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Whig Party

Timeframe: 1836 - 1852

The Whig Party formed in the opposition of President Andrew Jackson and constituencies in the Democratic Party, united only by this opposition. The anti-Jackson groups drew upon the political history of two revolutions, the American and 17th century English, for their name. In both cases, the opposition had called themselves Whigs; this time they united against "King Andrew."

The National Republican party was the precursor to the Whigs, and Jackson’s inauguration in 1829 began the period of opposition and prepared the ground for a coalition of political forces which formed the Whig Party. Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts because the party’s leading figures. The different leaders of the party clashed in their views; Webster was more of a nationalist than Clay. However, both men encouraged a program of tariff protection, federally sponsored communication projects and other internal improvements, continuation of the national bank, and a conservative public land sales policy. This was fully described in Clay’s "American System." The program had strong appeal to merchants and manufacturers practicing interstate commerce. Clay made the President’s veto of a bank recharter a key issue, but Jackson handily won reelection.

John C. Calhoun broke his alliance with Jackson and joined the Whigs when he realized that he would not be the next Democratic president. Calhoun’s supporters, widened with the nullification crisis, were lead to the Whig party. Another source of recruits was the Anti-Masonic party, strong in New York and Pennsylvania, leading many influencing politicians as William Seward and Thaddeus Stevens into the party.

In 1840, The Whig ticket consisted of William H. Harrison for president and John Tyler for vice-president. They ran a "Log Cabin" campaign which was the first to use major political propaganda and electioneering. The Whigs won, but Harrison died one month in office, and with him the future of the Whig cohesion. John Tyler, who had been a Jacksonian Democrat, acceded to the presidency, and embittered the Whigs by vetoing the bills which they had meant to restore the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. Most of Tyler’s cabinet resigned in protest, and his membership in the party was withdrawn.

In 1844, the Whig Party nominated Clay for president. Clay refused to take a definite stand on the Texas annexation issue, provoking northern abolitionists, who opposed its admission as a slave state, to support the Liberty party candidate. The Whig split ensured a victory for the Democrat Polk. Once the Mexican War had been declared, controversy over admitting or excluding slavery from territory gained in the war further splintered the party. Antislavery Whigs, known as Conscience Whigs opposed the Cotton Whigs in the pro-slavery states.

Despite this dissension, the Whigs won the presidency in 1848 under Zachary Taylor. With disunion threatening, Clay and Webster tried to compromise the main points of sectional friciton. President Taylor blocked their moves, and his death on July 9 made Millard Fillmore the president. Webster, now Fillmore’s secretary of state, wanted to capture the presidency in 1852 on the Union movement. However, both major paries accepted the Compromise of 1850 and the Whigs reverted to nominate Winfield Scott. Later that year, Clay and Webster died. The Whig Party never recovered from the death of their two great figures.

Its call for moderation and Union became more ineffective as the Civil war neared. Southern Whigs thought the Democrats more receptive to their interests, concerned with slaveholding rights. Northern Whigs had already moved to the Free Soil Party, which had been formed earlier. The rise of the Republican and the American parties furthered the Whig downfall, as they defected to those parties. The former Whig president, Fillmore, accepted the American nomination, and the Whigs endorsed him.

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