Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Second Party System

Several years ago, Sean Wilentz, suffering a severe case of BDS (from which he has not yet recovered), wrote a silly article in which he tried to tar Dubya with the epithet . . . "Whig!"

Daniel Walker Howe has, in effect, devoted an entire book to explaining why the Whig label, properly understood, is a badge of pride, not shame. But I was reminded of the article most recently by Walter McDougall's observation that it is a futile exercise to try to impose the contemporary political spectrum on the Second Party System:
Who were the conservatives and who were the liberals in this second party system? If one adopts twentieth-century definitions it might appear that the libertarian Democrats were the conservatives and the statist Whigs the liberals. But in the parlance of nineteenth-century Britain, where the labels originated, the reverse would be true. In regard to slavery, free-soil Whigs would appear the liberals and the Democrats supporters of a racist status quo. But in regard to workers' rights as understood later in the century, neither party was "progressive." In regard to ethnic and religious tolerance the Democrats would appear the liberals, since they embraced Catholics and immigrants. But in regard to education and social reform the reverse would be true. The only way to get a grip on the growing divide among Americans in the mid-nineteenth century is to purge our contemporary notion of the political spectrum and try instead to imagine the ambivalent anxieties of a freewheeling people with one foot in manure and the other in a telegraph office.

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