By Allen Guelzo, Princeton University
The moderate Protestants who attached themselves to the Whigs liked to advertise themselves as men of reason as well as revelation. Like European liberalism, the Whigs glorified the individual, in a sense that the Whigs celebrated the emancipation of economic individuals from the restraints of local community, and set them on the unfettered path of economic opportunity and awkward social mobility.
Whigism and European Liberalism
Whigism shared with middle-class European bourgeois liberalism and unbounded confidence in progress. In the American case, this was fueled by the heady prospect of continued western expansion across the North American continent.
The dark side of Whigism, however, like the dark side of middle-class European liberalism, was its suspicion of popular democracy; its conviction that only an enlightened, independently wealthy, non-aristocratic elite was fitted to govern human society.
To that extent, Andrew Jackson had been right. Henry Clay and the Whigs were not the party of the people, but Jackson’s Democrats, and the more cumbersome formula of Democratic-Republicans, which dropped out of practical usage when the National Republicans adopted Whig as their name. Now the two parties became, simply, ‘Whigs and Democrats’.
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Whigs and Political Virtue
Jackson’s Democrats left a great deal to be desired as a ‘party of the people’ as well. The chief beneficiaries of Jackson’s policies on the tariffs and the bank were not ordinary folks, but southern slaveholders and state banks. The chief victims of Jackson’s policies were black slaves, small shop owners, and Indians.
The Whigs construed the original Republican demand for virtue as a mixture of economic opportunity and Protestant morality. Democrats compartmentalized the public and the private. They argued for majoritarian democracy to rule in the public sphere and laissez-faire to rule in the private. In this way, the Democrats made political virtue almost synonymous with the popular will, not with Protestant morality, and they neither needed nor welcomed second opinions from Christian moralism or Christian influence.
The Concept of Liberty
Whigs and Democrats alike thought of themselves as champions of liberty, but it quickly became obvious that Whigs thought of liberty as freedom from the restraints of localism, whereas Democrats thought of freedom as the privilege of restraining large concentrations of wealth and power. Those were two very different things.
The New York Trade Unionist, Eli Moore, preached liberty as a restraint on “an undue accumulation and distribution of wealth”, which he said, “we all know constitutes the aristocracy of this country.” Consequently, liberty was a negative rather than a positive idea to the Democrats. It was to be used not for achievement, not for self-transformation, but for containment and protection.
So, while Whigs, and Whiggery, found itself more and more resembling the confident and nationalistic bourgeois liberalism of Europe, the Democrats found themselves more and more speaking in defense of slave-based agriculture, and for industrial workers, along the same lines that European socialism was already beginning to do in the German states and in England.
Whigs Versus Democrats
As Daniel Walker Howe put it, “The Whigs promoted the society which would be economically diverse, but culturally uniform. Democrats preferred economic uniformity and equality, but tolerated the spread of cultural, ethnic, and moral diversity.”
That’s a very handy way, in one sentence, of dicing up both Whig and Democrat. It would not be too much to say that in the context of the 1830s, and the context of these ideas and their development, the Whigs were the party of optimism, of upward striving, while the Democrats were the party of fear, anxious that too much striving might mean too much success and too much power in the wrong hands.
Martin Van Buren
If the Democrats were the party of fear, they had more to fear than they suspected in 1836. Jackson retired from the presidency at the end of his second term, serenely confident that the destruction of the Second Bank of the United States had saved the national economy, and certain that the issuance of the Specie Circular would put the country back on the road toward a pure currency of hard coin.
Jackson cheerfully anointed, as his successor, Martin Van Buren, his faithful lieutenant, the master of the New York state political machine. After the resignation of John Calhoun, Van Buren had even served as Jackson’s second vice president. Riding on the coattails of Jackson’s popularity as the defender of the people from the monster bank, Van Buren easily defeated the Whigs, who could not agree on a single candidate, and ended up, in fact, running three candidates for the presidency: Daniel Webster from New England, Hugh Lawson White in the South, and William Henry Harrison in the West.
Martin Van Buren’s talents ran only as far as political machinery tending and catering to Old Hickory’s private whims, however. Van Buren was wholly unsuited to the larger task of the presidency, which Jackson had made larger for him.
Common Questions about Whigs and Democrats
The dark side of Whigism was its suspicion of popular democracy; its conviction that only an enlightened, independently wealthy, non-aristocratic elite was fitted to govern human society.
The chief beneficiaries of Jackson’s policies on the tariffs and the bank were southern slaveholders and state banks. The chief victims of Jackson’s policies were black slaves, small shop owners, and Indians.
While Whigs thought of liberty as freedom from the restraints of localism, Democrats thought of freedom as the privilege of restraining large concentrations of wealth and power.