Tuesday, July 19, 2016
Before There Were Republicans
We’ve all grown up with what has essentially been a two-party system of Republicans and Democrats. Sure there have been a few “independents” or politically, largely irrelevant minority parties – Christian Liberty Party, Socialists, Greens and Libertarians, to name a few – but even when independent Bernie Sanders wanted to run for the presidency this year, he moved from “independent” to “Democrat.” Yet the Republican Party didn’t even exist until 1854. It was a relatively nascent political power when Abraham Lincoln ran under the Republican banner… back then. The Democrats had been founded in 1828.
The struggle between two powerful political parties was still a hallmark of the American political system before the Republican Party was formed, but back then the other party were the Whigs. “The Whig Party was a political party active in the middle of the 19th century in the United States. Four Presidents belonged to the Party while in office. Along with the rival Democratic Party, it was central to the Second Party System from the early 1830s to the mid-1850s. It originally formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson (in office 1829–37) and his Democratic Party. In particular, the Whigs supported the supremacy of Congress over the Presidency and favored a program of modernization, banking and economic protectionism to stimulate manufacturing. It appealed to entrepreneurs and planters, but had little appeal to farmers or unskilled workers. It included many active Protestants, and voiced a moralistic opposition to the Jacksonian Indian removal policies.”
Know any Whigs? Look around you. They’ve been gone a long time. What happened? It all started with a successful and beloved general who marched triumphant against superior forces in the Mexican-American War. “Just days before Congress officially declared war on Mexico in May 1846, Taylor led U.S. troops to two victories over much larger Mexican forces at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. And in February 1847, Taylor’s force defeated Mexican troops despite being outnumbered 3 or 4 to 1 at the Battle of Buena Vista…
“Members of both major political parties at the time—the Democrats and the Whigs—started holding public celebrations lauding Taylor with elaborate toasts to George Washington, the republic and their new hero. They often culminated with formal resolutions amid loud ‘huzzahs’ endorsing Taylor’s nomination for president in 1848. As the booze-fueled, red, white and blue political excitement grew, one Kentuckian exclaimed, shortly after Taylor’s Buena Vista victory, ‘I tell ye, General Taylor is going to be elected by spontaneous combustion.’” Politico.com, June 2nd. Hmmm… a potential candidate with zero political experience, at least he was a professional solider.
The Whigs mounted a campaign to bring the once-apolitical Taylor into their party, and slowly Taylor was pulled in. As the Democrats were split by a fierce battle for control of the party, defending the sour taste Americans had for Democratic President Andrew Jackson’s attempt to make the presidency the supreme political power in our system, the Whigs smelled opportunity.
“Still, many Whig loyalists mistrusted Taylor. He was crude, nonpartisan, unpresidential. Ohio Senator Thomas Corwin wondered how ‘sleeping 40 years in the woods and cultivating moss on the calves of his legs’ qualified Taylor for the presidency. The great senator and former Secretary of State Daniel Webster called Taylor ‘an illiterate frontier colonel who hasn’t voted for 40 years.’ Webster was so contemptuous he refused backroom deals to become Taylor’s running mate (unknowingly missing a chance to become president when Taylor died during his first term). Indeed, the biographer Holman Hamilton would pronounce Taylor ‘one of the strangest presidential candidates in all our annals … the first serious White House contender in history without the slightest experience in any sort of civil government.’
“By the spring of 1848, now hungering for the nomination, Taylor tried mollifying these partisans. He professed his party loyalty in a ghostwritten letter that his brother-in-law John Allison knew to leak to the public. Still wary of making ‘pledges,’ and boasting of his ignorance of political ‘details,’ Taylor declared, ‘I am a Whig, but not an ultra Whig’ in his first ‘Allison Letter’ of April 22, 1848.
“Taylor’s dithering annoyed the legendary ultra-Whig Henry Clay [like Daniel Webster], who had lost a heartbreaking contest in 1844 to [President James] Polk and expected the 1848 nomination. ‘I wish I could slay a Mexican,’ Clay grumbled, mocking celebrity soldiers not Hispanics. ‘The Whig party has been overthrown by a mere personal party,’ he complained in June, vowing not to campaign if the party nominated this outsider. ‘Can I say that in [Taylor’s] hands Whig measures will be safe and secure, when he refused to pledge himself to their support?’ ’ ” Politico.com.
In 1848, the Whig Convention struggled with the nomination process. Northerners hated him; Southerners worshipped him, but Taylor prevailed. The fracturing of the Democratic Party and the lingering populist anger at the Jackson legacy moved the election needle towards the Whigs.
“Blessed by an even more unpopular Democratic opponent whose party suffered more from the antislavery defections than the Whigs did, Taylor won—barely. He attracted only 47 percent of the popular vote, merely 60,000 more popular votes than Clay had in 1844, despite a population increase of 2 million. Turnout dropped from 78.9 percent in 1844 to 72.7 percent in 1848, reflecting public disgust with both candidates. [Unpopular Democratic nominee, Lewis] Cass won 43 percent of the vote, and [former President who left the Democrats, Martin] Van Buren won 10 percent. Taylor’s Electoral College margin of 36 was the slimmest in more than two decades. As hacks said the results ‘vindicated the wisdom of General Taylor’s nomination,’ purists mourned the triumph of Taylor but not ‘our principles.’ [Newspaper baron, Horace] Greeley said losing in 1844 with a statesman like Clay strengthened Whig convictions: The 1848 election ‘demoralized’ Whigs and undermined ‘the masses'’ faith in the party. Greeley mourned this Pyrrhic victory: Whigs were ‘at once triumphant and undone.’
“Greeley turned out to be right. Taylor was the last Whig president. His nomination had attempted to paper over the sectional tensions that would kill the party, but ultimately exacerbated them. Running a war hero mocked the Whig’s anti-war stand just as running a slaveholder failed to calm the divisive slavery issue. And, as a nonpartisan outsider, Taylor proved particularly unsuited to manage these internal party battles once elected.
“Most dispiriting, Taylor, who made no pledges and had no principles, gave rank-and-file Whig voters nothing to champion, while alienating many of the most committed loyalists. In The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, the historian Michael Holt notes that Taylor’s victory triggered an ‘internal struggle for the soul of the Whig party’: was it more committed to seizing power or upholding principle? Underlying that debate was also a deeper question, still pressing today, about the role of fame, popularity, celebrity, in presidential campaigning—and American political leadership.
“Unfortunately for the wobbling Whigs, Southerners then felt betrayed when Taylor took a nationalist approach brokering what became the Compromise of 1850. As a result, Holt writes, ‘Within a year of Taylor’s victory, hopes raised by Whigs’ performance in 1848 would be dashed. Within four years, they would be routed by’ the Democrats. ‘Within eight, the Whig party would totally disappear as a functioning political organization.’” Politico.com
A Democrat with a strong negative ripple through the electorate, a man who not only had never held political office but one who had never voted before who dithered in what he stood for, clashed, and the outsider won. He is often labeled by historians as America’s worst president. His political party could not withstand his presidency and simply dissolved. More than one Republican establishment incumbent knows all this. Will they win the presidency and lose the Party? Will they be pleasantly surprised by a populist presidency run by a business person? Or will Hillary Clinton perhaps save the GOP from what many Republican insiders fear far more than a Clinton victory? After all, Donald Trump just went from being the presumptive to the actual GOP nominee for the presidency of the United States.
I’m Peter Dekom, and given this rather stunning historical precedent, is it any wonder why so many Republican insiders quiver in fear over Donald Trump, supporting his candidacy with unsubtle reluctance?