Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

The decline of the Whigs


I always took the breakup of the Whig Party personally for some reason. (We’ll pause to let the Trump voters catch up.) Over the past few months I’ve made references to the Know-Nothing Party, a brief but interesting part of American history that is often forgotten. In Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball report, indispensable weekly reading even if it is more depressing than Emily Dickinson, there is a guest op-ed from Professor Michael Holt on how the Whig Party fell apart and the rise of the Know-Nothings.

Aware that the Deep South was hopelessly lost, the Whigs’ campaign for Scott clumsily and unsuccessfully focused on winning over naturalized Catholic immigrants, who had traditionally supported Democrats and whose numbers in northern states were soaring. The result was disaster. Southern Whigs abstained in droves; so did normally Whig, Catholic-hating Presbyterians and Methodists in key northern states; and the northern Democratic vote surged with the infusion of new immigrant voters. The hapless Whigs carried only four of 31 states with a mere 14% of the electoral votes in what Whigs themselves pronounced a “Waterloo defeat.” To boot, they had managed to permanently alienate nativist Protestants, who vowed to look elsewhere for a new political home because they no longer trusted establishment Whig leaders. This 1852 result — a Whig rout attributable to shrunken turnout for their party and a swollen turnout by immigrants for the Democratic enemy — is, of course, precisely what many establishment Republicans fear their party will duplicate in 2016 should Donald Trump or Ted Cruz be their nominee.

Yet this defeat in a presidential election was NOT what killed the Whig Party. Rather it died because its voters decamped to new, non-Whig, anti-Democratic parties in the local, congressional, and state elections of 1853, 1854, and 1855 before the next presidential election in 1856. By that election, the Whig Party was already a hollowed-out shell. A host of splinter parties arose in those off-year contests, but two were most important. Of these, the more well-known is the Republican Party, which emerged in the North to protest enactment of Democrats’ Kansas-Nebraska Act in May 1854. Reaction to that law split northern and southern Whigs against each other, decimated northern Democratic congressional candidates in 1854 and 1855, and caused the majority of northern voters to coalesce gradually behind the overtly anti-southern, anti-slavery-extension Republican Party, a process substantially, but not yet fully, completed by the 1856 presidential election. The rise of the Republican Party depended upon, even as it helped cause, the death of the Whig Party. But it has little relevance to the situation of today’s Republican Party.

Far more parallel to the contemporary situation was the rise of notorious Know-Nothing Party, which in fact did far more to gut the Whig Party before 1856 than did Republicans’ exploitation of anti-southern hostility. Economic dislocation that destroyed blue-collar jobs, unemployment during a severe recession in 1854 and 1855, and the palpable growth of both the foreign-born population and the Catholic Church, which in precisely those years demanded that local governments divide local tax revenues between public and Catholic parochial schools, allowed Know-Nothings to exploit burgeoning religious and anti-immigrant prejudices. “How people do hate Catholics,” future Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote in his diary after watching Know-Nothings sweep Cincinnati’s fall elections in 1854, “and what happiness it was to thousands to have a chance to show [that hatred] in what seemed like a lawful and patriotic manner” by voting Know-Nothing. But Know-Nothings allowed angry voters to vent more than religious and ethnic prejudices. They also allowed them to smite established Whig and Democratic leaders who had betrayed them by groveling so overtly for Catholic and immigrant support. A genuinely spontaneous, populist grassroots revolt of angry working- and lower middle-class dissidents, Know-Nothings initially pledged that they would never support any candidate who had ever held or previously sought public office. All professional politicians, they ranted, were the enemy. In their oft-repeated phrase, they exclusively sought candidates “fresh from the ranks of the people.” In its causes and expression, in sum, the Know-Nothing uprising of the 1850s comes as close to previewing today’s Trump phenomenon as one can imagine.

There is an interesting footnote to this. It was the Know-Nothings that first pushed amendments to state constitutions to prevent public funding from going to religious schools in an effort to keep any money from going to Catholic schools. Those state constitutional amendments, born of bigotry, persist to this day.

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