Document Type

Review

Publication Date

Summer 2001

Department

Civil War Era Studies; History

Abstract

"An impartial history of American statesmanship will give some of its most brilliant chapters to the Whig party from 1830 to 1850," wrote James G. Blaine in his memoirs. This was not, unhappily, because of a great heritage of political achievement in American public life. The work of the Whigs was, as Blaine admitted, negative and restraining rather than constructive. Still, "if their work cannot be traced in the National statute books as prominently as that of their opponents, they will be credited by the discriminating reader of our political annals as the English of to-day credit Charles James Fox and his Whig associates—for the many evils they prevented." If that is true, then we have not had very much in the way of "impartial" histories of American politics since Blaine's day. No major political movement—and a party which elected three presidents and nurtured a fourth over the span of twenty-two years can hardly be put down as minor—has suffered more sheer dismissal, more impatient contempt at the hands of political historians than the American Whigs of 1834 to 1856. This purging of the Whigs from historical respectability really began in Blaine's own lifetime, in the tart push-off made by Henry Adams in his Life of Albert Gallatin (1879), that "Of all the parties that have existed in the United States, the famous Whig party was the most feeble in ideas." Never mind that Adams's grandfather had been one of the founders of the Whigs and one of those rare intellectuals who managed to sit in both Congress and the White House. And it continued into the twentieth century, where the political history of the pre-Civil War years was dominated by the figure of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and his The Age of Jackson (1945), a book whose title deftly managed to identify the era of the Whigs by the name of their great political Satan. At best in these accounts, neither Whigs nor Democrats were distinguished by much which passed for a political philosophy; at worst, the Whigs were the party of old-fogeyism or unburied Federalism. [excerpt]

Share

COinS