The Dying Whigs

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

The Second Party System rested on slavery staying at the margins of politics. As long as it did, both the Democrats and the Whigs could enjoy support in both sections and avoid the natural contradictions between a free and democratic government that permitted slavery. While the early 1850s did not see slavery completely eclipse all other issues, both parties drifted in similar directions. To draw on an example that will return later, argument in the early part of the decade did not involve whether to have internal improvements, but rather where to locate the largest internal improvement project the nation had ever contemplated: a transcontinental railroad. Differences remained, but many of them did not run so hot as they had in past decades. The Mexican War and ensuing fallout pushed slavery into the limelight in a more sustained way than ever before and the backlash did not push it all the way back into the political wilderness.

That presented a serious problem for the Whigs, who did not have quite the same party loyalty machinery that the Democrats had with which to manage internal divisions. The passing of the Armistice showed that Whigs could not even muster a coalition to support their own solutions to national issues. The prominent role of Stephen Douglas’s Democrats in making the Clay Measures into law sent a signal South that they could best trust the security of slavery to the Democracy. Up North, antislavery Whigs could have read that same signal with delight, but for the role their party had in prosecuting the most noxious part of the Armistice, the Fugitive Slave Law.

Who would the Whigs run for president, then?┬áThe Southern wing of the party wanted a second Fillmore administration thanks to his support of that most radical act of Congress in the nation’s history to date. The Northern Whigs hated Fillmore for the same reason. Fillmore’s home state of New York held many of his most dedicated foes, led by none other than William Seward.

Winfield Scott

Winfield Scott, Old Fuss and Feathers

Seward adopted the winning formula of the two previous Whig victories: find a winning general and nominate him. It worked for William Henry Harrison. It worked for Zachary Taylor. In both cases, the Whig nominee won and then died in office, which left Whig much less to Northern Whig liking in the White House. But 100% of Whig administrations still amounted to only two elections and thus hardly anything to draw a conclusion from. A general at least offered the potential to run a war hero who could distract from policy questions that divided the party and they couldn’t all die in office.

The general on hand for Seward’s faction again led armies to victory in a war that most Whigs hated. In the place of Zachary Taylor, victor of Buena Vista, they put Winfield Scott, who marched through the Halls of Montezuma. Like Taylor, Scott hailed from the South. But unlike Taylor, Scott did not own slaves. The Southern Whigs had seen Seward play this game before, picking a soldier that, they imagined, he groomed and wooed away from his natural Southern inclinations toward Yankee antislavery agitation.

The Whigs did not have an easy time of it when they convened in Baltimore. Southerners forced through a platform that endorsed the Armistice and its finality, forever closing the book on slavery and rubbing salt into the wounds inflicted by the Fugitive Slave Law. No Southern Whig voted against the platform. On the nomination itself, New England broke away to support Daniel Webster, but later came around to Scott. After fifty-three ballots, Scott finally received the nomination. His support came 95% from the North. Fillmore’s came 85% from the South.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

For Whigs like Alexander Stephens, the Scott nomination did not go down easy. They had just told the nation that Union rested on the Armistice, especially the Fugitive Slave Law. Now their own party rejected the man who did the most to ensure it? Stephens, Toombs, and seven other Southern congressmen refused to support Scott. They led a wave of defections. The Whigs did not immediately turn Democrat, but they stayed home on election day in droves. The Deep South delivered less than 37% of its popular vote to the Whigs, down from 50% just four years earlier. They did better, but still lost, in the Upper South and Border States. Of the entire South, Scott carried only Kentucky and Tennessee.

Outside the presidential race, the Whigs won no governorship in any of the future Confederate states. They retained control of the legislature only in Tennessee. Of the sixty-five congressional races they contested, they won only fourteen. The entire Southern Whig contingent in the House shrank in short order to twenty-two.

Surveying the wreckage in Deep South Georgia, Stephens pronounced Whiggery dead.

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