By Allen Guelzo, Princeton University
In 1834, Henry Clay bestowed on the National Republicans their own party name, the Whigs. The marriage of Whig politics and moderate Protestantism shed on Whigism a public moralism that demanded cultural uniformity and restored to Christianity a public position that it had not enjoyed since the Revolution. Whig politics deferred to moderate Protestant religious demands.
The Second Great Awakening
The Second Great Awakening in the 1820s exuded a good deal of hostility and criticism of the market. The revivalists like Finney represented only the extreme left wing, so to speak, of American Christianity, however. There was also a right wing of old school Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians, like Bishop John Henry Hobart of New York, and John Williamson Nevin of the German Reformed Church’s Seminary at Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. They were just as suspicious of the market as the revivalists, because people like Nevin and Hobart were in fact cultural Tories who yearned for Old World models of social organization.
In between those two, though, was a broad band of Protestant Christian opinion that saw its principal task not as revivalism, because they regarded the enthusiasms of the revivalists as too undependable and irregular, or Tory reconstruction.
They put by that because they regarded it as antique and monarchical, and inconsistent with the spirit of a republic. What this broad band of moderate Protestantism advocated was control. Its calling was not, as with the revivalists, to pull redeemed individuals out of a corrupt society, but rather to create a Christian consensus within society.
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Christianizing the Market
While Whig politics deferred to moderate Protestant religious demands, the moderates, for their part, sought to rationalize and sanction the penetration of the market, and of national unity. The pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Henry Augustus Boardman, delivered a series of lectures in 1853 entitled ‘The Bible in the Counting House: A Course of Lectures to Merchants’. In that course of lectures, Boardman, far from condemning the market as a canker, actually struggled to Christianize it.
Boardman was not blind to what he called the ‘criminal avarice’, which often drove the market. He said, “Where war has slain its thousands, commerce has slain its tens of thousands.” Boardman, though, found no solution, as the Jacksonians did, in silencing the banks or disrupting the corporations.
“In that case,” said Boardman, “the silence of death would replace the intolerable but productive clatter of the foundries and machine shops.” And he said, “as much as our locomotives and steamboats have acquired some distinction as slaughtering machines”, there was still far greater danger to Americans from the individual forms of immorality, especially the form of drink, because the locomotives and steamboats are inert and tame when compared with the grog shop.
Thus, by deflecting attention away from the large-scale slaughter of the market to the small-scale slaughter of the grog shop, Boardman shifted the blame for social misery from the economic revolution to personal morality. That dovetailed with the Whig outlook.
Slaves and the American Union
Something that became a part of the Whig mentality, and which became a symbol of Whig unity, was the establishment of national union, because the key to establishing a national economy and spreading a national Protestant morality lay in the preservation of the American Union, especially in the face of the Union’s constant tendency towards a kind of chaotic democratic individualism.
Whigs like Daniel Webster had risen to attack nullification over tariffs. Motivated by the same anxiety, they rose to attack extremists in both the North and the South over slavery. Clay, for instance, was a Kentucky slaveholder. While that aligned him with southern slaveholding interests, he also publicly condemned the morality of slave ownership, actively sought to restrict the spread of slaveholding in the United States, and promoted colonization schemes for freed slaves.
However, this was not so much for the good of the slaves as to remove a potential irritant to national harmony. Clay was also the architect of one compromise after another to hold the southern slave states in the Union.
The Whigs believed that only a strong national Union could guarantee the penetration of the market and the establishment of Christian influence. If individual states or individual regions could remove themselves from involvement in the national economy, then they could also remove themselves from a national Protestant morality. They could also remove themselves from any other kinds of connection with other Americans.
We can see how the anxiety about preserving the Union was linked in the Whig mind, both in considerations of politics and in considerations of morality. The Whig ideology kept one foot behind in the old Republican trinity of liberty, virtue, and commerce—but it also clearly put another foot forward alongside the emergence of the European liberal bourgeoisie, or middle-class, in the 1840s. Like European liberalism, the Whigs were a movement based on reason, and especially the economic reasonableness and rationalism of the market.
Common Questions about Whig Ideology
Something that became a part of the Whig mentality, and which became a symbol of Whig unity, was the establishment of national union, because the key to establishing a national economy and spreading a national Protestant morality lay in the preservation of the American Union.
Though Clay was a Kentucky slaveholder, he publicly condemned the morality of slave ownership, actively sought to restrict the spread of slaveholding in the United States, and promoted colonization schemes for freed slaves.
The Whigs were a movement based on reason, and especially the economic reasonableness and rationalism of the market.