Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

By Michael F. Holt

Oxford. 1248 pp. $45

Reviewed by Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

It is risky to judge a work of history by weight alone; the lengthy masterpieces of Henry Adams and Francis Parkman attest to that. But great length demands great scope, and to say that is to pose the key question about this massive work. When a master historian lavishes almost 1,250 pages (counting notes and index) on a party whose lifespan was 20 years, and which never controlled the national agenda, it's fair to ask what the point is.

Maybe it is simply to resurrect the fading memory of one of the two great American political parties that died -- the other being the Federalist Party of Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Indeed, few today will know offhand who the Whigs were, who led them or to what great purpose. As Michael Holt repeatedly emphasizes, the Whig Party was born in reaction -- reaction to the new Democratic Party (called by its detractors the locofocos, after a brand of matches) shaped by King Andrew Jackson. The architects of American Whiggery were allergic to Jackson's high-handed use of executive power and to his hard-money following among men with an eye on the thrusting Western frontier. The Whigs were protective of that perennially controversial creature, the Second Bank of the United States, symbolic of their preference for negotiable paper. They also advocated internal improvements (public works, we would call them today), financed by tariff revenues and land sales.

While it was no more a class-bound party than any other, the Whig Party did recruit heavily from old-stock Protestants, north and south, knitting together Northern commercial and Southern slaveholding interests. Given these geographically disparate constituencies, the Whigs were devoted to unionism, often at the price of muddled principle. Their representative accomplishment was Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850 (Holt suggests that Clay's originality tends to be exaggerated). The South got a new and stronger fugitive slave law; the North, the admission of California as a free state, and other trimmings. But above all else, the Whigs struggled to avoid a potentially lethal quarrel over slavery and its extension to new territories. Maintaining the good old union in repair was a top priority.

Ironically, in view of its irenic temper, the Whig Party's two elected presidents, William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1848, were both war heroes. Both died in office (Harrison soon after his inauguration), leaving rather inadequate vice presidents to straggle along. The first of the two successors, John Tyler, was actually drummed out of the Whig Party as a crypto-Democrat.

Although he comments from time to time on the familiar historians' controversies of the pre-Civil War period (whether, for instance, the war was the handiwork of a blundering generation), Holt does not strikingly challenge the usual understanding of how and why the Whigs rose and fell. What he adds to the consensus, apart from many detailed quibbles, is a microscopic examination of backstage state and local Whig politics. Even when the local issues seem parochial, he argues, the state rivalries were important in shaping party agendas and served politicians of the Jacksonian era as barometers, as polls do today. Indeed, a case can almost always be made for Speaker Tip O'Neill's famous dictum that all politics is local -- almost.

But it seems to me that the Whig story is one for which the O'Neill axiom may be a poor fit. The micropolitical struggles that entrance Michael Holt and absorbed Whig politicos in their time -- prohibitionism in Maine and other New England states, say, or the long nativist agitation brought on by the heaviest proportional influx of newcomers in American history -- are petty by comparison with those on which the nation's fate was soon to turn: far removed on any Richter Scale of political upheaval. So notwithstanding Holt's heroic effort to show the importance of Whig localism, the essential story stands today as it has in many a history text: a tale of honorable and temperate men, led by Henry Clay and his acolytes, striving to contain the reckless, surging expansionist energies of Jackson's (and later, James K. Polk's) America.

Those energies were irrepressible, and their fateful works -- Indian removal, the instigation of the Mexican War and the territorial cession that followed, Texas annexation, the erasure of the Missouri Compromise line in Nebraska -- all hastened the collapse of sectional comity. Defenders of the Jacksonian view would no doubt respond, in the immortal phrase of an editor of that period, that it was America's manifest destiny to push on to the Pacific, cost what it might to sectional peace, and that no man or party could stop it.

Did this process bring on civil war? In some respects, Holt's subtitle (" . . . and the Onset of the Civil War") is a bit misleading. Scanning backward, as historians must, one can see an unfolding logic to events from the Missouri controversy of 1819-20 (the firebell in the night that so alarmed the aging Thomas Jefferson) to the firing on Fort Sumter four decades later. Yet when the Whig Party expired in 1856 (formally, anyway; persistent Whiggery has been found to be a lingering force long after the Civil War), the worst had not happened. John C. Calhoun had tried to recruit the South into a sectional party and failed. Unionism remained strong in the border South, and even in states like Georgia and Mississippi. Under the crafty leadership of Stephen A. Douglas, the Democrats thought they had discovered a magic-bullet formula that would finesse secessionism. (It was popular sovereignty, the doctrine that residents of the new states would decide for themselves, without congressional dictation, whether to be free or slave.) So Holt's tale ends with the last act of the onset still unwritten, a year before the provocative Dred Scott decision and two years before Abraham Lincoln emerged, in his debates with Douglas, as the apostle of a plan for the slow strangulation of slavery (at least, as the South viewed it). In the year of the Whigs' death, one could see menacing signs of discord; but whether they pointed to "an irrepressible conflict," in the words of that noted New York Whig, William H. Seward, no seer could then have said.

Holt's mammoth book has its luminous moments, and he must surely have forgotten more about the American Whig Party than any 10 others ever knew. But the rare intervals of storytelling he allows himself are oases into which the weary reader staggers after parching treks through bygone elections. If you worry about narrative in history, now that computer-generated analyses of past voting figures offer a tempting diversion, this may be Exhibit A. It is green-eyeshade history, history as it might be told by a party's national committee; and its power to enchant will vary directly with the reader's appetite for the same.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. teaches at Washington and Lee University and is the author of "The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past."