Political Animal


February 21, 2013 3:28 PM Slurring the Whigs

By Ed Kilgore

Any time anyone gets frustrated with one of the two major parties, or the two-party system, or just wants to write about third-party phantoms to scare or entertain little political children, the Whigs inevitably get mentioned and often misinterpreted.

I ran across another example today nestled into a vast, terrifying right-wing screed published at Forbes that, among other things, suggested the actual country had been permanently oppressed by evil elites since 1932, insofar as Democrats and Republicans alike had conspired to destroy the legitimacy of democracy by buying votes with government programs (this is what you might call the “47% theory” on mushrooms).

As one of several threats he lobbed at Establishment Republicans for their craven, satanic desire to join the Democratic “ruling class,” the author, a retired professor named Angelo Codevilla, offered this prophecy:

This of course is what happened to the Whig party after 1850. After it became undeniable that party leader Henry Clay’s latest great compromise had sold the party’s principles cheap, the most vigorous Whigs, e.g. New York governor William Seward and national hero John C. Fremont - joined by an obscure Illinois ex-congressman named Abraham Lincoln whose only asset was that he reasoned well - looked for another vehicle for their cause. In 1854, together with representatives of other groups, they founded the Republican Party. Today the majority of Republican congressmen plus a minority of senators - dissidents from the Party but solid with their voters - are the natural core of a new party. The name it might bear is irrelevant. Very relevant are sectors of America’s population increasingly represented by groups that sprang up to represent them when the Republican leadership did not.

I like the “of course” in the first sentence, which is always useful when someone is about to assert something controversial or even plain wrong.

I don’t know where Cordella’s reading his history, but I’m reasonably sure the consensus of historians is that the Whig Party split and then died not because it “sold its party’s principles cheap” but because it stuck to its founding principle of serving as a national party that would not take divisive positions on slavery. The Republican Party was not formed by principled Whigs and assorted “representatives of other interests” but by anti-slavery Whigs and Democrats (who by and large were more vociferous in their opposition to slavery than the former Whigs), almost exclusively from outside the South. What died was not just the Whigs, but the Second Party System, replaced by a third that was far more regional in nature.

Cordella asserts “principled” Republicans will, like the “principled” Whigs, find the additional allies needed to win elections from the Tea Party Movement, maintaining the increasingly threadbare fiction that said Movement is a new and independent force in American politics instead of a radicalized activist party base pursuing (and being pursued by) a radicalized GOP. He’s entitled to his opinion, but please, let’s leave the Whigs out of it.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Ken D. on February 21, 2013 3:42 PM:

    The governmental structure and election laws in this country virtually dictate a stable, near-absolute two party duopoly. There are structural -- not cultural -- reasons why the duopoly has not budged in well over a century, and it is not going to do so for, at a minimum, many decades to come. Sorry about that, but we are stuck with the party structure we have.

  • Gandalf on February 21, 2013 3:50 PM:

    Damn those evil elites. Just how they've controlled the country to a point where everything's gotten worse since 1932 is some of the most unadulterated simpleminded hogwash I've ever heard of course.

  • Rabbler on February 21, 2013 4:02 PM:

    No doubt it's a coincidence that with America's exceptionally entrenched 2 party system, we trail the first world in GCC adjustment, proportional representation, wealth equity, health care, safety nets,consumer protection,...

  • Linkmeister on February 21, 2013 4:12 PM:

    Forbes link isn't. It links straight back to this post.

  • Linkmeister on February 21, 2013 4:17 PM:

    Here's the correct link.

  • Peter C on February 21, 2013 4:51 PM:

    The important thing about the Whigs is not 'why they died' as a political force but the fact that political parties CAN die without destroying the country or throwing us into an undemocratic single-party state. It would be OK for the Republican Party to die; we don't need to work to keep it around. Some other party will spring up to take its place.

  • Anonymous on February 21, 2013 5:08 PM:

    The history here is, indeed, clearly wrong. Indeed, it's worth noting that anti-slavery Northern Whigs like Seward and Lincoln did not in fact abandon the party after the Compromise of 1850. Instead, they took over the national party, forcing it to dump incumbent President Millard Fillmore in 1852 and nominating instead their candidate, Winfield Scott.

    What happened then is that the *Southern* Whigs began to abandon the party, with many of them refusing to support Scott and then many of them supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which virtually all northern Whigs saw as a treasonous betrayal of party principles.

    What Kansas-Nebraska really did was shake loose a bunch of anti-slavery northern Democrats from the party, where they joined with Free Soilers and the more radical anti-slavery Whigs (who did not, it should be noted, include people like Seward and Lincoln) to form the Republican Party. In this context, it should probably be noted that the 1856 Republican standard bearer, John Frémont, mentioned by Codevilla as one of "the most vigorous Whigs," was in fact not a Whig at all, but a former Democrat.

    At the same time, the various northern Whig parties came under vigorous assault from the anti-immigrant nativist movement, which won overwhelming victories in a number of northern states, meaning that in the various elections of 1854-1855 what you basically see is not the rise of a new Republican Party, but complete chaos. The Whigs were collapsing, but it was not at all clear what would replace them.

    Even then, it took a very long time for people like Seward and Lincoln to abandon the Whigs - Seward in fact kept the New York Whigs together for the 1854 elections, and neither man fully abandoned the old party and joined the Republicans until late 1855 or early 1856, when it was long dead as a national entity. Not just conservative northern Whigs of the sort who would support Fillmore in 1856 and Bell in 1860, but mainstream northern Whigs like Lincoln and Seward hoped for quite a long time that the Whig Party was salvageable, and only abandoned it when it was totally clear that it was not.

  • Simon S. on February 21, 2013 5:23 PM:

    It's not quite true that Seward and Lincoln and their likes were reluctant to abandon the Whigs. What happened was that the formation of the Republicans took place at different speeds in different states. Only in a few states did a significant number of Whigs attempt to hold on to the party after the Republicans formed, and those were mostly border-state people like John Bell and doughfaces like Fillmore, in other words, not anywhere near as anti-slavery as Seward and Lincoln were, though Seward and Lincoln were no abolitionists. (Most of the real abolitionists had given up on the Whigs long before; that's where most of the Free Soil Party came from.)

    Other than that quibble, though, the long anonymous post above is entirely accurate. Particular points for noting that Fremont came to the Republicans from the Democrats and had not been a Whig.

  • Bokonon on February 21, 2013 7:06 PM:

    Codevilla's political agenda is showing through this fairy tale. I expect it is Forbes' agenda as well.

    The program that Codevilla justifies with this historical fable is the same program the far right has been employing over the last four or five years. They want to use the Tea Party as the seed bed for a new, uncompromising version of the Republican Party - which can either be taken over or cast aside, whichever works best at the time. That new, purified party will then be able to wage total war on the Democrats, the social welfare state, and anyone else that doesn't share their program. After running the party through this purifying fire, there will no chance of bipartisanship at all ... and without the usual squishiness among the ranks that characterized previous decades.

    And this is being sold to us as a GOOD thing, full of sunny, happy historical resonance. Just don't mention the Civil War. Shhhhhh!

  • AndThenThere'sThat on February 21, 2013 8:03 PM:

    ..and national hero John C. Fremont

    Fremont was a complete asshole who had 50 pounds of ambition for every ounce of sense. General Custer had a better ratio.

    If Codevilla wants to wax nostalgic about the grandfathers of political parties, I can think of no one better to typify the modern conservative movement.

  • Col Bat Guano on February 21, 2013 8:13 PM:

    They want to use the Tea Party as the seed bed for a new, uncompromising version of the Republican Party - which can either be taken over or cast aside, whichever works best at the time. That new, purified party will then be able to wage total war on the Democrats, the social welfare state, and anyone else that doesn't share their program.

    I would welcome this development. The Democrats could march to the left as the remainder of the Republican party and this new ultra-conservative party (let's call them the Aryan Nation for short) battle it out for the crazy vote.

  • John on February 21, 2013 8:29 PM:

    Anonymous post was me. Simon - of course you're right that the Republicans formed at different speeds in different states, but I don't know that that goes against my point.

    In terms of New York, with which I'm more familiar, Seward maintained the Whigs in New York well after they'd dissolved in other states, partly because they were still well-organized enough to win the 1854 elections, where the Whigs in most other states had collapsed in the face of Know Nothing or Republican/Fusionist challenge. But my sense is (from reading only parts of Michael Holt's gigantic history of the Whigs, admittedly) that Seward was also someone who valued the Whig Party as such, and valued the idea of a cross-sectional party organization, and only abandoned that idea slowly.

    But the issue wasn't that the Whigs survived in New York longer because the Republicans didn't form there. It's that the Republicans didn't form there because Seward's Whig organization was so strong, and was basically already dominated by anti-slavery elements, as the Fillmorite Silvery-Grays had been purged some time before. Once it became clear that the national Whig Party was basically dead, Seward and Weed just turned their state Whig Party into the New York Republican Party, in a much more orderly process than you see in most states. But basically the chronology is that Seward held together the New York Whig Party until well after the collapse of the national party, and only then went over to the Republicans. I suppose the lack of any need to bring in dissident Democrats to win, and the lack of any viable Know Nothing movement in New York, were key factors.

    I'm less familiar with the details of what happened in Illinois.

  • exlibra on February 21, 2013 9:00 PM:

    If the Republican party does die out, the name is ready and waiting for them: Phoenix/Dodo Whigs.

  • xpatriate on February 22, 2013 12:17 AM:

    The Tea Party activists as a "principled" wing of the Repubs? It is to laugh. Creature of the neo Birchers (Koch Bros and Dick Armey)trotting out regular folk in tri-cornered hats in defense of capital gains and carried interest. Too ludicrous to even satire.

  • smartalek on February 22, 2013 10:26 AM:

    Anyone who hasn't actually read the Forbes piece is missing out.
    The 3rd and 4th sentences of the fever-dream are obvious, blatant, and immense counterfactuals (I don't want to say "lies," because the term presupposes willful intent; i'm quite confident the author is delusional, rather than consciously deceitful)... and it goes downhill from there.
    Fortunately, it's sufficiently insane as to be more funny than fearsome.
    The comment thread, on the other hand, is outright terrifying.