Sabato's Crystal Ball

Are the Republicans Going the Way of the Whigs?

Michael F. Holt, Guest Columnist March 10th, 2016


Many observers have begun to compare today’s GOP to the Whig Party, a major party that collapsed in the years leading up to the American Civil War. Is this a fair comparison? To explore the similarities and differences between the two political parties and the forces threatening their existence, we turned to the man who literally wrote the book on the Whigs: Michael F. Holt, Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History Emeritus at the University of Virginia. We are honored to feature the following piece by Prof. Holt, the author of six books, including the award-winning The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War and By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876.

— The Editors

In the spring of 1976, the Republican Party seemingly stood in peril. It had been drubbed in the post-Watergate elections of 1974. And now it experienced an increasingly abrasive fight between moderate and conservative factions over its impending presidential nomination. Conservatives, in fact, hoped to replace sitting Republican President Gerald Ford. Thus, pundits like Lou Cannon and David Broder suggested that the party hovered near its death-bed. And on several occasions that spring, Maryland’s moderate Republican Sen. Charles Mathias warned that unless his party mended its ways, it would “go the way of the Whigs.”

This was a dire forecast indeed. The political home of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and even Abraham Lincoln, the Whig Party had competed on reasonably even terms with Democrats between 1834 and 1852. After that year, however, the party suffered a rancorous sectional rupture, institutional implosion, and abandonment by virtually all of its one-time adherents, leaders and followers alike. By the end of the decade it was, as many one-time Whigs themselves lamented, “dead and buried.”

As we know, Republicans did not suffer that fate in 1976 or in the four subsequent decades. But what about now, when the increasingly rancorous battle between insider and outsider forces within the party grows more brutal and ugly every day, and each threatens to boycott the others’ candidates should they win the presidential nomination? Does the Whigs’ sorry story provide a template pointing to what might become the GOP’s fate now?

There are striking similarities, but also some crucial differences, between what befell the Whigs in the 1850s and Republicans’ fractious situation today. The Whigs’ final national convention in 1852, for example, was seriously split over the platform and among three contenders for the presidential nomination: incumbent President Millard Fillmore, southern Whigs’ decided favorite; his Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, backed almost exclusively by New Englanders; and Mexican War hero Gen. Winfield Scott, the choice of most northern Whigs. Fillmore, Webster, and their supporters insisted that the Whig platform declare the Compromise of 1850 a final, unamendable settlement of all slavery questions. Most northern Whigs, having resisted passage of the compromise in Congress and denounced its proslavery concessions after its passage, opposed that commitment. Together, the pro-compromise men had a majority at the convention and prevailed in the platform fight. But for 53 consecutive roll call votes over three days (Yep, 53 ballots!), they divided their support between Fillmore and Webster rather than combining behind either man, allowing Scott, whom most southern Whigs mistakenly distrusted as anti-compromise, to snatch the nomination. The upshot: Northern Whigs publicly repudiated the platform while southern Whigs publicly repudiated the candidate. Indeed, upon the convention’s adjournment, nine sitting southern Whig congressmen immediately issued a public letter vowing that they would never vote for Scott. (Sound familiar?)

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. Yet it took a different form than the Trump crusade, and that is the all-important difference between then and now.

These points cannot be stressed enough. They suggest that the Whig story is not a very good template for the likely fate of today’s Republicans, even though some of the forces impelling Whigs to abandon their party for greener pastures were almost identical to the concerns roiling Americans today. Whig voters were not hijacked away from regulars by intruders who sought Whig nominations, as Trump or the Tea Party’s Cruz do today inside the Republican Party. Rather, they defected to new parties outside the Whig Party that ran candidates against both Whigs and Democrats. Those new parties flourished in part because dissident Democrats also defected to them, and they consequently eclipsed the Whigs as Americans’ favored anti-Democratic party in off-year elections. Rebels against the established leadership of both major parties, in short, did not wait for presidential years to mount Lone Ranger independent runs for the White House. They built genuine parties from the ground of the federal system up before seeking the White House.

What allowed dissidents to do this is by far the most crucial distinction between nineteenth-century politics and today’s. Then, local and state governments did not print ballots that voters could mark for one party’s candidates or the other’s when they reached the polls. Instead, political parties and dissident candidates alike had the responsibility of printing ballots themselves and distributing them to polling places for voters to pick up and physically hand to election judges. This practice, so unlike contemporary voting procedures, had significant consequences. On the one hand, it meant that dissidents unhappy with the existing parties for whatever reason did not have to struggle to “get on the ballot.” They could print their own ballots and compete against the establishment if they could muster the manpower to distribute them at polling places. It was thus far easier to start the new parties that siphoned off the Whig electorate between 1852 and 1856 than it would be today or, indeed, has been since the 1890s. On the other hand, the indispensability of printing presses and an organization numerous and loyal enough to distribute the ballots they produced rendered the intrusion of outsiders who could hijack a party’s voters away from its established leaders, as Trump and Cruz threaten to do today, virtually impossible. Members loyal to the regular organization could — and when necessary did — simply omit the names of men the establishment did not like from the ballots they distributed. In short, it was much harder to take over a party from the inside but also much easier to challenge it from the outside by launching new parties than it is today. Hence the process by which the Whig Party collapsed as a viable competitive organization is a poor template for what might befall the Republican Party in November and beyond.