I just finished reading Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848. As best I can judge, it’s a fine book. I’m especially pleased with its treatment of religion in the antebellum republic. Also, it’s got an astonishing number of footnotes, which I will certainly make use of when pursuing further information on the era.
But, let’s talk about the Whigs. I mean the Whig party of the 1830s, 40s, and early 50s; the party of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams and young Abe Lincoln. Howe clearly likes the Whigs. Officially, he’s trying to balance the idea of the “Jacksonian era” by pointing out that Andrew Jackson, his policies, and his Democratic Party were not exactly unifying, and that the opposing Whig vision for America’s future is in many ways more morally admirable. But, really, I think he’s a Whig at heart.
Although I’m planning to read a more pro-Jackson book sometime in the future — any recommendations? — I think I’m going to have to come down on the side of the Whigs as well. A number of the politicians who later became prominent Whigs opposed Jackson’s policy of Indian removal, and the part of me that likes respect for the rule of law as expressed in treaties, especially when it goes hand-in-hand with not committing moral atrocities, goes with the future Whigs on this issue. I’m basically agnostic on the issue of the Second National Bank, but it doesn’t appear to me that Jackson’s motivations for destroying it were sound. Finally, I’m absolutely with the Whigs in their opposition to the war with Mexico and James K. Polk’s aggressive expansionism.
One of the book’s more interesting asides was the suggestion that if Henry Clay had managed to beat Polk in the 1844 election, he would have pursued policies that could have avoided civil war. Clay’s goal of economic integration between the states might have reduced sectional tensions, and he wouldn’t have made the land grabs that Polk did, which clearly exacerbated national problems. And we can only wonder what would have happened if William Henry Harrison hadn’t died, giving the highest office in the land to John Tyler, one of the worst vice-presidential choices in history. Tyler reveals some of the clear dangers of trying to “balance the ticket.” (He was qualified as a candidate, but he was clearly at odds with the policies of the party that nominated him. They counted on Harrison’s continued health to make Tyler’s policies irrelevant.)
As confused as I am about contemporary issues, it’s nice to be able to take a stand somewhere. Here’s to the Whigs!
(With apologies to our sometime contributor, Martin Van Buren.)