The Whigs

Much as we modern libertarians might love to hate the Whigs, they were in many ways indistinguishable from the Jacksonians.

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While the two parties gripped one another in mock mortal combat, struggling for votes more than for principles, some precious few Americans remained unimpressed. In corners all over the country, people saw through the myth making and the gamesmanship. Put frankly, American democracy was a sham and the evolving two parties were vast conspiracies against the public’s liberty, security, and well-being.

Further Readings/References:

Clay’s “American System” Speeches

 

Kohl, Lawrence. The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era. New York: Oxford University Press. 1989.


Pessen, Edward. Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics. Homewood, Illinois: The Dorsey Press. 1969.

Anthony Comegna: Perez Coleman of Montgomery, Alabama, was a radical, and his paper, the Loco [Foco 00:00:06] boldly proclaimed as much. Coleman, a Jacksonian Democrat, ravaged the newly found Whig party’s presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, to no end. It was September 1840, the very height of America’s most exciting election to that point. The famous log cabin and hard cider campaign in which the Whigs finally learned how to democracy. Harrison was the [00:00:30] other famous Indian fighter, the hero from the war of 1812, but by 1840, he took the field opposite radicals like Coleman. The editor slashed at the so-called Harrison Code of 1807, a series of laws passed by the territorial assembly and signed by then-Governor Harrison.
The law provided that debts to the territory may be paid in whippings if debtors had no money. Coleman wrote, “Here we have dollars as the currency for the rich man, and lashes as the currency for the poor [00:01:00] man. Be it known, therefore, that in tables of Harrison currency, 40 cents of the rich man’s money is equal to one lash on the poor man’s back.”
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. For Coleman, Harrison was the worst of American aristocracy, now leading the opposition party, [00:01:30] and when you get down to it, he really wasn’t far off. Nonetheless, Harrison sailed to victory of President Van Buren with 53 percent of the popular vote and a smashing 80 percent of the electoral vote. General Jackson’s worst enemies found a general of their own. They ran him as a war hero and committed him to whatever local crowds wanted, and the people saw in Harrison whatever they wanted to see. Exactly what they’d seen from Jackson.
His enemies called Harrison “General Mum” for staying silent on actual policies, [00:02:00] but the massive Harrison fairs and parades around the country spoke for themselves. Whigs blasted Van Buren as an effeminate aristocrat, spending the people’s money on gold spoons and silver plates for the White House. They played up Harrison’s lifetime on the frontier, his connections to normal people with normal lives, the log cabin he grew up in and the hard cider he used to wash down simple meals.
A decade earlier, the exact same political operatives attacked Jackson as the offspring of an African [00:02:30] slave and a white prostitute. They criticized his lack of education. They ridiculed his time spent as an all around degenerate. Whatever else you can say about the Whigs, they learned this. Democratic politicians need not be consistent. They need only be popular. Much as we modern libertarians might love to hate the Whigs, they were in many ways indistinguishable from the Jacksonians. Historian Edward [Pessen 00:02:55] called the Jacksonian era an age of pragmatism and opportunism, and that went [00:03:00] for both major parties.
Whigs pulled themselves in all sorts of conflicting directions if the situation called for it. Perhaps the one intellectually consistent Whig was also the most famous and important Whig, party chieftain Henry Clay. Had Clay never been part of the corrupt bargain of 1824, he may well have made a tidy career as a sound Jacksonian and American history may have looked very different. In fact, had he gotten a mere 5,000 votes more for President in New York in 1844, [00:03:30] we may not have had a civil war, but that’s a topic for another day.
Henry Clay is sort of like that. The indispensable man who’s always dispensed with anyways, and with good reasons, the Jacksonians claimed. After all, he did make a corrupt bargain with Adams. He did strip the people of their proper president, and so he became Jackson’s mortal enemy and leader of the opposition. Clay was intellectually consistent and in reality not far off from the Jacksonians. The corrupt [00:04:00] bargain changed all of that, though, and as the Democratic Party developed, it did so in opposition to Clay, John Quincy Adams and the like. Essentially all supporters of national power, intervention in the economy and state management of developments projects.
The Jacksonians did not necessarily denounce all of these policies but they did whatever was politically expedient at the time. For Clay, after the corrupt bargain, that meant providing a comprehensive vision for America that could both content with Jackson’s personality [00:04:30] and inspire legislation. He developed what he called The American System, a three part plan for economic development and ensuring prosperity for common people. What was more, it bucked early Jacksonian class rhetoric by dangling the prospect that average people, too, could get in on the big government bonanza.
The American system consisted of, one, a national bank, to regulate the currency, encourage foreign investment and provide speculative capital for new businesses. [00:05:00] Two, a series of protective tariffs which artificially inflated prices for domestic producers by taxing foreign imports, and three, government spending on internal improvements projects for everything from turnpike roads to canals and railroads. Again, I said he was intellectually consistent throughout his career, a rarity in his era. I said his election may have averted a civil war but I did not say I liked Henry Clay or approved of his program, so I can’t really do [00:05:30] him justice. Let’s just hear it from Clay himself.

Speaker 2: Henry Clay’s American System speeches, February 2nd, 3rd and 6th, 1832. I stand here as the humble but zealous advocate not of the interests of one state or seven states only but of the whole union and never before have I felt more intensely the overpowering weight of that shared responsibility, which belongs to me in these deliberations. Never before have I had more occasion that I now have [00:06:00] to lament my want of those intellectual powers, the possession of which might enable me to unfold to this senate and to illustrate to this people great truths intimately connected with the lasting welfare of my country.
I should, indeed, sink, overwhelmed and subdued, beneath the appalling magnitude of the task which lies before me. I did not feel myself sustained and fortified by a thorough consciousness of the justness of the cause which I have espoused. Eight years ago, it was my painful duty to present to the other [00:06:30] house of congress an unexaggerated picture of the general distress pervading the whole land. We must all yet remember some of its frightful features. We all know that the people were then oppressed and born down by an enormous load of debt, that the value of property was at the lowest point of depression, that ruinous sales and sacrifices were everywhere made of real estate, that stop laws and relief laws and paper money were adopted to save the people from impending destruction, that a deficit in the public revenue existed which compelled [00:07:00] government to seize upon and divert from its legitimate object the appropriation to the sinking fund to redeem the national debt and that our commerce and navigation were threatened with the complete paralysis.
In short, sir, if I were to elect any term of seven years since the adoption of the present constitution, which exhibited a scene of the most widespread dismay and desolation, it would be exactly that term of seven years which immediately proceeded the establishment of the tariff of 1824. [00:07:30] I have now to perform the more pleasing task of exhibiting an imperfect sketch of the existing state of the unparalleled prosperity of the country.
On a general survey, we behold cultivation extended, the arts flourishing, the face of the country improved, our people fully and profitably employed and the public countenance exhibiting tranquility, contentment and happiness, and if we descend into particulars, we have the agreeable contemplation of a people out of debt, land rising slowly in value but in a secure and salutary [00:08:00] degree, a ready though not extravagant market for all the surplus productions of our industry, innumerable flocks and herds browsing and gambling on 10,000 hills and plains covered with rich verdant grasses.
Our cities expanded and whole villages springing up as it were by enchantment, our exports and imports increased and increasing, our tonnage foreign and coastwise, swelling and fully occupied, the rivers of our interior animated by the perpetual thunder and lightning of countless [00:08:30] steamboats, the currency sound and abundant, the public debt of two wars nearly redeemed and, to crown all, the public treasury overflowing, embarrassing congress not to find subjects of taxation but to select the objects which shall be liberated from the impost.
If the term of seven years were to be selected of the greatest prosperity which this people have enjoyed since the establishment of their present constitution, it would be exactly that period of seven years which immediately follow [00:09:00] the passage of the tariff of 1824. This transformation of the condition of the country from gloom and distress to brightness and prosperity has been mainly the work of American legislation fostering American industry instead of allowing it to be controlled by foreign legislation cherishing foreign industry.

Anthony Comegna: To Clay, people like himself really made the country productive and prosperous. His tariff, his national bank, his pet improvements projects [00:09:30] were those best calculated to achieve maximum wealth for the most people, whether class envious and suspicious democrats would believe it or not. Making his grand bargain with the people this time, rather than John Quincy Adams, Clay linked his and his faction’s political leadership with the wellbeing of all Americans. Clay was the true nationalist, not the divisive and violent Jackson. Clay’s program benefited cabinetmakers and bakers every bit as much as it helped Kentucky hemp lords [00:10:00] like himself.

Speaker 2: It is now proposed to abolish the system to which we owe so much of the public prosperity, and it is urged that the arrival of the period of the redemption of the public debt has been confidently looked to as presenting a suitable occasion to rid the country of the evils with which the system is alleged to be fraught. If the system of protection be founded on principles erroneous in theory, pernicious in practice, above all if it be unconstitutional, [00:10:30] it is alleged it ought to be forthwith abolished and not a vestige of it suffered to remain. But before we sanction this sweeping denunciation, let us look a little at this system. Its magnitude, its ramifications, its duration and the high authorities which have sustained it.
We shall see that its foes will have accomplished comparatively nothing after having achieved their present aim of breaking down our iron foundries, our woolen, cotton and hemp manufactories and our sugar plantations. The destruction [00:11:00] of these would undoubtedly lead to the sacrifice of immense capital, the ruin of many thousands of our fellow citizens, and incalculable loss to the whole community, but their prostration would not disfigure nor produce greater effect upon the whole system of protection in all its branches. Then the destruction of the beautiful domes upon the capitol would occasion to the magnificent edifice which they surmount.
Why, sir, is there scarcely an interest, scarcely a vocation in society which is not embraced by the beneficence of this [00:11:30] system? It comprehends our coasting tonnage and train from which all foreign tonnage is absolutely excluded. It includes our foreign tonnage with the inconsiderable exception made by treaties of reciprocity with a few foreign powers. It embraces our fisheries and all our hearty and enterprising fishermen. It extends to almost every mechanic art, to tanners, cordwainers, tailors, cabinetmakers, hatters, tinners, brass workers, dock makers, coach makers, [00:12:00] tallow chandlers, trace makers, rope makers, court cutters, tobacconists, whip makers, paper makers, umbrella makers, glass blowers, stocking weavers, button makers, saddle and harness makers, cutlers, brush makers, bookbinders, dairymen, milk farmers, blacksmiths, type founders, musical instrument makers, basket makers, [milloners 00:12:22], potters, chocolate makers, floor doth makers, bonnet makers, hair cloth makers, coppersmiths, pencil makers, [00:12:30] bellows makers, pocketbook makers, card makers, glue makers, mustard makers, lumber sawyers, saw makers, scale beam makers, scythe makers, wood saw makers and many others.
It extends to all lower Louisiana, the delta of which might as well be submerged again in the gulf of Mexico, from which it has been a gradual conquest, as now to be deprived of the protecting duty upon its great staple. It affects the cotton planer himself and the tobacco planter, both of whom enjoy protection.

Anthony Comegna: [00:13:00] Finally, Clay addresses the question of whether this is all even legal. After all, this was 1832 and the Vice President was newly bloomed nullifier and states’ rights extremist John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was the secret puppet master behind South Carolina’s nullification of Clay’s tariff plan, the largest crisis in Jackson’s administration. Even the President agreed with Clay that the tariffs were legal. They believed it was obvious that congress could lay them down however it liked. Clay [00:13:30] took time in his speech to needle Calhoun, who was presiding as president of the senate at the time.
When Calhoun protested, Clay reminded him that he had supported the tariff of 1816. Whatever political game Calhoun was running at the moment, Clay at least could stand on intellectual consistency. Clay had always been a crony capitalist, a gambler, hard drinker and a fast politician. These qualities, after all, made him powerful and America great.

Speaker 2: I shall not discuss the constitutional [00:14:00] question without meaning any disrespect to those who raise it. If it be debatable, it has been sufficiently debated. The gentleman from South Carolina suffered it to fall unnoticed from his budget and it was not until after he had closed his speech and resumed his seat that it occurred to him that he had forgotten it. When he again addressed the senate and by a sort of protestation against any conclusion from his silence, put forward the objection: the recent free trade convention at Philadelphia, it is well known, were divided on the question and [00:14:30] although the topic is noticed in their address to the public, they do not avow their own belief that the American system is unconstitutional but represent that such is the opinion of respectable portions of the American people.
Another address to the people of the United States from a high source during the past year treating this subject does not assert the opinion of the distinguished author but states that of others to be that it is unconstitutional, from which I infer that he did not himself believe it unconstitutional. Here, the Vice President, Mr. [00:15:00] Calhoun, interposed and remarked that if the senator from Kentucky alluded to him, he must say that his opinion was that the measure was unconstitutional.
“When, sir,” said Mr. Clay, “I contended with you side by side and with perhaps less zeal than you exhibited in 1816, I did not understand you then to consider the policy forbidden by the constitution.” The Vice President, Mr. Calhoun, again, interposed and said that the constitutional question was not debated at that time and that he had never expressed [00:15:30] an opinion contrary to that now intimated. “I give way with pleasure,” said Mr. Clay, “To these explanations which I hope will always be made when I say anything bearing on the individual opinions of the chair. I know the delicacy of the position and sympathize with the incumbent, whoever he may be. It is true, the question was not debated in 1816, and why not? Because it was not debatable. It was then believed not fairly to arise. It had never been made as a distinct, substantial and [00:16:00] leading point of objection.
“It never was made until the discussion of the tariff of 1824, when it was rather hinted at as against the spirit of the constitution, then formally announced as being contrary to the provisions of that instrument. What was not dreamt of before or in 1816 and scarcely thought of in 1824 is now made by excited imaginations to assume the imposing form of a serious constitutional barrier.”

Anthony Comegna: Whigs argued that Jackson governed [00:16:30] as a demagogue and a mad monarch. He sometimes flew into shaking fits, foam forming at the corners of his mouth, when underlings disobeyed or disagreed, or when people like Clay and Calhoun foiled his plans. Clay’s brand, then, became the English Whigs, those 18th century liberals who fought overreaching executives from their place in parliament. He collected around him characters as diverse as Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, a young Abraham Lincoln and an old John Quincy Adams. What [00:17:00] drew them all together was a shared hatred and fear of Andrew Jackson and a mutual desire to throw him out of office.
Having failed that in 1832, then again in 1836 against Van Buren, they finally learned in 1840 how to be better Democrats than the Democrats. Whigs were wealthy, powerful, ruthlessly ambitious and self-interested vote wranglers, too. Like the Jacksonians, they had become demagogues and Democrats because it worked. It was a tried and true pathway to [00:17:30] power and men like Clay always wanted more of that. Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster briefly switched from one of the national bank’s greatest allies to flirt with Jackson in 1833 but settled in as a firm Whig by 1836. When popular to do so, he attacked the bank and Clay’s compromised tariffs. When expedient again, he supported the bank in exchange for a lawyer’s retainer.
Calhoun knew that his own ambitions depended upon a southern constituency so he was with Jackson [00:18:00] in the beginning and parted company over the tariff. By the time the free trading southerner James K. Polk was running in 1844, Calhoun was once again a Democrat of good standing. In Rhode Island, William Sprague and John Brown Frnacis hopped from one party to the other, settling in as Whigs in the late 1830s. Francis Grund, called General Weather Cock, went from the Whigs around Clay in 1834 to Van Buren the next year, Harrison in 1840, back to Polk in the democracy in 1844, [00:18:30] over to Clay again, and finally ended up behind Democrat James Buchanan.
Exceptional as Grund’s case may sound, it wasn’t far off from the general rule of the day. While the two parties gripped one another in mock mortal combat, struggling for votes more than for principles, some precious few Americans remained unimpressed. In corners all over the country, people sought through the myth making and the gamesmanship. Put frankly, American democracy was a sham [00:19:00] and the evolving two parties were vast conspiracies against the public’s liberty, security and wellbeing. They were rival houses of political aristocrats, the mushroom monopolists in a new sort of ruling class, and it didn’t help that huge numbers of these politicians great and small, Whig and Democrat, were Freemasons.
Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism. [00:19:30] org, is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit Libertarianism.org.