Unlike the Democrats, the Whigs never fully coalesced as a party, at least in terms of their ideas. But if the members of the party agreed on anything other than their hatred of Andrew Jackson and the abuse of executive power, it was their relentless opposition to imperial expansion and Manifest Destiny.
When Andrew Jackson delivered his famous (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view) veto message regarding the re-chartering of the Second Bank of the United States, his most adamant supporters labeled it “a second Declaration of Independence.” While Jackson’s message was excellent, it certainly was not at the level of the Declaration of Independence. In a less hyperbolic fashion, one pro-Jackson paper stated: in “the final decision of the President between Aristocracy and the People—he stands by the People.”
This newspaper statement is almost certainly true, but not everyone agreed that the president should ever stand “by the People.” The president’s job, they believed, was to execute the laws that the representatives of the People—through the House—had drafted into law. To proclaim himself the representative of the people was to violate all that was sacred in the Constitutional understanding of the American Founders as expressed in Article II of that glorious document. Even the most adamant supporter of a strong executive, Alexander Hamilton, had feared that Article II might be the “fetus of monarchy.” To the opponents of Jackson, he had crossed a line that should never have been approached. One opposition paper proclaimed, not without justice: “the King upon the Throne: The People in the Dust!” Other papers mocked Jackson as a monarch, a king, and a dictator. All critics came together and began to refer to the president as “King Andrew,” and one of the most important political cartoons of that age depicted an old and wary man, sitting on his throne, with his feet resting on a shattered constitution.
Senator Daniel Webster offered the swiftest and most comprehensive response to Jackson. The president had abused his executive power, as he should only veto legislation that sought innovations; the bank had already existed twice, and it had become a part of the American tradition, not a thing created upon a blank slate. Further, he stressed, Jackson’s self-identification with “the People” was one of the most dangerous assertions yet made in American history. Nothing Webster said, he himself realized, could exaggerate this point enough. If the president truly represented the People, the executive branch would soon overwhelm the other two branches of the federal government, thus destroying two generations of delicate work and balance. Only the House could rightly speak for the People.
The President is as much bound by the law as any private citizen and can no more contest its validity than any private citizen. He may refuse to obey the law, and so may a private citizen; but both do it at their own peril, and neither of them can settle the question of its validity. The President may say a law is unconstitutional, but he is not the judge. Who is to decide that question? The judiciary alone possesses this unquestionable and hitherto unquestioned right.
Webster decided not to address the specifics of Jackson’s arguments against the bank, justified, he thought, by the unworthiness of the arguments. The bank, Webster claimed, served the common good and thus served properly the republic. Finally, he noted with cutting sarcasm, Jackson must see himself as a new Louis XIV: “I AM THE STATE.”
From Webster’s response came, at least in significant part, the impetus to create an official opposition party to Jackson. This would become the second national party in American history. In 1827, Thomas Hart Benton, Martin Van Buren, and John C. Calhoun had created the first legitimate and recognizable political party in American history, the Democratic Party. Its touchstone had become the personality but not the ideas of Andrew Jackson, and, critically, Jackson never referred to himself as a member of that party, preferring instead to label himself merely a “republican.” In 1832, then, Webster and Henry Clay founded the Whig Party, taking the name from those 17th- and 18th-century Englishmen who had opposed the excessive power of the English monarch.
Henry Clay had used the term in a speech delivered in New York on April 14, 1832:
The whigs contended with such odds against them. . . . The struggle was tremendous; but what can withstand the irresistible power of the votaries of truth, liberty, and their country? It was an immortal triumph—a triumph of the constitution and the laws over usurpation here, and over clubs bludgeons and violence there. Go on, noble city! Go on, patriotic whigs! Follow up your glorious commencement; preserver, and pause not until you have regenerated and disenthralled your splendid city, and placed it at the head of American cities devoted to civil liberty, as it now stands preeminently the first as the commercial emporium of our common country. Merchants, mechanics, traders, laborers, never cease to recollect, that without freedom, you can have no sure commerce or business; and that without law you have no security for personal liberty, property, or even existence.
Clay proclaimed himself the heir to the Glorious Revolution and the ideas of Locke, the heir to the American founders. Further, he claimed, Jackson had not only violated his oath to the U.S. Constitution, but he had now become a renegade, existing outside of the law itself. “The whigs of the present day are opposing executive encroachment, and a most alarming extension of executive power and prerogative,” Clay asserted. “They are ferreting out the abuses and corruptions of an administration, under a chief magistrate who is endeavoring to concentrate in his own person the whole powers of government.”
On April 15, 1832, the next day, Webster used the term “Whig” as well, though the name would not become the standard label for the party until 1834 when one of the most important papers of the day, the National Intelligencer, proclaimed all opposition to Jackson to be Whig.
Unlike the Democrats, the Whigs never fully coalesced as a party, at least in terms of their ideas. Instead, the personalities of Webster, Clay, and John Quincy Adams became the touchstone of the party. Some Whigs were nationalists, others were unionists, and some states righters. When it came to the economy, most Whigs desired an alliance between government and private enterprise, but the degrees of such an alliance varied wildly from one person to another. If the members of the party agreed on anything other than their hatred of Jackson and the abuse of executive power, it was their relentless opposition to imperial expansion and Manifest Destiny.
In hindsight, the shocking thing about the Whig Party is not that it imploded in 1854 under the pressures released by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but that it ever came into existence at all.
Author’s Note: This essay benefited considerably from Robert Remini’s biography of Henry Clay and Michael Holt’s history of the Whig Party.
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The featured image is a portrait of Daniel Webster (1825) by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.