The Whig Party

By Michael F. Holt, Ph.D.

The Whig party would combine National Republicans and Antimasons as well as two different groups of southern anti-Jackson men who had refused to support Clay in 1832 because they considered National Republicans' nationalistic economic program an unconstitutional violation of states' rights. One was South Carolina's Nullifiers who shortly after Jackson's reelection in 1832 declared the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void in their state. Their chief spokesman in Congress, Senator John C. Calhoun, who was Jackson's Vice President during his first term, would help form the Whig party in the winter of 1833-34, but he and most South Carolina Nullifiers would rejoin the Democratic party in 1837. The second group, however, would remain Whigs. These were one-time Democrats who considered South Carolina's attempts to nullify a federal statute nonsensical but who also bridled at the strong nationalistic stance Jackson took in his December 1832 proclamation against nullification and his call on Congress for a "Force Bill" to suppress it. By mid-1833 these men referred to themselves as Independent States Rights men to express their political distance from Nullifiers, Jacksonians, and National Republicans alike.

What brought these disparate anti-Jackson men together in the Whig party in 1834 was their common anger at Jackson's executive order of September 1833 removing federal deposits from the Bank of the United States. Since the Bank's charter of 1816, which ran until 1836, called for federal money to be deposited in the BUS, Jackson's action struck these men as illegal, unconstitutional, and high-handed executive tyranny. Thus Whigs initially rallied against executive tyranny and Jackson's monarchical pretensions. That was what the very name "Whig," which Revolutionary patriots had also used to signify their opposition to King George III, was meant to convey, and throughout their twenty-year history, the Whig party would rail against executive actions by both presidents and governors that threatened the autonomy and power of Congress and state legislatures. But Whigs would also embrace the National Republicans' American System after the Panic of 1837 and advocate the positive economic legislation in states that Democrats opposed: the chartering of banks and other corporations; the liberal circulation of paper-money banknotes; and subsidization of internal improvement projects that required the issue of state bonds. Where Democrats favored territorial expansion in the 1840s, Whigs would oppose it. Where Democrats pushed for the reduction of prices for federal lands in the West, Whigs wanted to keep the prices high and to distribute the revenue from federal land sales to state governments. Where the Democratic electorate was strongest in areas still outside the commercial, monetized market economy, Whigs throughout the nation were strongest in those areas and among those groups already in the market sector or who aspired to enter it. That aspiration is clearly what attracted Abraham Lincoln to the Whig party and kept him a devoted Whig until the party's final death throes in 1856.