With Henry Clay’s death and General Winfield Scott’s huge loss to Franklin Pierce, the Whig party came to an end in the 1850s. Before we introduce the Grand New Party, I’d like to pause and review the “Second Party System,” or the era of the Democrats and the Whigs. Andrew Jackson kicked off the new status quo when he and the Democrats split from the Democratic-Republicans and won the 1828 election. The creation of the Whigs as the opposition party followed a couple elections later. The second half of the era was dominated by the debate of slavery in the new territories. This, of course, set the United States on an unstoppable course for civil war. Here are a few things I learned while writing about this time period.
1828 – JOHN QUINCY ADAMS VS ANDREW JACKSON – REVENGE OF THE DEMOCRATS!
1832 – ANDREW JACKSON VS HENRY CLAY VS WILLIAM WIRT VS JOHN FLOYD
1836 – MARTIN VAN BUREN VS WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON + HUGH LAWSON WHITE +DANIEL WEBSTER + WILLIE PERSON MANGUM
1840 – MARTIN VAN BUREN VS WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON, Pt. II
1844 – HENRY CLAY VS JAMES K. POLK
1848 – LEWIS CASS VS ZACHARY TAYLOR VS MARTIN VAN BUREN
1852 – WINFIELD SCOTT VS FRANKLIN PIERCE VS 3RD PARTIES
The Whigs Weren’t That Great, Either
I always envisioned the Democratic Party in the 1800s as the party of the South, promoting the interests of slave-owners, but that wasn’t really the case at first. The breakdown within the Democratic-Republican Party was simply pro-Jackson or anti-Jackson. For the most part, Jackson was an advocate for small government, but he also believed in expanding the power of the executive branch as much as necessary to accomplish his goals. Because of this, a lot of Southerners actually hated him! The most serious threat of secession prior to the Civil War was the Nullification Crisis, when South Carolina wanted to leave the Union over high tariffs. The Whig coalition was first and foremost an opposition party to the Democrats and, frankly, it was a weak alliance. They courted both pro-slavery Southerners AND anti-slavery Northerners and struggled to keep everyone happy. They performed best when they ran military-hero, everyman presidential candidates, but by the 1850s, even that wasn’t enough.
Voting Is Cool Now!
Probably the biggest difference between the First and Second Party Systems was the rise of the popular vote. Presidential elections were still ultimately decided by the Electoral College, but by the 1830s, every state except South Carolina allowed voters to determine their electors’ allegiance. This led to the rise of real campaigning and a focus on the average person’s vote (still only white men for a while, though). Election winners Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor were seen as “men of the people.” In tandem with the invention of campaign strategy came the invention of lying! By that, I mean campaigns highly embellished the good stuff about their candidate and exaggerated the bad stuff about their opponents. The best example of this is probably William Henry Harrison’s image as the “log cabin candidate,” despite coming from a wealthy family.
There Were Lots Of Third Parties
As a testament to the weakness of the Whig coalition, the mid-1800s saw lots of smaller political parties pop up. They all represented small interests, but played important roles in the national conversation. Although the National Republicans were the natural successors of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay’s faction of the Democratic-Republicans, they combined with the Southern Nullifiers and the Anti-Masonic Party (essentially built on a conspiracy theory) to form a group strong enough to take on Jackson. Like I said earlier, their shared policy interests mostly ended there. Also seen in this era were the Liberty Party and the Free Soil Party, both dedicated to halting the advancement of slavery. They had a fair amount of support in the North, and the Free Soilers played a big role in the 1848 election by running former President Martin Van Buren. These two groups would be important in the forming the Republican Party after the Whigs. Lastly, the Know Nothing Party shook things up in the 1850s with their anti-immigrant message. The Know Nothings would also run a former president for their 1856 presidential ticket.
Manifest Destiny Was Rooted In Expanding Slavery
Today we recognize that Manifest Destiny was problematic in its ignorance of Native American lives, but we should also remember that its supporters were mostly interested in expanding slavery. I always thought of it as something all Americans agreed with because of its divine connotations. In reality, many politicians were against it, predicting the increase in divisiveness that would lead to the Civil War. Presidents John Tyler and James Polk expanded US territory mostly by their own persistence. It helped get Polk elected, although few actually advocated a war with Mexico and (almost) Britain. Even earlier, the Texas Revolution was born out of tensions between the Mexican government and American slaveholders, who had recently moved onto their (free) land. An alternative headline here, American politicians STILL were kicking the can down the line on slavery.
Don’t Choose A Running Mate That Shouldn’t Be President
It seems like common sense, but throughout American history, political parties had a habit of choosing bad running mates that ended up filling the presidency. They were so focused on balancing the factions of their party that they ignored huge policy differences between them and their main candidate. The two offenders here are John Tyler and Millard Fillmore, who were more sympathetic to Southern interests than the majority of the Whig Party, preventing them from ever truly passing any of the agenda. Touch luck for the Whigs. Get used to it, though. This issue isn’t getting solved anytime soon.
Fix The Damn Water!
Learning about the 1800s is fun (I think). Living in the 1800s sucked. Washington, DC’s water supply was very dirty and was responsible for lots of deaths. Unfortunately for the Whigs, their only election winners, Presidents William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, both fell victim to the tainted water before they could really make any decisions. Contemporary doctors couldn’t be certain about their causes of death, but modern scientists point to the water. Even the president between them, James Polk, died from a similar illness immediately after leaving office. Needless to say, cities weren’t very clean back then.
Jackson Was All About Destroying The Banks
The most controversial item in Jackson’s agenda was his war with the Second Bank of the United States. The original bank had been the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, in an effort to help the federal government manage its debt. The small-government Democratic-Republicans ended the bank, but as their party grew to be the only party, they gave in to some former Federalist policies and reestablished it. Jackson hated the bank and it was his main obsession as president. He saw the bank as the biggest example of government power run amuck. He didn’t think the bank worked for the “average person.” After lots of back and forth, Jackson was finally able to kill the bank and place the government’s money in lots of smaller “pet” banks. Of course, the bank did actually serve a purpose and, without it, the government had few ways to deal with the economic Panic of 1837. In the end, it was Jackson’s right-hand man, Martin Van Buren, that paid the price for Jackson’s short-sighted policies. The recession ruined his reputation and made him a one-term president.
The Spoils System
I haven’t really gotten into this yet, but another consequence of the Jackson Administration was the Spoils System. Also known as Patronage, this system favored party allegiance over actual merit in federal office appointments. Jackson believed that rotation of office, concurrent with new presidents, was important in preventing long-term office holders from becoming corrupt. He fired and re-appointed more federal employees than any of his predecessors. While Jackson was successful in ending some of the corruption that had festered under previous administrations, this new system was exploited to reward partisan support. Patronage was a background issue before the Civil War, but would become one of the biggest policy issues of the late 1800s.
The President Options Were Bad
This was a rough string of elections, getting no outright “yes’es” from me in the “Was It The Right Decision?” subheading. I really don’t like Jackson and the Democrats, but the Whig message was too weak for too long. As I’ve joked before, their only campaign strategies seemed to be: run a military hero, or run Henry Clay again. By the time they were a strong party of their own, they were too willing to compromise with pro-slavery factions. They saw the consequences of that when both of their presidents died and left Southern sympathizers in the White House. No wonder this era left the country on the edge of civil war!