidential election, the famous “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign that gave the Whigs their first White House win.
Two things of present relevance really jumped off the page from Holt’s account.
(1) Today’s intraparty tensions are small beer by comparison. The early Whigs were a truly amazing and unstable coalition. It included the most violently nationalist and violently States Rights elements in the politics of the day, and also the most extreme pro-slavery and anti-slavery spokesmen. Despite the general assumption that the Whigs were the successor party to the Federalists and the antecedent to the Republicans, at one point, the tariff-nullifier and slavery-expansion-zealot John C. Calhoun was firmly inside the Whig Tent, while the former Federalist Daniel Webster was trying to create a new coalition with the Whig Nemesis Andrew Jackson. Nor were the Democrats of that day much more united, even under the stewardship of Martin Van Buren, who virtually invented the idea of party discipline.
(2) Conventional wisdom about political history is often wrong. Holt spends many pages skillfully demolishing the standard account that the Whigs gained power by tossing their principles out the window in 1840 and nominating the ideological cipher William Henry Harrison, an act for which they were swiftly punished by Harrison’s death and the elevation of John Tyler, who blew up their fragile and artificial unity. Turns out Ol’ Tip was about as solid a Whig as anybody this side of Henry Clay; that his nomination was less a deliberate act of cynicism than a semi-accident produced by the odd timing of the nominating convention (actually held in 1839), a decision of many pro-Clay southerners to boycott the gathering because they felt it contradicted their attacks on Van Buren’s “convention tyranny,” and a major blunder by potential nominee Winfield Scott. Tyler was an even bigger accident: a man far outside the mainstream of Southern Whiggery who won the Veep nomination basically because none of the obvious alternatives wanted it or could be reached to accept it.
Now: a lot of those who formed the CW about 1840 were present at the time, or were at least a lot closer to the events than Holt, but sometimes participants in political history either can’t see the big picture, or have ulterior motives for promoting a distorted view (in the case of the Tyler disaster, Henry Clay’s supporters had a pretty strong motive for claiming it was deliberately engineered by his enemies). I’ll have more to say about that in a future post about the CW that is emerging in some quarters about the recent decline of Democratic fortunes.

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