Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Whigs
Author:
Hatch, Frederick
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

An American political party of the early 1830s to the mid-1850s, the Whigs tended to represent the moneyed business and professional people, along with the larger-holding agricultural interests. Andrew Jackson's opposition to a national bank was a major issue for the Whigs. "Whigs—what a ridiculous name for an American party," Whitman scoffed (Daybooks 3:683). Opponents of the king of England, both in the seventeenth century and at the time of the American Revolution, had called themselves Whigs. The term began to appear in American politics at the local level as early as 1832. Certainly by the summer of 1834 the anti-Jacksonians were calling themselves Whigs and organizing a national party.

Throughout their history the Whigs were plagued by divisions arising from the many differences among their supporters. Generally, Whigs sought support in the North by emphasizing Union, while in the South they opposed high tariffs and in the West they sought the support of conservative Democrats by claiming that Jackson was concentrating too much power in one man's hands. Following the battle over the bank, which caused many Democrats to switch parties, the Panic of 1837 gave the Whigs a potent new issue, leading to their greatest success (1840).

Whitman was a Democrat and campaigned for fellow New Yorker Martin Van Buren (1840). In his newspaper editorials he pointed to the Whigs' nativist tendencies, an especially potent issue in Brooklyn in the 1840s, with its growing immigrant population.

The Whigs declined in the 1850s as their best leaders left public life to take advantage of the reviving economy. The Whigs had advocated government intervention to improve the economy, but the California gold rush (1849) helped to accomplish that without new government programs. Although individuals would retain the name for a few more years, the Whig party was finished after the campaign of 1856.

Bibliography

Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1970.

Burnham, W. Dean. Presidential Ballots, 1836–1892. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1955.

Carroll, E. Malcolm. Origins of the Whig Party. Durham: Duke UP, 1925.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Holt, Michael F. Political Parties and American Political Development from the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.

Porter, Kirk H., comp. National Party Platforms. New York: Macmillan, 1924.

Sellers, Charles Grier, Jr. "Who Were the Southern Whigs?" American Historical Review 59 (1954): 335–346.

Smith, Page. The Nation Comes of Age. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. Daybooks and Notebooks. Ed. William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1978.


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