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Disintegration of the Second Party System


Parties and the Sectional Conflict. It is easy to oversimplify the coming of the Civil War as a series of steadily intensifying collisions over slavery issues. Focusing solely on the episodes of confrontation loses sight of the fact that American politics provided a mechanism for resolving conflictsincluding bitter conflicts over slavery issuesfor many years. The crisis of the 1850s was more explosive not because the country faced more-intractable issues than it had before but because the WhigDemocratic party system collapsed early in the decade. Disagreements over slavery were only a part of the reason for this development. The social and economic transformation of the country had by the 1850s eroded the underpinnings of the Whig-Democratic rivalry in a way that left American politics ready to be reorganized along sectional lines.

Fading National Issues. The acquiescence in the Compromise of 1850, unenthusiastic though it was in many cases, symbolized the predicament of the national parties. Whigs and Democrats had commanded remarkable voter loyalty because they competed vigorously on important issues. The Compromise of 1850 was one such issue. In the North, Whigs had generally opposed the compromise and Democrats had supported it; in the upper South, Whigs had supported the compromise and Democrats had opposed it. Competition along these lines continued for some time, especially over the implementation of the Fugitive Slave Law, but by 1852 the national platforms of both parties endorsed the compromise as a final solution of the sectional conflict. Nor did any other national issues replace the compromise as a focus of competition. Territorial expansion, which had been an important source of contention during the 1840s, was controlled largely by the executive branch, and the Whigs did not favor such initiatives. When Charles Sumner of Massachusetts arrived in the Senate in 1851, Thomas Hart Benton told him that he had come to the Senate too late. All the great issues and all the great men were gone.

Local Economic Issues. The neutralization of national issues was not necessarily fatal to the Whig-Democratic party system, which owed its vitality primarily to competition over the economic problems that were most pressing to voters. But the changing structure of the economy made the traditional arguments of the parties increasingly irrelevant. Although specifics varied from state to state, the Whig Party in general owed much of its identity to policies intended to stimulate economic growth despite the limited availability of investment capital. This premise, formulated in the economic recession that followed the Panic of 1819, was expressed in specific policies on tariffs, banking, corporate charters, and subsidies to entrepreneurs. The Whig logic became less compelling in the boom times that followed the California gold rush and the diversion of European investments

to America in the wake of the continental uprisings of 1848. For example, the availability of specie to back paper notes issued by banks mooted longstanding debates that had taken place in almost every state over the appropriate reserve requirements. Meanwhile, the Democrats reversed their traditional hostility to the chartering of new banks. Similarly, the tariff issue lost much of its resonance in a mature economy, as the traditional Whig support for high duties no longer appealed to textile manufacturers who wanted protection from new domestic rivals as well as foreign firms. The most important economic issue of the early 1850sthe promotion of railroad constructiondid not replace the old litmus tests of party loyalty. The universal enthusiasm for new railroads translated into competition between different localities or regions rather than between the two parties.

State Constitutional Issues. Some forms of party conflict disappeared as a result of the state constitutions adopted between 1848 and 1852 in New Hampshire, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Whigs and Democrats had long battled in most states over whether to hold these constitutional conventions and over specific issues that were now resolved permanently. For example, the growing tendency of constitutions to restrict or ban government investment in improvement projects eliminated a steady source of partisan disagreement, as did the commonplace adoption of Democratic preference for free incorporation laws rather than the attachment of special privileges to corporate charters issued by legislatures. Other popular provisions weakened party machinery without regard to the specifics of any issue. By providing for direct popular election of judges, sheriffs, and other local officials, the state constitutions reduced the opportunities available to cement party loyalty through the distribution of patronage. Legislative sessions commonly became biennial, rather than annual, which slashed the capacity of the political system to enact laws and the ability of the parties to generate allegiances.

Nativism. As the defining economic and political questions of the Jacksonian era lost their urgency, the massive immigration into the United States during the late 1840s and early 1850s became the focus of party rivalry. The Democrats had traditionally welcomed immigrants into the party while the Whigs had appealed more to old-stock Americans troubled by infusions of Germans and, especially, Catholics. The politics of nativism played out on many different subjects, of which the consumption of alcohol was the most conspicuous. The Maine Law of 1851 provided a national model for a prohibition measure that differed significantly from previous campaigns to promote temperance on a voluntary basis. The changed demographics presented Whigs with a choice between intensifying their previous nativist leanings or competing with Democrats for newly arrived voters. In the 1852 presidential election, the Whigs decided for the first time to appeal to Catholic immigrants. The strategy partly reflected a calculation that Irish and German immigrants were undeniably an immense voting group while nativists were difficult to count and unite; for example, prohibition did not enjoy the support of every old-stock voter troubled by the new populations. The leading promoter of the new policy, William Henry Seward, had long called on Whigs to abandon their nativist leanings and as governor of New York had supported public funding for parochial schools. Although informed both by a pragmatic assessment of the electorate and by considerations of principle, Sewards reform of the party destroyed one of the last features that distinguished Whigs from Democrats.

Whig Collapse. The election of 1852 showed that the Whigs were on the brink of extinction as a major party. Although Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce was young, inexperienced, and not widely known, he lost only four states in the presidential race to Whig nominee Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican War. The Democrats also won two-to-one majorities in both houses of Congress. This lopsided result was not primarily the result of the slavery controversy, although the sharp decline in Whig votes in the lower South reflected a continued estrangement from the party after the Compromise of 1850. More striking was the inability of the Whigs to win new votes in the North or even to hold formerly reliable supporters. The appeal to immigrants made few Whig converts and alienated the sizable anti-Catholic wing of the party. Beyond this particular grievance, the convergence of the parties generally left voters disillusioned and uninterested. One Cincinnati Whig reported that General Apathy is the strongest candidate out here. Voter turnout was low by the standards of the mid nineteenth century. A Democrat in Connecticut remarked that the Whigs here seem disposed to let the election go pretty much by default.


In a letter to Justice John McLean of the U.S. Supreme Court dated 11 January 1855, Detroit judge Ross Wilkins expressed hope that secret Jesuitism in America might be triumphantly met by a secret American movement:

You know that for the last quarter of a century political traders and gamesters have so manufactured public opinion, & so directed party organization, that our Union has been endangered, & bad men elevated to place empower, contrary to the true sentiment of the People. And there seemed to be no hope for us. Both parties courted what was called the foreign vote; Oc the highest aspirants of the Senate, to ensure success, strove which could pay more homage to a foreign Prince, whose ecclesiastical subjects, constituted so large a portion of this Imperium in imperio. The Papal Power at Rome, apprised fully of this state of things, gave direction to her vassal priesthood, to use their supposed power for the propaganda fdes, and hence the attack on our school systems in Cincinnati, New York, Baltimore, and Detroit. I give thanks to God, that they commenced the warfare at the time they did, and that their plan was discerned and defeated.

Source: Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1978), p. 164.

Fragmentation. Contemporaries recognized that the breakdown of the Whig Party left American politics ripe for reorganization. Not only were the Whigs moribund, but the Democrats lost the party identity that came from uniting against a common opposition. Almost immediately after the election of Pierce, factional struggles over the distribution of patronage broke out with extraordinary bitterness. Democratic leaders eager to avenge grudges dating back to the Free Soil schism of 1848 took advantage of the situation to thwart the weak presidents hope to unite his party. The potential for realignment was best expressed by Millard Fillmore, the last Whig president, shortly before the first meeting of the Congress elected in 1852. What new combinations will grow out of this it is difficult to foresee, Fillmore wrote to a friend, as national parties can only be formed by the action of the general government. Parties are broken up by local causes and that centrifugal force which throws individuals and masses beyond the attraction of the central power; but new parties of a national character can only be gathered from these fragmentary nebula of dissolving systems by the magnet of some great national and centripetal force at Washington. Fillmore asked: Will

any question present such a magnet at the ensuing session of Congress? In fact, the session would generate precisely the force that he anticipated.


Michael Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1978);

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 18481861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).

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Disintegration of the Second Party System

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