Michael F. Holt. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. xviii + 1248 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-505544-3.
Reviewed by Daniel Feller (Department of History, University of New Mexico)
Published on H-SHEAR (December, 1999)
A REQUIEM FOR THE WHIGS
Michael Holt's long-awaited The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party aims to be the definitive work on its subject. Its densely packed narrative winds through 985 pages of text, and but for squeezed margins and tiny type would be longer still. Holt's 21-page bibliography lists 207 manuscript collections and 345 secondary works, along with 44 unpublished papers and theses. His 2,897 footnotes occupy 192 pages (for which Oxford University Press, which seems to delight in annoying its readers, has supplied no running heads). The work is staggering in its erudition and its sheer bulk.
As Holt makes plain from the first, this is political history of a particular kind. His main concern is not with "underlying structures of collective political behavior, the central tenets of party ideology, or the dominant features of an era's political culture," but rather with the Whig party as an institution, an entity created for the purpose of gaining and holding political power (p. x). Since the men who conducted the organization--who shaped its policies, ran its campaigns, and stood for office under its banner--were leaders, not voters, Holt tells his story from their perspective. And since the measure of a party's success--ultimately, what justifies its existence--is its ability to win elections, Holt's narrative attends far more closely to campaigns for office at both local and national levels than to policymaking at the statehouses or in Washington. Indeed, since another election is always looming, Holt views policymaking itself not mainly as an instrument to achieve social ends, but as a means of positioning the party for its next test at the polls. For Michael Holt, political parties are decidedly, as they were for Richard P. McCormick thirty years ago, "above all electoral machines."
Reflecting the book's genesis in Holt's curiosity about the causes of Whig collapse in the 1850s, there is also much more Fall here than Rise. By comparison with what follows, the early chapters on the gathering of the Whig coalition seem almost cursory. With his focus on organization rather than ideology or constituency, Holt does not trace Whig antecedents back to the Revolution or even to the Federalist era, but begins his tale in the 1820s. He reaches the formal birth of the party in 1833-34 at page 26, Harrison's victory in 1840 at page 112, and the 1844 election, marking the meridian of Whig strength, at page 194, less than one-quarter of the way through the book. From there on it is all downhill through seven hundred pages to the party's dissolution after 1856.
The general thrust of Holt's argument about the basis of the Whig party and the causes of its demise will be familiar to readers of his earlier The Political Crisis of the 1850s (1978) and Political Parties and American Development from the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln (1992). Throughout their history, the Whigs' identity was bound up with that of their Democratic opponents within the confines of a two-party system. The Whigs were the alternative, the other party, the outs who wanted to be in. Whig strategies for taking power oscillated back and forth between emphasizing and de-emphasizing their party character--between "ultra Whig" and "no-party" campaigns and candidates, between attempts to muster an electoral majority by energizing the Whig faithful on the one hand, and efforts to lure unattached voters and disaffected Democrats by downplaying party identity and embracing new issues on the other.
The Whigs first coalesced around "an ideological mission," an "everlasting basic principle," a "bedrock tenet" of saving "republicanism" from executive tyranny (pp. xii, 27, 952). But it was their program of economic development, marketed as a cure for the depression of 1837, that won the Whigs into popular favor by 1840 and cemented their core constituency. Despite the John Tyler disaster and Henry Clay's confidence-shattering defeat in 1844, Whigs competed avidly, and often successfully, with Democrats on a number of fronts through the 1840s. But by the early 1850s their issues had gone stale, and the rise of new concerns--over immigrants and Catholics, the Slave Power conspiracy, and a seemingly unresponsive political system--allowed upstart organizations to pose as defenders of republicanism and supplant the Whigs as the alternative to the Democrats. In the face of new ideological challenges, the glue that had held the Whigs together despite internal divisions--their hope of electoral victory and of enjoying its fruits--waned, and the party fell apart.
Holt tells this story in exhaustive detail. The distinctive feature of his text is its painstaking electoral analysis, which delves beneath the surface to scrutinize state and district elections between the quadrennial presidential contests and to analyze voter turnout rates as well as totals and percentages. These strategies enable Holt to identify secular trends in party strength in the states, and to pinpoint particular causes of victory and defeat in any given race. An impressive but unobtrusive statistical apparatus underlies his narrative of events.
The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party thus reflects the characteristic concerns of the "new political history" of the 1960s and 1970s, and carries its methods to their full reach. To younger scholars reared on different questions, the book may have an antique air, accented in those passages where Holt pauses to refight old historiographic battles.
He acquits the Whigs of opportunism and ideological vacuity, complaining that "historians have normally portrayed the name 'Whig' as a sheer expedient" and "usually stress the negativism of the Whig party" (p. 28). In fact recent scholarship has rarely taken this line; its latest purveyor cited by Holt is Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in The Age of Jackson in 1945. Through much of the book Holt appears to be looking for an argument. Repeatedly he upbraids historians who stress the Whigs' fragility after 1844, only to concede their point a few paragraphs or pages later. He issues provocative pronouncements, then qualifies or retracts them.
That The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party may seem arcane and old-fashioned does not mean that it is unconvincing. Indeed, many whose central interests lie elsewhere may concede its persuasiveness rather than commit to reading it through. In this way its very length intimidates. Yet Holt's approach to political history, no matter how massively deployed, rests on certain assumptions that should not escape scrutiny. Two questions lurk uneasily on the fringe of his saga: the question of voters, and the question of issues.
Voters are the Macguffins in Holt's story: they are the unspoken presence, the key to the plot, the object of the chase. Issues are the bait the parties use to lure the voters in. Challenging those who see antebellum elections mainly as exercises in identity expression, Holt vigorously asserts the efficacy of issues in drawing citizens to the polls. The core of the Whig appeal was their promise to preserve the republic and to restore prosperity. Throughout their period of greatest vitality, Whig electoral strength at national, state, and even local levels closely tracked measures of economic performance and of voter satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, with Democratic policies. It was above all their program, not campaign "hoopla," that brought Whigs their great victory in 1840.
Holt's understanding of voter behavior is thus thoroughly and even relentlessly instrumentalist. Every election outcome, from national down to local contests, has its explanation; for every result there is a reason.
Yet if Holt's approach credits voters with intelligence and purpose, it also--though this is plainly not his intent--leaves politicians of both parties looking deeply cynical. The key to electoral success, as Holt makes plain--especially for the Whigs, who began as the outs--was to offer voters a coherent and attractive alternative. To sustain their faith in the system, "the public had to believe that a change would result when they replaced one set of rulers with another. The parties therefore had to stand for different things, and they had to enact different policies" (p. 121). Politicians knew this and framed their plans accordingly. Since Holt frankly admires the Whigs and approves of their policies (he laments Henry Clay's failure to win nomination and election in 1840 as a national misfortune), acknowledging the element of self-interested calculation that went into fashioning the party's platform entails, for him, no censure. In Holt's view Whig politicians generally did well for the country. But it is another matter when the issue that politicians chose to put into play was slavery.
The final two-thirds of The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party constitute an extended assault on what Holt calls "historians' preoccupations with the slavery issue" (p. 331). Slavery, he insists, did not alone break up the Whigs. Within the party Northerners and Southerners had always disagreed over slavery, but had also agreed to disagree. Further, since nearly all Northern voters opposed slavery's expansion, that sentiment cannot by itself account for the rise of the Free Soilers or later the Republicans. The fuller explanation lies in a complex of factors, including the declining salience of the banner Whig issues, the rise of nativism, anti-Catholicism, and temperance, the strategic decisions of party leaders, and multiple accidents of timing and circumstance.
Surely no historian would want to be caught advocating simplistic causal explanations. We make our bread by complexity. Yet Holt's complexity is not neutral: it is complexity pointing always away from slavery, never toward it. In Holt's telling, politicians' professions on other matters may usually be taken at face value; those regarding slavery almost never are.
In 1848-49, contests in state legislatures, especially over election of United States Senators, exacerbated intraparty rifts and thus "had a profound impact on the Whig party." One of these contests was in Ohio, where Free Soilers and Democrats joined to elect Salmon Chase. In Holt's view, "a proper understanding of antebellum politics" shows that this event was not, as some Ohio specialists have claimed, important mainly as a landmark in the rise of antislavery. For Chase "owed his success less to his advanced antislavery views than to the exigencies of state politics." "What really mattered" to the legislators who elected him was not slavery but "control of the state legislature, the state jobs at its disposal, and the policies it might enact for Ohio concerning banks, corporations, taxes, constitutional revision, and other subjects." Democrats could join with Free Soilers to elevate Chase because of their "great emotional intensity" over state issues, while slavery "meant little to them" (pp. 390, 398-399, 401).
This last assertion is not likely to convince anyone unpredisposed to accept it, and the piling up of narrative detail makes the argument more tedious than persuasive. For the difficulty lies not in the lack of supporting incident, but in the flatness of perspective, the one-dimensionality, that results from putting everything on the same plane, from treating all subjects of political action as "issues," each intrinsically as important as the next. What Holt misses in his recounting of the Ohio Senate contest is what made cross-party coalition possible in the first place: not that most regular Whigs and Democrats were indifferent to the Free Soilers' stance against slavery extension, but that they agreed with it. Competitions over state policy and patronage came and went in Ohio and elsewhere, arousing much localized and temporary energy and dissipating often without much trace. Yet as any historian knows who ventures outside politics, or attends to other aspects of even politicians' lives than their day-to-day routine of political management, the slavery question by the late 1840s overhung these mundane and evanescent concerns like a brooding volcano. It was becoming--and not only in Ohio--the stage, the setting, against which petty partisan encounters were played. Holt cannot see this, for he does not look for it. For him, social concerns are only "issues," that appear and disappear as politicians take them up in successive campaigns. He is so busy measuring the pattern of each wave in the electoral cycle--the interminable, ever-varying rhythm of onset, crest, and recession--that he does not notice the tide coming in.
In Holt's minute dissection of events surrounding the Compromise of 1850, territorial slavery may be the ostensible issue, but political success is the motive. The thirst for patronage, the desire for re-election, the need to take a position both popular and distinct from the other party's--these are the imperatives which drive politicians. Thus he stresses Zachary Taylor's "foolish and utopian," "inept," "abortive, fractious, and misguided," "silly," and "bungling" amalgamationist patronage policy, which infuriated regular Whigs everywhere and so sank the administration's promising solution to the territorial question. "For the Whig party, this," the disastrous infighting over patronage, "was the true fire bell in the night" (pp. 414, 422, 424, 429).
Likewise with alignments over the Compromise itself. A "stark fact" explains why some northern Whigs broke ranks to support the Democratic position: "Democrats controlled the Senate, and the Senate disposed of federal appointees" (p. 510). In Georgia, the post-Compromise Union party movement arose when "office-hungry" leaders sabotaged the Whig organization to defeat their intraparty rivals and "advance their own careers" (pp. 613-614). At times this revisionism approaches caricature: "Of all the decisions that confronted Millard Fillmore upon becoming president, none had greater potential for irreparably splitting the Whig party and none seemed less susceptible to a compromise solution than what he did regarding subcabinet-level appointments" (p. 544). Holt's account of the Compromise teems with narrative incident, yet there is none of the analysis of the fundamental questions at stake or of the long-term shifts in position that made, for instance, Don E. Fehrenbacher's work on antebellum politics so illuminating. (Nothing by Fehrenbacher appears in Holt's bibliography.)
Instead, along with office-seeking, Holt unearths the tariff as a key to the events of 1850. Though "completely neglected by historians," Secretary of the Treasury William Meredith's call for a revision of duties in 1849 "excited Whigs far more than Taylor's message" (p. 473). (Among these excited Whigs were shell-shocked congressmen emerging from a three-week, 62-ballot standoff over the House speakership that was not prompted by quarrels over the tariff.) Eastern importing merchants, however, did not like Meredith's program--and so took the lead in opposing Taylor's territorial policy. Holt picks quarrels with previous historians of the Compromise on an array of details, but his main complaint seems to be their focus on slavery as a substantive question demanding resolution rather than a political "issue" to be worked for partisan advantage. Why it was an issue, why it proved so persistent and ultimately unamenable to the usual arts of party management, and what that tells us about antebellum voters North and South, are questions Holt never confronts--all the more curiously, since his earlier explication of contrasting Whig and Democratic economic programs and philosophies is both eloquent and persuasive.
As he has elsewhere, Holt stresses the disruptive power after the Compromise of 1850 of those issues that finally found their vent in the Know-Nothing Party. The hope of luring Catholics from their Democratic allegiance was "the poisonous seed that would ultimately prove fatal to the Whig party." The combination of "prohibitionism, nativism, anti-Catholicism, and antipartyism" became "the most powerful political force in the North, a storm that would shatter Whiggery." Even when Free Soilers won an occasional election after 1850, their espousal of anti-liquor platforms, not their Free-Soilism, explains their success (pp. 671, 780).
Stephen Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854 offered Northern and Southern Whigs a last miraculous shot at reviving the party, since they all could oppose it, albeit on different grounds. Unfortunately "that chance evaporated within twenty-fours" when a handful of Free Soilers, aiming "to revive the flagging fortunes" of their own party, "preempted the ground of opposition" by tagging Douglas's bill as a proslavery measure. They thus "converted what, only hours earlier, had been shaping up as a partisan struggle between Democrats and Whigs into a sectional brawl." The motives of the Free Soilers (the so-called "Independent Democrats") are plain: Charles Sumner, for instance, "needed to revitalize antislavery sentiment" to stay in the Senate, since the coalition that had first sent him there had fallen apart. That either the men who issued the Free Soilers' "insulting manifesto" or the voters who responded to it were sincerely exercised over the future of slavery in the country seems not worth considering; neither does Holt explain why an address signed by six members of Congress had such wondrous power to transform the political landscape (pp. 815, 787, 817).
In fact, he says a few pages later, it didn't. When Whigs returned home from the session of 1854 "they encountered a cluster of issues that had nothing to do with slavery but mattered far more to many Whig and non-Whig voters than the Nebraska bill" (p.835). Prohibitionism, nativism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-partyism were all in play, and the Know-Nothing electoral surge in 1854 proves that slavery had no pre-eminence among them.
Holt concedes the inchoateness of the Know-Nothing appeal, its "potential malleability and manipulability, its capacity to serve very different ends for different people" (p. 848). Some politicians took up Know-Nothingism precisely to ward off the slavery question, while for others Know-Nothingism itself was an antislavery vehicle. The party hardly lived long enough to define itself--and when it tried, it promptly broke over slavery. Yet this concession does not register in Holt's narrative, where "nativism, anti-Catholicism, and animosity toward unresponsive politicos"--but not antislavery--explain northern Know-Nothingism's success, while prohibitionism explains much of the Republicans' (p. 856). A kind of essentialism marks Holt's treatment of the Know-Nothings; he knows what they really stood for, even if they did not. Candidates and voters who affiliate with Know-Nothingism--for whatever reason, no matter how briefly, and no matter what they did before or after--become, and remain, simply "nativist." Thus with Millard Fillmore, who Holt says banked on "riding the nativist wave into the White House in 1856"--even though Fillmore's own explanation for joining the Know-Nothings was that they represented "'the only hope of forming a truly national party, which shall ignore the constant and disturbing agitation of slavery'" (pp. 911-912).
In the end, as has happened with some other practitioners of the "new political history," Holt's systematic decentering of slavery leaves him without a credible explanation of the coming of the Civil War beyond an accumulation of bad luck, bad timing, bad leaders, and bad decisions. In his closing passage Holt asks why the war began when it did. Looking at the depth of public feeling over slavery--a feeling that well before 1860 had permeated not only the nation's politics but its literature, its churches, its judicial systems, its very moral life--one might well ask how a reckoning was held off for so long. Framing the question that way would put the politics of the period, including the story of the Whig party, in a very different light. Apportioning "blame"--Holt's word--for bringing on the war presumes a judgment not only that war was capable of avoidance or at least postponement, but that it would have been better so; that the war did more harm than good, that its results were not worth the cost. Abraham Lincoln, by the time of the Second Inaugural, did not see it that way; neither did Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison; nor need we as historians. Do we go looking for someone to blame for bringing on the American Revolution? Disarmingly, Holt concedes that meting out responsibility for inflaming sectional tensions may open him to charges of being an "unreconstructed revisionist" purveying the old "blundering-generation" thesis of Civil War causation (p. 982).
Indeed, that is exactly how he sounds. Because for Michael Holt, as for the diehard Whigs he most admires, maintaining the political system in equilibrium is the highest desideratum, and those who destabilize it to advance their own agendas, whatever they may be, can only be blameworthy. Slavery, in Holt's understanding, was not a problem until certain politicians chose to make it a problem, or rather an "issue." On their heads lie the consequences. And so he is left to rail at all of them, Southern hotheads and Northern "sectional tyrants"--abolitionists and Free Soilers and finally Abraham Lincoln, who (says Holt) preferred to preserve the Republican party than accede to southern demands, and therefore "whose intransigence in the winter of 1860-61 helped provoke the Civil War that many northern and southern Whigs had long hoped to avert" (pp. 983-984). One wonders in what, beyond his intent to assume an office to which he had been duly elected, Lincoln's provoking intransigence consisted--whether Union could still have been purchased in that winter, and at what enduring price.
In the end it is fair to ask where Michael Holt's approach to political history can lead us. The landmark works on Jacksonian politics, from Frederick Jackson Turner through Arthur Schlesinger to Ronald Formisano and Charles Sellers, always sought (though in very different ways) to integrate politics within a broader understanding of American society, to show politics as part of a larger picture. Schlesinger's Age of Jackson, in essence an account of the Rise and Fall of the Van Buren Democracy over the same years as Michael Holt's Whigs, had chapters on "Jacksonian Democracy as an Intellectual Movement," "Jacksonian Democracy and the Law," "Jacksonian Democracy and Religion," "Jacksonian Democracy and Literature."
Even Edward Pessen, who dismissed party competition as a sordid struggle for pelf and power, saw the political system as "reflecting beautifully the traits of the people it served." In "background, beliefs, traits, and values," political leaders were "in accord with the spirit of the times," perfect exemplars of the grasping, materialistic society they governed. 
The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party points in quite a different direction. For Michael Holt, politics is a world unto itself. Holt's politicians are not citizens drawn into the public sphere; they are not people whose political aspirations are mixed in with the ordinary human concerns of their constituents. They share with them no apparent beliefs, no convictions. They are a separate caste and nearly a separate breed of human beings, who live for one end: to get elected. Holt has taken his approach to studying these people about as far as it can go. His work is almost overwhelming in its thoroughness and erudition. Yet one cannot help thinking that the more closely we stare at politics and politicians through the narrow lens of Michael Holt, the less we really see.
. Richard P. McCormick, The Second American Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966), 4.
. Edward Pessen, Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics, Revised Ed. (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1978), pp. 326, 196.
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Daniel Feller. Review of Holt, Michael F., The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War.
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