Friday, May 23, 2008

The Demise of the Whigs: New York 1854

Viewed from a distance, history often looks pretty tidy. Shortly before the Civil War – some one hundred fifty years ago – the Whig party died and was succeeded by the Republican Party. You can say it in a sentence; the transition is seamless; the appearance and eventual triumph of a new party organization seems predestined, inevitable.

Up close and personal, however, it is remarkable how messy the whole process was. There was nothing inevitable about the Republican party. Its leaders included clever tacticians, and they got lucky.

Ironically, it was not even the Republican party that killed off the Whigs. The mid-1850s witnessed a remarkable series of new political issues arise almost out of nowhere that battered both the old Jacksonian Democracy and the Whigs. The Democrats survived. For a variety of reasons, the Whigs did not.

Death took place at different times, and from somewhat different causes, in each state. However, if you had to pick a year in which the Whig party received a mortal blow, it was 1854. I thought I’d take a look at the New York State fall 1854 elections for governor and the state legislature to give you a feel for the utter political chaos of that year.

In his wonderful The Origins of the Republican Party, William Gienapp takes thirteen pages to sort through the election – which will tell you something about the utter confusion that reigned. Obviously, I will not do that here. But bear in mind that this account is tremendously simplified. All quotes are from Professor Gienapp’s book.

To begin with, we have to take a step back, because both the Democrats and Whigs were already badly fractured in New York. The Democratic fracture went back to 1848, when Martin Van Buren deserted the party to run as the presidential candidate of the Free Soil party. Van Buren and his followers, known as the “Barnburners” (as opposed to the “Hunkers” who remained in the party) eventually rejoined the Democrats, creating another fissure. “Hardshells,” or “Hards,” took the position that the Van Buren apostates should be punished by being barred from holding state or federal office. “Softshells,” or “Softs,” were inclined to forgive and readmit the prodigals. In part, these disagreements reflected attitudes toward slavery and the Slave Power, but more fundamentally they concerned factional fights over patronage and personality.

The Whigs, meanwhile, had their own problems. The fundamental division was between the wing of the party controlled by Thurlow Weed and his protégé William Seward, and the so-called “Silver Greys.” The latter were a more conservative, pro-Compromise group, which you can think of, for purposes of convenience, as associated with Millard Fillmore. As with the Democrats, the factions had policy differences, but a good deal of the rivalry grew out of personal animosity and patronage access. You were either fer Weed or agin’ him – and vice versa.

Cutting across these party and factional lines – essentially dicing them up – were a host of issues that were new or assumed increased importance. Old issues that had traditionally divided Democrats and Whigs in New York, such as the Erie Canal, had faded or been resolved. Taking their place were issues that included temperance, immigration, anti-Catholicism and the Slave Power.

As it turned out, there were four candidates for governor:

The incumbent, Horatio Seymour, was a Soft. However, in 1853 he had unexpectedly vetoed a prohibition bill sponsored by Myron Clark, a Whig legislator. A joint Soft-Barnburner convention renominated him. This meant that Seymour would run primarily as an anti-temperance candidate, particularly since disagreements between Softs and Barnburners over Kansas-Nebraska required that that issue be buried.

When combined, Softs and Barnburners significantly outnumbered Hards. Even so, the Hards so resented the rival groups that they went their own way. They nominated their own candidate, Greene Bronson. The Hards, oddly, were both anti-administration (Pierce had sided with the Softs and removed Bronson from a lucrative position) and pro-Nebraska.

At the Whig convention, the Weed-Seward wing battled the Silver Grey faction. Weed was not able to control the convention the way he usually did, but he did retain sufficient influence to engineer the elevation of a candidate he could live with: the pro-temperance Myron Clark, a “pliable” “incompetent who was an admirer of Seward and willing to follow directions from Weed.” The Whig platform and Clark were mildly anti-Nebraska, but Rum (or rather its elimination) was clearly their primary issue.

Late in the campaign, disaffected Silver Greys seized the chance to nominate their own candidate. Taking control of the Know Nothing organization, in October they nominated Daniel Ullmann, “a leading conservative Whig and perpetual office-seeker.” He was known to oppose Kansas-Nebraska, and privately (but not publicly) pledged to sign a temperance law. In effect, Ullmann headed “a separate Know Nothing ticket with a strong Silver Grey taint.”

In this four-way race, Dry Weed Whig Clark actually prevailed, by all of 309 votes out of 469,000 cast, over Soft Wet Seymour:

Clark (Dry Weed Whig) 156,804 33.4%
Seymour (Wet Soft) 156,495 33.3%
Ullmann (Silver Grey KN) 122,282 26.0%
Bronson (Hard) 33,850 7.2%

Even so, the true winners were the Know Nothings – and the true losers were the Whigs. Ullmann had entered the race very late. The Know Nothings had not yet organized in many counties; Ullmann was lackluster and uninspiring; and his pro-temperance views not widely known. Yet where they were organized, the Know Nothing vote swept away the old parties. Observers were stunned:
“Nothing can be assumed from former Elections,” the Albany Evening Herald remarked the day after the election. “Nearly all the old political landmarks are obliterated. Of all parties there has been a regular ‘smash-up’” in the face of “a complete ‘Know Nothing’ stampede.”

Foremost among those swept away were traditional Whigs, who deserted the party in droves. “[T]he nativist vote came primarily from former Whigs and earlier non-voters.” In addition, many of Clark’s votes were based on his dry position – a position that largely overlapped with the views of the KNs (think whiskey-swilling bogtrotters). In short, Clark did not win as a Whig but largely as a pro-temperance KN stand-in, with a few anti-Nebraska votes thrown in:
Despite Clark’s narrow victory, the traditional Whig electoral base had been thoroughly disrupted, since as many Whigs voted for Ullmann as for Clark. [Clark] suffered massive losses among native-born voters, and in fact he ran behind Ullmann in a number of Whig strongholds . . .. At the same time, Clark picked up unexpected support in northern counties, no doubt in part because the Know Nothings had not yet extensively recruited in that area, but also in response to the Whig candidate’s anti-liquor and anti-Nebraska positions.

As a result, most New York Whigs saw the party as finished:
The election had left “the old Whig Organization a mass of ruins,” a Whig paper in upstate New York commented ruefully. “We are utterly wrecked. It is altogether idle to think of a reconstruction of the Whig Party. It is past surgery, past all medicine.” . . . Nativism had sealed the party’s fate. The Know Nothings, as one New York politician remarked, had “torn the Whig strength to pieces.”

One other observation: in New York, there was not a Republican in sight. Former Barnburners had decided not to bolt their party (again), since Soft Seymour was the standard bearer. On the Whig side, Weed and Seward actively resisted the formation of an anti-Nebraska fusion party, because Seward needed Whig votes in the legislature to win reelection to the Senate. But they had at least hoped to make Nebraska the central issue of the campaign. In this they failed utterly: the issues of Rum and Romanism clearly predominated:
With the Nebraska issue swallowed by the forces of ethnocultural conflict, the major parties in turmoil, and a powerful new party having arisen almost overnight (“as if by magic,” one paper claimed), even experienced politicians were at a loss as to what the future would bring. “Parties are now in a state of disorganization – rather of utter anarchy,” a veteran New York Democratic leader observed at the end of the year. “What is to come out of it, no one can foresee.”

The greatest irony, perhaps, was that, as of the end of 1854, many “experienced politicians concluded that the unprecedented opportunity offered by the Nebraska controversy to organize a northern antislavery party had been irretrievably lost.” The analysis of moderate New York Whig Hamilton Fish, surveying the wreckage on December 16, 1854, was not unusual:
Noting that thousands of Whigs, to say nothing of free soil Democrats, had opposed Clark in New York “while the Nebraska issue was still blistering,” [Fish] saw little hope that a new antislavery party could be organized. “The time for ‘fusion’ is in my opinion past,” he proclaimed. “Fire will not burn a second time over the same field.”

Fish and other observers could not know that David Atchison would set fire to same Kansas field again in 1855, and that the flames would burn on and off for three years, until the resolution of the Lecompton crisis in 1858.


  1. Hi Elektratig,

    First, I want to commend you being one of the few bloggers to extensively cover antebellum politics. I am currently writing my dissertation on the Union Party movement during the 1850's at the University of Virginia and heartily concur with you about the "messiness" of the realignment in 1854-1856. Gienapp certainly is excellent on the northern states, but I hope to do the same for those states lying below the Mason and Dixon line. I promise if I find some interesting material that I will share it with you and your readers.

    Sean Nalty
    PhD candidate in U.S. History
    University of Virginia

  2. Sean,

    Thanks! It sounds like your dissertation would fill what I agree is a significant gap in the literature. When I was reading Tyler Andbinder's book on the Northern KNs, I was thinking to myself, Where's the other half?

    I'm always looking for new books, so don't hesitate to recommend!


Related Posts with Thumbnails