The Whig Party, Pt. I: The Era of Bad Feelings

In 1828, the National Republican Party lost a very important presidential election to Democrat Andrew Jackson. To them, Jackson was an undignified, impulsive tyrant who was a threat to republicanism itself. Jackson’s supporters, however, saw him as a hero who shifted the balance of power away from the corrupt Washington establishment, and back to the common people. It was the National Republicans, in fact, who had succumb to evil forces and undermined democracy.

The National Republicans were at a crossroads. After more than a decade in power, they were suddenly pariahs, completely out of touch with political trends. How could they re-establish control in a quickly changing era? The answer was a fresh start — a totally new party, based on broad ideological principles, that could finally appeal to voters’ values. In this three-part series, I intend to retrace the history of the National Republicans’ successor, the Whig Party, from its formation as a catchall for the opposition to Jackson, to its eventual collapse under the issue of slavery.

In short, the Whig Party was flawed. They attempted to combine forces from the North and South in counterintuitive ways. As a result, it only existed for about twenty-five years. But through the processes, its leaders also learned to adjust their reactionary impulses, connect with real voters, and run surprisingly modern campaigns. The Whig Party’s successes and failures offer a guide for today’s constantly-evolving political landscape.

If you need a refresher, remember that you can always re-read my Election Series for a more election-focused summary of these events:

The First Party System

We used to be country. A proper country.3

To understand the Whig Party, we need to go all the way back to the earliest political factions in the United States. As you might be aware, the Founding Fathers were bitterly divided on the role of the federal government in their new nation. Federalists, such as Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, envisioned an active federal government that united the country and guided the states. By the mid-1810s, however, their party had been virtually erased by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans (simply referred to as “Republicans,” at the time). Jefferson and his followers believed in limited government, and placed increased importance on individual and state liberty (for white men). Almost every national politician became a Republican in the following years. Ironically, this meant that supporters of big-government policies were now also Republicans. Jefferson’s presidential successors, James Madison and James Monroe, adopted significant portions of the Federalists’ former agenda. By the time Monroe reached his second term in 1820, he ran unopposed — this was labeled the Era of Good Feelings. 

The most well-known member of the big-government faction of the Republicans (referred to as the “Nationalists”) was Kentucky Representative Henry Clay. Beginning with his first term in Congress in 1811, Clay served as Speaker of the House almost continuously until 1825. He distilled the Nationalists’ ideology into the three-part “American Plan” — 1) Use protective tariffs to strengthen American businesses, 2) Fund internal improvement infrastructure projects to connect the country and unite the economies of every region, and 3) Maintain a national bank to regulate the economy and provide capital for investment. Following the War of 1812 (not exactly an American “victory,” but it spurred patriotism, nonetheless), the country reaped the benefits of an economic boom. Most Americans felt increased trust in their government. Nationalists, therefore, held strong positions in President Monroe’s cabinet — John Quincy Adams served as Secretary of State, and John C. Calhoun served as Secretary of War. Together with Henry Clay, it seemed as if the good feelings would last forever. 

Well, the good feelings did not last forever. The financial Panic of 1819 led to a harsh recession. Farmers in the Midwest and South blamed the National Bank for the downturn. While they struggled to repay their loans, bankers and large corporations in the East seemed to be surviving unscathed. The ensuing anti-bank fervor turned many rural voters against the American Plan altogether. Additionally, the Missouri Compromise in 1820 deepened the North-South divide that had previously remained under the surface of political debates. Many Southerners placed increased importance on states’ rights in order to maintain the slavery status quo. This pair of crises gave the “Old Republicans,” who still believed in Jefferson’s original limited-government vision, an opportunity to stage a comeback. They argued that the market economy of the Nationalists had promoted aristocratic and corrupt corporations, and instead advocated for a more agrarian and individualistic society. As the presidential election of 1824 neared, it was clear that the Era of Good Feelings would end with the Last Cocked Hat

The Corrupt Bargain 

John Quincy Adams and his father were the only two non-slave-owning presidents for first third of US history.4

With no clear successor to President Monroe, the election of 1824 attracted a wide variety of candidates. Four major contenders stayed in the race through Election Day. The favorite choice for establishment politicians was Secretary of Treasury William H. Crawford, an Old Republican and states’ rights proponent, who had the (unofficial) support of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. He was nominated by a party caucus, which ultimately hurt his chances, as most voters viewed this process as undemocratic. New Englanders’ preferred candidate was Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. Son of the second president, Adams was a Nationalist and a vocal critic of slavery. More moderate Nationalists backed Henry Clay. As a slave owner, Clay held more appeal in the South. Finally, outsider candidate Andrew Jackson energized rural voters in the West and South. Jackson was best known as a hero of the War of 1812, and for his battles against Native Americans in the South. Although he voted in favor of tariffs and internal improvements as Tennessee’s Senator, his supporters capitalized on the belief that the Nationalists were a threat to individual liberty.

The results of the election were split. No candidate won a majority of votes in the electoral college, throwing the final decision to the House of Representatives. Jackson won the plurality of states, as well as the popular vote. Adams placed second, followed by Crawford and Clay. Despite their personal differences, Clay used his power as Speaker to secure the win for his fellow Nationalist, Adams. Jackson supporters were furious, but the real atrocity came when Adams selected Clay as his Secretary of State (then seen as the successor post, rather than the Vice President). This appointment seemingly proved that Clay and Adams had made a backroom deal — immediately labeled “The Corrupt Bargain.” 

I bet CNN hit huge viewership numbers that night.5

Following this bitter loss, Jackson wasted no time preparing for an 1828 rematch. He swiftly collected support from Adams’ opposition, forming the basis of the Democratic Party. Adams struggled to enact his agenda, and his faction (now the “National Republicans”) performed poorly in the 1826 midterms. Another two years later, Jackson got his retribution. His campaign, directed by New York Senator Martin Van Buren, appealed directly to voters’ emotions using broad ideological arguments. Voter turnout in 1828 doubled from the previous presidential election (nearly all states by this time had changed their electoral process from the state legislature to the popular vote). Jackson won the electoral college 178-83, and received 56% of the popular vote. Adams had been crushed, and the National Republicans’ worst fears had become realized.

A Divided Opposition 

Initially, the National Republicans believed Jackson’s coalition would fall apart once he started making actual policy decisions. Once again, they were wrong. His rejection of political norms only solidified his image as an anti-establishment hero. Conversely, any concessions he granted the National Republicans proved his independence, and deprived them of support among moderates. The opposition to Jackson was fragmented. In the South, States’ Righters, such as John C. Calhoun, threatened to nullify federal tariffs — something even Jackson believed was radical and treasonous. Farther north, anti-establishment fever had taken the form of the Anti-Masonic Party. Like Democrats in the West and South, Anti-Masonic voters feared government corruption, specifically as a result of secret fraternal organizations like the Freemasons. They distrusted all politicians, as many prominent figures from both sides, including Jackson and Clay, were Freemasons. The vast ideological differences between the States’ Righters and the Anti-Masonic Party made uniting these factions incredibly difficult.

Despite his potential vulnerabilities, the National Republicans nominated Henry Clay for the 1832 presidential election. They believed that Jackson’s critics, particularly the Anti-Masonic Party, would fall in line behind their candidate to ensure his defeat. They argued that Jackson lacked dignity for the executive office, and defended Clay as the better politician and statesman. It soon became clear, however, that this tactic failed to attract voters from other factions, many of whom shared Jackson’s anti-establishment views, and distrusted Clay.

To increase partisanship before the election, the National Republicans sought a unifying national issue. They created that issue with the National Bank. The Bank’s charter was set to expire in 1836, but the National Republicans forced Jackson to take a stance on the Bank by approving its charter four years early. They assumed Jackson would not want to divide his base in an election year. Their streak of misjudgment continued, as Jackson unflinchingly vetoed the recharter bill. Surprisingly, his supporters did not waver. The veto was simply more proof that Jackson would fight the establishment over any cause. Now, it was the Democrats who were motivated by the issue. On Election Day, Jackson achieved another huge victory. He defeated Clay 219-49 in the electoral college, and won 55% of the popular vote. Clay was further hindered by third party candidates who won South Carolina and Vermont.

King Andrew

Got ’em.6

The controversies continued throughout Jackson’s second term. Immediately after the election, South Carolina voted to nullify federal tariffs. Jackson’s response was firm. He petitioned Congress for the Force Bill (giving him more authority to collect taxes) and the Compromise Tariff (a reduction to ease tensions). The crisis was defused, but many States’ Righters detested Jackson’s response. 

Jackson’s most divisive move, however, regarded the National Bank. Following his veto, most politicians believed the debate was over, but Jackson decided to go a step further. In 1833, he began moving federal money out of the National Bank, and into state banks — so long as they were loyal to his administration and the Democratic Party machine. To accomplish this, Jackson fired two Treasury Secretaries, until the third complied with his demands. A poorly timed economic downturn led many to believe that these actions had caused a recession. Finally, Jackson’s opponents had an issue to rally around. The former National Republicans cleverly focused on criticizing Jackson’s actions, rather than mounting a defense of the Bank itself. No matter their beliefs in federal economic policy, National Republicans, States’ Righters, and Anti-Masons could all agree that Jackson had gone too far. Congressional opposition united. They took control of key Senate committees to block Jackson’s bills and appointments. This new coalition was the beginning of a new party — the Whig Party.

In the most simplistic terms, the Whigs could be described as Jackson’s opposition. But they contained a key train trait that the National Republicans before them lacked: a foundational ideological principle that was attractive to voters. No one was getting excited about tariffs, infrastructure, or the National Bank (except to oppose them). Instead, Whig campaigns were a call to ACTION — defend the republic and the values of the Founding Fathers against the tyranny of Andrew Jackson. Even their name, the Whigs, represented a callback to the opposition against King George III. Democrats were submissive. They took orders from Jackson, their party machine, and (xenophobically) the Catholic church. Whigs, on the other hand, were independent thinkers, as evidenced by their broad coalition. They represented the real America, and that was something voters could get behind.

So that was all great*! The Whig Party was now competitive in local and state elections. But there was one major component they were still missing… a presidential candidate that they could all agree on. We’ll explore that process in Part II!

*Aligning with states’ righters did have consequences, and they were not about to take a stance on slavery.

1. Andrew Jackson, 1824 — Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
2. Henry Clay, 1818 — Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
3. Independence Day Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia, 1819 — Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
4. John Quincy Adams, 1858 — Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
5. Electoral College 1824, 2018 — Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
6. King Andrew the First, 1832 — Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. Oxford University Press, 1999.

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