Sunday, January 10, 2010

Conservatives Aren't "Whig"-ing Out

Original post 10/20/2005

Cliopatria has announced that they are hosting a symposium on Princeton historian Sean Wilentz's recent New York Times piece, "Bush's Ancestors." Wilentz's thesis is that
. . . neither conservatives nor liberals have fully recognized that the Bush administration's political and ideological recipe was invented decades before McKinley by a nearly forgotten American institution: the Whig Party of the 1830's and 40's.
He compares the rhetoric, ideology and party structure of the antebellum Whigs to that of modern conservative Republicans. Wilentz obviously knows the history of the era: he has published books and articles to critical acclaim. Yet, his purported examples of the common themes shared by modern conservative and antebellum Whig thought do not tell the whole story. Many of Wilentz's observations, while they are legitimate comparisons, could also just as easily be pointed to as rhetorical or philosophical inspiration for contemporary liberal, or Democrat, political thought. In fact, the rhetoric, ideology and philosophy of the Whigs erstwhile competition, the Jacksonian Democrats, could be shown to be inspirations for both contemporary parties.

Because Wilentz is so well published in this area, it is hard to believe that he is unaware of the common rhetorical and ideological strands--from various American political antecedents--that have been caught up, filtered and dispensed by either of the contemporary political parties. As such, though I hesitate to do so, I can only assume that Wilentz purposefully left out such evidence that didn't support his claim--though he doesn't explicitly state such--that the modern conservative owes more to the antebellum Whig party than to any other political organization in our nation's history.

In general, it is my belief that any attempt to make such a 1:1 relation between a modern political entity and a historical one is too simplistic. We are all inspired by various people or ideas: rare is the person who is either willing or able to exactly mirror a loved precedent. While Wilentz does not go so far as to assert such a thing--though he does attempt at the end of his piece to describe how antebellum Whig thought "evolved" into modern conservativism--the general reader could be left with the impression that today's conservatives are "just like" the antebellum Whigs. Wilentz should have taken greater care in making the comparison. He certainly has exhibited such an ability in his scholarship, past and present.

Those are my general thoughts on Wilentz's piece. What follows is a more detailed appraisal. While I certainly went into greater depth than generally is done on a blog, I in no way claim that the ideas expressed are my "final" ones. I welcome any suggestions or corrections wholeheartedly, as any good historian (PhD or not!) should.


First, it's helpful to remember that some of the tension between the Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats grew out of the genuine belief of each that they were the true inheritors of the philosophy of classical republicanism as expressed in the writings and actions of the Founding generation. Marc W. Kruman's "The Second American Party System and the Transformation of Revolutionary Republicanism," (Journal of the Early Republic, Vol.12, No.4, p. 509-537.) explains much of this, though historians still debate the degree of how much, and from whom, the Whigs themselves derived their political philosophy. Kruman notes that
Although historians have often identified the Whigs as the heirs of the Federalist party, I am persuaded by Daniel Walker Howe’s contention that Whig ideology was an inheritance of Madisonian Republicanism, not Federalism. [For this he refers to Walker Howe's, The Political Culture of the American Whigs, (Chicago, 1979)]
Nonetheless, it is my understanding that many, if not most, former Federalists eventually became Whigs. The Whigs also attracted many former Democrats who had become disenchanted by Jackson (but more on that later). The transformation of John Quincy Adams from Federalist to Jeffersonian Republican to (briefly) Anti-Mason, to Whig illustrates the relative rapidity at which changes of party affiliation occurred during this era. However, even though people changed party affiliation, they tended to look to the same classical republican political philosophies as the core of their political beliefs. And even as individuals clung to these philosophical inspirators, the Whig and Democrat parties evolved by emphasizing some portions of their shared classical republican roots and discarding others.

Big Government

Wilentz's first attempt to illustrate the similarity between contemporary conservatives and Whigs is to compare today's conservative rhetoric concerning an "attack on big government" to that which the Whigs used against the Jackson Administration.
Modern conservatism rests on the proposition that Democrats and liberals thrive on a huge, wasteful federal bureaucracy that discourages individual initiative and lavishes public money on the liberals' shiftless political base. In his first Inaugural Address, Reagan denounced "government by an elite group," by which he unmistakably meant parasitic liberal Democrats.

In the 1830's and 40's, Whigs said much the same about the Jacksonians. They charged that President Jackson had established an executive tyranny, while Jackson's followers, as the Whig journalist Horace Greeley wrote, had turned government into "an agency mainly of corruption, oppression and robbery." In defiance of Jacksonian despotism, one North Carolinian declared in an 1835 editorial, the Whigs rallied "in defense of LIBERTY against POWER." The Whigs particularly objected, like Reagan and his successors, to federal regulation of business and financial matters. A typical Whig editorial from 1837 denounced the Democrats for warring on "the merchants and mercantile interests" in order to support federal power.
Later, Wilentz does provide an important caveat:
Of course, there are significant differences between the Whigs and today's conservatives. Governing in an age before giant private corporations, the Whigs saw federal spending on the nation's infrastructure as imperative to economic development.
It is that "significant difference" that makes all the difference in Wilentz's flawed comparison. Yes, the Whigs denounced government, but it was the particular government "ruled" by "King Andrew," whom they manifestly did not trust. To those who came to identify themselves as "Whigs," Jackson represented arbitrary, unchecked executive power.

Wilentz provides an important quote--"in defense of LIBERTY against POWER"--made by the Whigs. The Whigs took their name from the Sons of Liberty of the Revolutionary Era, who were much inspired by the Radical Whig English Commonwealthmen (see Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution). The central belief of all of these Whigs was the perpetual threat posed to liberty by the innately corruptive force of power. In the case of the Commonwealthmen, it was the King who wielded this power. Similarly, those of the Revolutionary Era, who eventually came to view the British Empire as a whole as dangerous, eventually came to believe that corrupt power was especially manifested in the person of the King (at first, they blamed Parliament). To the antebellum Whigs, it was "King Andrew" who they feared.

Jackson may not have supported a powerful Federal government, but he most definitely supported the idea that the executive--Jackson himself--should have the most power in that government. This was one of the main reasons that previously disparate political groups from the South and North coalesced to form the Whig party to oppose Jackson's Democrats. As Lynn L. Marshall explained in "The Strange Stillbirth of the American Whig Party,"
The key element in the formation of the Whig party was party organization, not ideology. There seems sufficient reason to assume that Whig ideology, in early infancy at least, limited itself to opposition to "executive usurpation," the negative issue implied in its choice of name and the focus of its electioneering efforts throughout the mid-1830's. One can hardly find another common ground between John C. Calhoun, prince of nullification, and nationalists like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, all of whom joined to establish the party. [The American Historical Review, Vol.72, No.2, p.445]
Politics can make strange bedfellows! To conclude on this point, the Whigs weren't anti-government so much as anti-Jacksonian government. They were perfectly comfortable in supporting internal public improvements funded by tax dollars--so long as they held the purse strings. To turn Wilentz's comparison around, I could offer that modern day liberals are like the Whigs: both oppose(d) what they perceive(d) as executive power run rampant in the person of George W. Bush and Andrew Jackson, respectively. I could also argue that the Democrats under FDR, when faced with the Great Depression, or LBJ and his Great Society owe a debt to the Whig proponents of public expenditure for public good. I don't intend to, but I'm fairly confident such an essay could be written (though I'm not sure if it would make the NY Times!)


Wilentz also compares Whig populism to modern day conservative populism, while implying that both are disingenuous. He had begun the piece seemingly taking liberals to task for viewing "contemporary conservatism as a rhetorical smoke screen intended to deceive the masses," but his later analysis indicates he may also (at least somewhat) believe this to be the case. As he explains:
Whig rhetoric departed fundamentally from the aristocratic hauteur and gloominess that old-line conservatives inherited from the defunct Federalist Party. On the political stump, the example of the buckskinned Whig congressman and Tennessee rifleman Davy Crockett was widely imitated. . . While they cast themselves and their rich supporters as just plain folks, the Whigs portrayed the Democrats as smooth-handed, Champagne-drinking, out-of-touch professional politicians. The appeals helped the Whigs win the presidency in 1840 with their famous "log cabin and hard cider" campaign, presenting their well-born presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, as a plebeian hero who lived in a humble abode and drank the common frontiersman's brew.
There is a bit more to the story, though. As Paul Johnson explained:
Harrison campaigned as a rugged frontiersman, with his running mate John Tyler (1790-1862), a dyed-in-the-wool Virginian and states’ rights man who had been alienated by Jackson’s high-handed ways, being presented as an experienced and wily professional politician. So the Whig slogan was ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.’ The Democrats retaliated by ignoring Tyler and branding General Harrison, who liked his noggin-or rather his joram-as ‘The Log Cabin and Hard Cyder’ candidate. The Whigs turned this to advantage by holding ‘Log Cabin Rallies’ at which hard cider was copiously served. They also created an electorally effective image of the dapper Van Buren as an effete New York dandy, drinking wine ‘from his coolers of silver.’ [Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, p. 239]
Hugh Brogan also provides further insight:
. . . one of [the Democrats'] aggressive journalists, ignoring Harrison's genteel antecedents, wrote that he was unfit to be President, he should stay in his log-cabin with his tocacco pipe, his jug of hard cider, and his latch-string hanging out to let strangers in at the door. This snobbish remark was too much for the Americans. If the Whigs were the pary of log-cabins and cider, they must be the right party to vote for. Soon every Whig parade, barbecue and clambake...displayed log cabins borne aloft on sturdy shoulders. [Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the USA, p. 277]
Of course, Ol' Hickory, a plantation owner, and Martin Van Buren, probably the definition of a New York Cosmopolitan before there was such a thing (and hardly a "man of the people"), had both practiced this sort of rhetorical populism. The Whigs simply copied a tactic that had worked for their opponents. Wilentz fails to mention this inconsistency between Democrat rhetoric and reality. He then focuses on how modern conservatives have used this time-tested political tack:
Today's Republicans have repeated the makeover. In the 1970's, the conservative movement's adoption of the sunny-tempered Hollywood cowboy Reagan as its leader in place of the dour, bespectacled Barry Goldwater was the great breakthrough of modern conservative populism. Thereafter, the transformation of the Massachusetts-born patrician George H.W. Bush into a lover of pork rinds and of his Andover-, Yale- and Harvard-educated son into a rugged Texas pioneer extended the conservative populist theme. The Democrats, meanwhile, remain trapped in the public's image of them as effete "brie and Chablis" liberals.
Wilentz is correct, but omitting similar attempts made by modern Democrats (John Kerry-in hunting-camouflage; Michael Dukakis in an Abrams tank; the on-again, off-again southern accent of Hillary Clinton) gives a false impression, does it not? It's not only conservatives who strive to "relate" to "the people."


Wilentz makes the common charge that, just like contemporary conservatives, the Whigs were moralistic do-gooders who sought to impose their own version of morality on the public.
Today's Republican Party owes a great deal to its political alliance with resurgent conservative evangelical Christians, part of a wider conservative attack on liberals as the enemies of traditional morality. . .Upon enlisting in the Whig Party in 1835, Representative John Bell of Tennessee sounded like a forerunner of William Bennett, declaring that "we have, in truth, in the last 8 or 10 years, been in a continual state of moral war."

. . . The Whigs were drawn disproportionately from devotees of the enormous wave of evangelical revivalism known as the Second Great Awakening. Evangelicalism quickly led a minority of Northern Whigs into the crusade against slavery. But mainstream Whigs despised anti-slavery politics and were preoccupied by evangelically inspired efforts to enforce public morality with coercive temperance and Sunday blue-law campaigns. Democrats opposed these efforts, upholding the separation of church and state in order to prevent Congress, one Kentucky Jacksonian wrote, from becoming the "proper tribunal to determine what are the laws of God.
Daniel Walker Howe has written on this caricature of the "do-gooder" Whigs. In particular, he noted how the historiography indicates that Evangelicalism seems to have "mysteriously" changed from one century to the next.
The scholarship on the eighteenth century treats evangelical Christianity as a democratic and liberating force, whereas much of the literature on the evangelical movement of the nineteenth century emphasizes its implications for social control. Did some dramatic transformation of the revival impulse come about at the turn of the century? I would argue not; historians have concentrated on the "soft" and "hard" sides of evangelicalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively, but both were consistently present. Evangelical Protestantism did not mysteriously mutate from a democratic and liberating impulse into an elitist and repressive one when it moved from the eighteenth to the ninetheenth-century. Austerity and self-discipline were present even in eighteenth-century evangelicalism; individual autonomy was asserted even in nineteenth-century evangelicalism. The problem is that our idea of social control, implying one person or group imposing constraints on another, is appropriate for some aspects of the reform impulse, such as the treatment of the insane, but not all. It does not take account of the embrace of self-discipline, so typical of evangelicals. [Daniel Walker Howe, "The Evangelical Movement and Political Culture in the North During the Second Party System," The Journal of American History, Vol.77, No.4, p.1220. Emphasis in original]
He further proposed that we "substitute the more comprehensive category of discipline for social control" to "better understand the evangelical movement and the continuities between its colonial and antebellum phases." (ibid., 1220) Walker Howe provided further useful insight:
Evangelical Christians were and are people who have consciously decided to take charge of their own lives and identities. The Christian discipline they embrace is both liberating and restrictive. Insofar as the discipline is self-imposed, it expresses the popular will; insofar as it is imposed on others, it is social control. The reforms undertaken by nineteenth-century evangelicals were typically concerned to redeem people who were not functioning as free moral agents: slaves, criminals, the insane, alcoholics, children, even--in the case of the most logically rigorous reformers, the feminisist--women. The goal of the reformers was to substitute for external constraint the indder discipline of responsible morality. Liberation and control were thus two sides of the same redemtive process. (1220)
Wilentz seems to imply that Whig, and by comparison conservative, promotion of morality is based upon a desire to have power over people and not out of any sense of moral obligation or genuine empathy. Walker Howe's more nuanced interpretation strikes me as closer to the mark. Wilentz seems to recognize this when, towards the end of his piece, he states that conservatives,
[b]y relying on the Southern version of evangelicalism, stressing personal holiness more than the do-good reformism of Northern evangelical Whigs and enlisting the Christian right in their culture war...have built a larger and more loyal political base than the Whigs ever enjoyed.
Thus, at first he implies that the Republicans "owe much to" (which seems to want to be read as "are just like," to me) Whig do-gooders, but then backs off a bit in his later analysis.

One final comment on this point: I take issue with Wilentz's characterization of conservatives as blaming the victims for their situation ["personal failure stems not from economic and social inequalities but from the moral failings of thriftless, heedless, lawless, libertine and lazy individuals - precisely the sorts of people (conservatives charge) liberals want to coddle with needless, destructive social spending."]. I cannot speak for every conservative, but the conservatives that I know and read generally think that 40 years of the Great Society have been a marked failure and that it's time for something new.

This is not something only conservatives have concluded, either. Lest we forget, it was Democrat President Bill Clinton who signed welfare reform. By stressing the value of work and family, conservatives hope to help people help themselves out of poverty. Welfare and the social safety net were intended to help people through rough times. These programs shouldn't go away, but they also shouldn't be a way of life. I know of no conservative who thinks we should cut all social welfare programs and let people fend for themselves. Thus, Wilentz's characterization is a caricature and is, frankly, unfair.

Wilenz's assertion that "mainstream" Whigs "despised anti-slavery politics" also conflates the difference between agreeing with the politics of abolitionists and agreeing with them philosophically on the immorality of slavery. No doubt, the majority of southern Whigs weren't for freeing the slaves, and many northern Whigs--who prized stability over chaos and uncertainty-- simply couldn't abide the thought of the sort of anarchy later caused by John Brown and his fellow abolitionists {This sentence was modified from the original due to correction from commenter, below--ed.}. But Wilentz's statement obscures the fact that the anti-slavery movement was beginning to take hold, and most rapidly in those districts and states politically controlled by the Whigs.

End of the Whigs

Wilentz pointed to the ultimate failure of the Whigs.
Fate was unkind to the Whig Party. Its first president, Harrison, took sick on his frigid Inauguration Day in 1841, died one month later and was succeeded by a Virginia ex-Democrat, John Tyler, whom some in the party considered to be no Whig at all. The other Whig elected to the presidency, Zachary Taylor, a retired general, lasted only slightly longer than Harrison, felled by an attack of acute gastroenteritis in 1850 after just 16 months in the White House. In between the Tyler and Taylor presidencies, the acquisition of vast Western territories from the war against Mexico led to severe wrangling over the extension of slavery, which neither of the major parties could handle. The Democrats wound up losing their anti-slavery Northern partisans in the 1850's and became dominated by Southern slaveholders. The Whig Party collapsed completely: its anti-slavery wing joined with the Democratic bolters to form the Republican Party in 1854; its Southerners either enlisted in the pro-slavery Democratic fold or floundered in vain attempts to restore sectional comity.
He is on solid ground here, but Wilentz doesn't see fit to compare the anti-Mexican War rhetoric of the Whigs to the anti-Iraq War rhetoric of liberals (or some of the so-called paleo-conservatives). Perhaps because it wouldn't bolster his larger thesis? Regarding the dissolution of the Whigs, I think some of Kruman's analysis is helpful:
By the 1850’s, then, party conflict had generated a political consensus that rooted out important aspects of revolutionary republicanism. Americans had increasingly come to accept the government promotion of economic development as the “republican” fears of the Democratic party dissipated and to rejoice in the political equality of white men as Whigs bowed to the exigencies of the electoral struggle. ("Second American Party System," 532)
Thus, the parties had come closer together on many issues, but this was obscured by the dominant issue of slavery. The tension eventually led to the sectional crisis and party mattered less than where one stood on slavery.

From here, Wilentz extrapolates that because the Whigs were so short-lived and relative failures, modern day conservatives don't compare themselves to them. No kidding! (Setting aside political parties, how many people regularly compare their actions and motivations to people that are generally regarded as failures? "I'm just like Millard Fillmore!") He points to how conservatives (here, he cites Karl Rove) compare themselves favorably to the Jacksonians in the belief that both stick up for the little guy.

Wilentz also makes a good point regarding Jackson's anti-business politics and how they don't align at all with what would be considered modern conservative economic policy. Yet, Wilentz's attempt to call Karl Rove out on this inconsistency--writing Rove's comparison between Jackson and modern conservatives "distorts the nature of contemporary conservatism's political achievements"--only serves to highlight his own. Wilentz's indignation at such inconsistencies would be more convincing if he himself hadn't so systematically omitted such exceptions when they didn't fit his template.

Any historian takes a risk when comparing the contemporary to the historical, and Wilentz should be applauded for doing so. However, I hope the few points I've raised can illustrate how history can be used to support diverse and often contradictory forms of contemporary opinion. History is important, it can teach us lessons that can help us make decisions about our future. But we have to be careful when attempting to draw too fine a comparison between what was then and what is now.

Most modern politicians and ideologues on the right, left and middle sincerely believe that they have a plan for steering our nation along the proper course. To help explain, promote and justify those plans, they look to our nation's past. Members of both parties are always cherry-picking favorite quotes from Lincoln or Truman or FDR or Kennedy or (especially) the Founders to help emphasize a particular point. Thus, when surveying the rhetoric of modern day politicians, one can conclude that, indeed, we are all Republicans, we are all Democrats and we are all Whigs, Federalists, Know-Nothings, Anti-Masons, Bull Moose (or is it Meese?), Free Soilers...


Jonathan Dresner said...

Nicely done.

Marc said...

Thanks Jonathan.

Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...

Nicely done, Marc, but I have to say that I'm rather puzzled by this: "... many northern Whigs--who prized stability over chaos and uncertainty-- simply couldn't abide the anarchy caused by John Brown and his fellow abolitionists."

John Brown was virtually unknown to anybody other than his neighbors and a few abolitionists until his Kansas campaigns in 1856; Harper's Ferry was in 1859. Given that the Whigs had more or less completely disintegrated already by 1856, I have trouble taking seriously the suggestion that John Brown or the guerilla tactics associated with him had very much bearing on anti-abolitionist Northern Whigs' thought...

Marc said...

Rad Geek, thanks and you're correct about my John Brown mistake. The hazards of not having the timeline down...I think the point is still made if I were to restate it thus:"...many northern Whigs--who prized stability over chaos and uncertainty-- simply couldn't abide the radicalism espoused by the abolitionist movement." In short, I took the Whig distaste for the abolitionists methods and forecast to Brown when, in fact, he had not arrived yet. Anyway, I hope that's more clear. Thanks for keeping me straight.

josh narins said...

I came hear looking for information on 1760s-1780s religious sentiment and the party system inherited from the Kingdom, Whig and Tory, but I was happy to read this instead.

If you want to e-mail me a link on the subject I wanted, I bet I'd read it.

By the way, the netWallpaper poster is obviously spam, delete it :)