The 1836 Presidential election officially marked the beginning of the second two-party system within the realm of the United States political system.
Prior to the election the “loosely organized National Republicans” and the “disparate political factions – Anti-masons, states’ rights Democrats and Westerners supporting internal improvements” joined together and in 1834 officially titled themselves the Whig Party. (Belko 307) This newly established coalition had multiple leaders, unlike it’s competition the Democrats. The Whig Party was led by Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. (Belko 307)
The first political platform of the Whig Party held little substance other than the direct opposition to the politics of President Andrew Jackson, or as they labeled him “King Andrew I.” (Belko 308) The most important issue under consideration at this time was the question of whether the Second Bank of the United States should be rechartered, the Whig party was in favor of the charter and the Democrats were not. During his term as US President, Jackson had a history of hostility towards state and national banks. Jackson believed that the United States Bank had used its influence during the election of 1828 to oppose his candidacy and upon election the President immediately began to oppose the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. (Ellis 33) The Whig Party did not support the “Old Hero’s assault on the Bank of the United States” and chose to speak out against Jackson.
Early Whigs also adopted a platform that had been coined the American System in a speech given by Henry Clay in 1820. The American system was a program that supported domestic development through protective tariffs and public works investments made specifically for the purpose of creating a national market where “different interests and sections would find mutual prosperity instead of competition.” (Larson 136) This system spoke against the country’s reliance on foreign markets as it was believed that this “undermined American independence.” (Larson 136) The American System form of government stated that supporting domestic manufacturers would offer promise by promoting economic independence and contribute to the “preservation and strength of our confederacy.” (Larson 137)
The Whig Party had been created to oppose the current government structure and in the process united a group of diverse individuals who could not agree on party specifics. As the party attempted to create its presence in the American political system any attempt to further define the party’s platform was halted by disagreement between members. During the election of 1836 it was obvious that the coalition was a “league of disparate, even contradictory, factions representing conflicting views and ideologies.” (Belko 311) The party could not come together and decide upon one presidential candidate and as a result the party chose three individuals: Daniel Webster, chosen by the Massachusetts legislature, Hugh Lawson White, proposed by the Tennessee legislature and William Henry Harrison, nominated by the Anti-Masonic convention in Pennsylvania. (Belko 311) The Whigs were not successful during the election and Van Buren won the Presidency. The Whigs had managed to make significant progress however their “lack of unity in the ranks” denied them the Presidential victory. (Belko 311)
Shortly after Van Buren’s victory the United States was overcome by an economic disaster that would change the direction of the current political developments as well as elevate the Whig Party to a new level of success. The Panic of 1837 was the most “devastating economic downturn” to over come the United States in its young history. (Belko 321) Europe and England had succumbed to a dramatic economic depression that ultimately affected the price of cotton in the United States. As a result the New Orleans cotton market collapsed, which affected the entire nation as shortly after the fall the entire country would be affected. (Belko 321) The United States experienced massive loss as banks closed leaving behind thousands of dollars worth of worthless bonds, jobs were lost and properties foreclosed. The country’s economy was destroyed and its citizens were looking for a solution. (Belko 321)
The Whig Party, though shaky in its current condition, pulled together to create an economic policy that “united its northern and southern wings, reinforced the partisan identity of Whig voters and massively extended that partisan allegiance to new voters.” (Holt 61) The Whig Party’s economic policy called for the implementation of a protective tariff that would help the United States manufacturers compete against their British counterparts as well as once again pushing for the re-chartering of the Bank of the United States. The party also requested that federal funds be designated for massive internal improvements to railroads, canals and turnpikes in hopes of connecting the suffering farmers to various sections of the Union so that they could distribute their crops to distant markets. The Whig Party also supported the distribution of the surplus federal revenue back to the states so that each state could distribute their share between various internal improvements such as education or slave colonization. (Holt 66) The party believed that the government must come to the aid of its citizens during difficult times and by industrializing America and elevating capitalism the American society would benefit. The Whig platform believed that the “government must promote prosperity.” (Holt 67)
The election of 1840 approached and it was time for the Whig Party to officially choose their candidates as well as define a national platform to deliver to the American voters. Because of the Panic of 1837, the Whig Party was in the ideal position to win the election, so the party sought out a candidate that could win the popular vote, had few political enemies and who could “broaden the base of the Whig electorate.” (Holt 102) At the close of the Harrisburg convention the party had chose General William Henry Harrison as their presidential candidate and John Tyler as the vice presidential candidate. The Whig Party platform had not been defined nor had the party constructed a formal address to the voters, however the central theme of the campaign had been identified – “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.” (Holt 104) This theme would go down as one of the most famous campaign slogans in history.
The presidential campaign of 1840 would prove successful, as Harrison would triumph. The strategy of the election would be to avoid specific issues and simply define their cause as “the restoration of prosperity and the salvation of republicanism itself.” (Holt 105) If Harrison was forced to take a stand on any topic specific to government policy, the Whig response was simply to take a stand opposite of the Democrat Party. This particular strategy attracted enough voters to win the elections, however the party was aware of the fact that they would have to implement different policies in order to retain the voter’s support. (Holt 121) The campaign itself would not be remembered as one that was victorious because of party platform; it would be remembered for its “slogans, symbols and its songs.” (Holt 105) The victory of the Whig Party was short lived, as President Harrison died of pneumonia one month after his inauguration.
The election of 1844 approached and the Whig Party named Henry Clay for the presidential candidate and Theodore Frelinghuysen for vice-president. The official party platform would support implementing protective tariffs to help offset the current government’s spending, distributing the monies received from the sale of public lands back to the states for internal improvements, improvements to the domestic labor practices of the United States as well as advocating that those serving as President of the United States can only do so for one single term. (Alexander 77) The Whig’s official platform ignored what would become the most important issue at hand during the 1844 election, the annexation of Texas into the United States Territory. (Alexander 78) Henry Clay, considered the Whig Party’s “most popular idol” would not take a solid stand on the issue, which did not impress the voters. (Alexander 78) The Democratic candidate, James K. Polk, many described as “the dark horse candidate” took a firm stand to support the expansion; therefore, became the victor of the election. (Alexander 78)
During the election of 1848 the Whig Party platform soon faced its most difficult challenge as they were suddenly forced to take a solid stand on one of the largest issues concerning the country – Slavery. The party had a diverse group of members from all areas of the country; therefore, the official party position on the topic had always been that the people should make the ultimate decision as to whether the act should be permitted and that it was not the place of the government to decide. (Alexander 125) The party would use this particular response in the election of 1848 with their chosen candidate Zachary Taylor, as the issue at hand was whether slavery would be permitted in the areas the country had acquired by winning the Mexican War. (Alexander 127) The Whig approach triumphed, however Taylor died 16 months after taking office and Millard Fillmore would assume the role of President. Fillmore signed a series of bills that would lead to the Compromise of 1850 that again brought the topic of slavery to the attention of the American people. (Alexandar 182)
The Whig Party platform would fall apart as the issue of slavery continued to grow and party members became divided on the topic. The party could no longer avoid taking a firm stand for or against the issue and the diversity that existed within the party made the decision impossible. The southern Whigs supported the institution of slavery and the northern Whigs were against it. The Whig party members began to migrate to other parties that supported their particular belief and eventually the Whig party was no longer in existence. (Alexander 202) Each political party would become deeply involved in the enthocultural conflict and arguments over tariffs, territorial expansion and executive power would become less important. The Civil War would erupt and the country would be divided until its end. (Alexander 202)
Alexander, Thomas B. "The Dimensions of Voter Partisan Constancy InPresidential Elections from 1840 to 1860." Essays on American Antebellum Politics, 1840-1860. Ed. Stephen E. Maizlish and John J. Kushma. 1st ed. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1982. 70-121. Questia. 29 Apr. 2007 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=52359189>.
Belko, W. Stephen. The Invincible Duff Green Whig of the West. Columbia: University of Missouri P, 2006.
Ellis, Richard E. The Union At Risk Jacksonian Democracy, States&Apos; Rights, and the Nullification Crisis. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Holt, Michael F. Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Questia. 29 Apr. 2007
Larson, John L. Internal Improvement. Chapel HIll: University of North Carolina P, 2001.