Sunday, June 07, 2009

Democrats and Whigs on Citizens and Citizenship

In his excellent book, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America, Harry L. Watson comes up with a wonderful insight into one difference between Democrats and Whigs. Democrats, Watson points out, emphasized complete equality between citizens; some citizens were not more equal than others. As a result, Watson argues, Democrats tended to view citizenship as an all-or-nothing proposition, and they shrank the boundaries of citizenship correspondingly to encompass only white males, who could truly be equals. Many Whigs, on the other hand, regarded citizenship as involving a "gradation of rights and responsibilities". That in turn permitted at least some to be more inclusive when defining should be entitled to be regarded as a citizen:
If Whigs were unwilling to grant full rights to "unqualified" immigrants, their acceptance of human inequality made them more willing than Democrats to accord partial rights to blacks and Indians. Instead of treating manhood and full citizenship as indivisible, Whigs could envision a gradation of rights and responsibilities ranging from one end of the social scale to the other. Edward Everett thus maintained that "the wholly untutored white man is little better than the wholly untutored red man," while the Whig editor of the American Review declared that "free institutions are not proper to the white man, but the courageous, upright and moral man." Democrats tended to oppose any suffrage rights for nonwhites, but even Southern Whigs could occasionally support the right to vote for free blacks who could pass requirements such as a property test.

It seems to me that the conflicting understandings of Roger Taney, a Democrat, and Benjamin Curtis, a Whig, concerning the meaning of the Privileges and Immunities Clause in the Dred Scott case perfectly illustrates Watson's hypothesis. Taney maintained that free blacks could not possibly be citizens because they would then be entitled to all the "privileges and immunities" of citizens, which he defined to include specific rights. Curtis, conversely, disagreed with Taney precisely because he did not accept Taney's premise that "privileges and immunities" were a specific set of rights. For Taney's argument and understanding of "privileges and immunities", see my discussion here. For Curtis, see here.

About the illustration:
A comic scene representing two New York city political factions, the Whigs and the radical Democrats (or "Loco Focos"), as scuffling newsboys. The scene takes place before the half-built Customs House, where several newsboys and a black chimney sweep are gathered watching a scrap involving a ragged youth selling "loco foco" matches and another newsboy. The match-seller raises his fist and threatens, "Oh! you d---d Whiggy." The latter, striking him, "I'll loco poke you." On the left three of the newsboys hold Democratic newspapers the "New York Evening Post" and the "New Era," and a copy of radical reformer Frances ("Fanny") Wright's lectures. One says, with a sidelong glance at the unfortunate match-seller, "I told him he had better not fight." The chimney sweep taunts them, "Does Fanny know you're out?" On the right, a second group of newsboys, holding copies of Whig journals, the "Transcript, Morning Courier and New York Enquirer, Gazette," and the "Evening Star," cheer on the winning fighter.

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