What Can the Collapse of the Whig Party Tell Us About Today’s Politics?

Is the Republican party on the verge of catastrophe? Probably not, if history is any indicator

The split in the Whig party over slavery spelled its doom. (Library of Congress)
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In the midst of this tumultuous campaign season, the long, stable two-party system appears to be fraying at the seams. The Republican establishment’s struggle to reconcile the rise of Donald Trump with its own attempts at retaking the White House serves as a reminder that political institutions are not necessarily permanent. Major political parties can and have collapsed in the United States.

Pundits on sites such as Esquire and Salon find an intriguing precedent in the rapid demise of the Whig party in the middle of the 19th century. From the early 1830s well into the mid-1850s, the Whigs joined the Democrats as one of the nation’s two major parties. As late as the winter of 1853, a Whig president, Millard Fillmore of New York, occupied the White House. But two years later, by the fall of 1855, the Whig party was effectively extinct. Clearly, dramatic change in American party politics can happen fast, but is that kind of transformation happening today with the G.O.P.?

Probably not. Looking back, the underlying causes of the Whig party’s downfall seem so much graver than today’s turmoil, noteworthy as it has been.

The major American political realignment of the mid-1850s had been brewing for decades due to fundamental divisions over the place of slavery in American politics. By the late 1830s a small and radical group of abolitionists had become fed up with the two major parties, the Whigs and Democrats. Both systematically downplayed slavery, opting instead to spar over seemingly unrelated issues including taxation, trade policy, banking and infrastructure spending.

Abolitionists, by contrast, insisted that those issues were secondary to combatting the southern “slave power’s” control of federal policymaking. Antislavery third parties (the abolitionist Liberty Party from 1840 to 1848 and the more moderate antislavery Free Soil Party from 1848 to 1854) relentlessly attacked the major parties’ inherent incapacity to offer meaningful policy outcomes on their central issue. These activists fought fiercely, and ultimately successfully, to demolish the existing party system, seeing it (correctly) as overly protective of the slave states’ political power. As the slavery issue grew increasingly salient in the face of rapid national expansion, so did disputes over slavery’s place in new western territories and conflicts over fugitive slaves. The old issues began to matter less and less to average northern Whig voters.

The 1852 election was a disaster for the Whigs. In the vain hope of once more bridging the widening sectional rift, the party crafted a measured, proslavery platform distasteful to many northern Whigs, thousands of whom simply stayed home on Election Day. Two years later, when Congress passed divisive legislation that could introduce slavery into Kansas, the teetering Whig party came tumbling down. A new coalition that combined most of the Free Soil Party, a majority of northern Whigs, and a substantial number of disgruntled northern Democrats came together to form the Republican party. In less than two years, this grand, and not-at-all-old, party emerged as the most popular political party in the North, electing the Speaker of the House in February of 1856 and winning 11 of 16 non-slaveholding states in the presidential contest later that year.

The one policy goal that united all Republicans was opposition to the expansion of slavery, though there were a host of other issues that this Republican Party also coalesced behind (including, ironically, many former Whigs’ disgust at the growing “problem” of Irish Catholic immigrants).  Abolitionists had long argued that the southern states unfairly controlled the national government and needed to be stopped from further extending slavery’s reach. Finally, after more than 20 years of agitation, the new Republican Party organized around precisely this agenda. Just a few years prior, such developments would have been almost completely unimaginable to all but the most prescient antislavery political spokesmen. Party systems can indeed collapse with stunning rapidity.

When the Whig Party crumbled and northern Democrats split in the mid-1850s, it was because both of those old parties had failed to respond to the threat of slavery’s expansion, which was fast becoming the major national issue—one which many Northerners had come to care more deeply about than any other policy question. The collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s created national chaos, and ultimately civil war, but for many Americans the risk was worth it because of their insistence that slavery’s expansion be stopped.   With so many matters facing voters today, from national security concerns to economic anxieties to fears about illegal immigration, it’s unlikely that there’s any single issue that diverges radically enough from current partisan divisions and generates sufficiently intense ideological commitments to bring about an analogous upheaval in modern national politics.

Whether or not Donald Trump’s campaign continues to confound the political class in the coming months, his disaffected supporters have provided a potent reminder that nothing in politics is guaranteed.

This is adapted from an essay originally published on History News Network.

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