Slurring the Whigs

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.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.