THE DEMOCRATS AND THE WHIGSThe first phase of American political history was characterized by the conflict between the Federalists and the Republicans, and it resulted in the complete triumph of the latter. The second period was characterized by an almost equally bitter contest between the Democrats and the Whigs in which the Democrats represented a new version of the earlier Republican tradition and the Whigs a resurrected Federalism. The Democracy of Jackson differed in many important respects from the Republicanism of Jefferson, and the Whig doctrine of Henry Clay was far removed from the Federalism of Alexander Hamilton. Nevertheless, from 1825 to 1850, the most important fact in American political development continued to be a fight between an inadequate conception of democracy, represented by Jackson and his followers, and a feeble conception of American nationality, represented best by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster; and in this second fight the victory still rested, on the whole, with the Democrats. The Whigs were not annihilated as the Federalists had been. In the end they perished as a party, but not because of the assaults of their opponents, but because of their impotence in the face of a grave national crisis. Nevertheless, they were on all essential issues beaten by the Democrats; and on the few occasions on which they were victorious, their victories were both meaningless and fruitless.
The years between 1800 and 1825 were distinguished, so far as our domestic development was concerned, by the growth of the Western pioneer Democracy in power and self-consciousness. It was one of the gravest errors of Hamilton and the Federalists that they misunderstood and suspected the pioneer Democracy, just as it was one of the greatest merits of Jefferson that he early appreciated its importance and used his influence and power to advance its interests. The consequence was that the pioneers became enthusiastic and radical supporters of the Republican party. They repeated and celebrated the Jeffersonian catchwords with the utmost conviction. They became imbued with the spirit of the true Jeffersonian faith. They were, indeed, in many respects more Jeffersonian than Jefferson himself, and sought to realize some of his ideas with more energy and consistency. These ideas expressed and served their practical needs marvelously well, and if the formulas had not already been provided by Jefferson, they would most assuredly have been crystallized by the pioneer politicians of the day. The Jeffersonian creed has exercised a profound influence upon the thought of the American people, not because Jefferson was an original and profound thinker, but because of his ability to formulate popular opinions, prejudices, and interests.
It is none the less true that the pioneer Democracy soon came to differ with Jefferson about some important questions of public policy. They early showed, for instance, a lively disapproval of Jefferson's management of the crisis in foreign affairs, which preceded the War of 1812. Jefferson's policy of commercial embargo seemed pusillanimous to Jackson and the other Western Democrats. They did not believe in peaceful warfare; and their different conception of the effective way of fighting a foreign enemy was symptomatic of a profound difference of opinion and temper. The Western Democracy did not share Jefferson's amiable cosmopolitanism. It was, on the contrary, aggressively resolved to assert the rights and the interests of the United States against any suspicion of European aggrandizement. However much it preferred a let-alone policy in respect to the domestic affairs, all its instincts revolted against a weak foreign policy; and its instincts were outraged by the administration's policy of peaceful warfare, which injured ourselves so much more than it injured England, not only because the pioneers were fighting men by conviction and habit, but because they were much more genuinely national in their feelings than were Jefferson and Madison.
The Western Democrats finally forced Madison and the official Republican leaders to declare war against England, because Madison preferred even a foreign war to the loss of popularity; but Madison, although he accepted the necessity of war, was wholly incompetent to conduct it efficiently. The inadequacy of our national organization and our lack of national cohesion was immediately and painfully exhibited. The Republican superstition about militarism had prevented the formation of a regular army at all adequate to the demands of our national policy, and the American navy, while efficient so far as it went, was very much too small to constitute an effective engine of naval warfare. Moreover, the very Congress that clearly announced an intention of declaring war on Great Britain failed to make any sufficient provision for its energetic prosecution. The consequence of this short-sighted view of our national responsibilities is that the history of the War of 1812 makes painful reading for a patriotic American. The little American navy earned distinction, but it was so small that its successes did not prevent it from being shut off eventually from the high seas. The military operations were a succession of blunders both in strategy and in performance. On the northern frontier a series of incompetent generals led little armies of half-hearted soldiers to unnecessary defeats or at best to ineffectual victories; and the most conspicuous military success was won at New Orleans by the Western pioneers, who had no constitutional scruples about fighting outside of their own states, and who were animated by lively patriotic feelings. On the whole, however, the story makes humiliating reading, not because the national Capital was captured almost without resistance, or because we were so frequently beaten, but because our disorganization, the incompetence of the national government, and the disloyalty of so many Americans made us deserve both a less successful war and a more humiliating peace.
The chief interest of the second English war for the purpose of this book is, however, its clear indication of the abiding-place at that time of the American national spirit. That spirit was not found along the Atlantic coast, whose inhabitants were embittered and blinded by party and sectional prejudices. It was resident in the newer states of the West and the Southwest. A genuine American national democracy was coming into existence in that part of the country—a democracy which was as democratic as it knew how to be, while at the same time loyal and devoted to the national government. The pioneers had in a measure outgrown the colonialism of the thirteen original commonwealths. They occupied a territory which had in the beginning been part of the national domain. Their local commonwealths had not antedated the Federal Union, but were in a way children of the central government; and they felt that they belonged to the Union in a way that was rarely shared by an inhabitant of Massachusetts or South Carolina. Their national feeling did not prevent them from being in some respects extremely local and provincial in their point of view. It did not prevent them from resenting with the utmost energy any interference of the Federal government in what they believed to be their local affairs. But they were none the less, first and foremost, loyal citizens of the American Federal state.
THE NEW NATIONAL DEMOCRACYWe must consider carefully this earliest combination of the national with the democratic idea. The Western Democracy is important, not only because it played the leading part in our political history down to 1850, but precisely because it does offer, in a primitive but significant form, a combination of the two ideas, which, when united, constitute the formative principle in American political and social development. The way had been prepared for this combination by the Republican acceptance of the Federal organization, after that party had assumed power; but the Western Democrats took this alliance much more innocently than the older Republican leaders. They insisted, as we have seen, on a declaration of war against Great Britain; and humiliating as were the results of that war, this vigorous assertion of the national point of view, both exposed in clear relief the sectional disloyalty of the Federalists of New England and resulted later in an attempted revival of a national constructive policy. It is true that the regeneration of the Hamiltonian spirit belongs rather to the history of the Whigs than to the history of the Democrats. It is true, also, that the attempted revival at once brought out the inadequacy of the pioneer's conceptions both of the national and the democratic ideas. Nevertheless, it was their assertion of the national interest against a foreign enemy which provoked its renewed vitality in relation to our domestic affairs. Whatever the alliance between nationality and democracy, represented by the pioneers, lacked in fruitful understanding of the correlative ideas, at least it was solid alliance. The Western Democrats were suspicious of any increase of the national organization in power and scope, but they were even more determined that it should be neither shattered nor vitally injured. Although they were unable to grasp the meaning of their own convictions, the Federal Union really meant to them something more than an indissoluble legal contract. It was rooted in their life. It was one of those things for which they were willing to fight; and their readiness to fight for the national idea was the great salutary fact. Our country was thereby saved from the consequences of its distracting individualistic conception of democracy, and its merely legal conception of nationality. It was because the followers of Jackson and Douglas did fight for it, that the Union was preserved.
Be it immediately remarked, however, that the pioneer Democrats were obliged to fight for the Union, just because they were not interested in its progressive consummation. They willed at one and the same time that the Union should be preserved, but that it should not be increased and strengthened. They were national in feeling, but local and individualistic in their ideas; and these limited ideas were associated with a false and inadequate conception of democracy. Jefferson had taught them to believe that any increase of the national organization was inimical to democracy. The limitations of their own economic and social experience and of their practical needs confirmed them in this belief. Their manner of life made them at once thoroughly loyal and extremely insubordinate. They combined the sincerest patriotism with an energetic and selfish individualism; and they failed wholly to realize any discrepancy between these two dominant elements in their life. They were to love their country, but they were to work for themselves; and nothing wrong could happen to their country, provided they preserved its institutions and continued to enjoy its opportunities. Their failure to grasp the idea that the Federal Union would not take care of itself, prevented them from taking disunionist ideas seriously, and encouraged them to provoke a crisis, which, subsequently, their fundamental loyalty to the Union prevented from becoming disastrous. They expected their country to drift to a safe harbor in the Promised Land, whereas the inexorable end of a drifting ship is either the rocks or the shoals.
In their opposition to the consolidation of the national organization, the pioneers believed that they were defending the citadel of their democratic creed. Democracy meant to them, not only equal opportunities secured by law, but an approximately equal standing among individual citizens, and an approximately equal division of the social and economic fruits. They realized vaguely that national consolidation brought with it organization, and organization depended for its efficiency upon a classification of individual citizens according to ability, knowledge, and competence. In a nationalized state, it is the man of exceptional position, power, responsibility, and training who is most likely to be representative and efficient, whereas in a thoroughly democratic state, as they conceived it, the average man was the representative citizen and the fruitful type. Nationalization looked towards the introduction and perpetuation of a political, social, and financial hierarchy. They opposed it consequently, on behalf of the "plain people"; and they even reached the conclusion that the contemporary political system was to some extent organized for the benefit of special interests. They discovered in the fiscal and administrative organization the presence of discrimination against the average man. The National Bank was an example of special economic privileges. The office-holding clique was an example of special political privileges. Jackson and his followers declared war on these sacrilegious anomalies in the temple of democracy. Thus the only innovations which the pioneers sought to impose on our national political system were by way of being destructive. They uprooted a national institution which had existed, with but one brief interruption, for more than forty years; and they entirely altered the tradition of appointment in the American civil service. Both of these destructive achievements throw a great deal of light upon their unconscious tendencies and upon their explicit convictions, and will help us to understand the value and the limitation of the positive contribution which the pioneers made to the fullness of the American democratic idea.
The National Bank was the institution by virtue of which Hamilton sought to secure a stable national currency and an efficient national fiscal agent; and the Bank, particularly under its second charter, had undoubtedly been a useful and economical piece of financial machinery. The Republicans had protested against it in the beginning, but they had later come to believe in its necessity; and at the time Benton and Jackson declared war upon it, the Bank was, on the whole, and in spite of certain minor and local grievances, a popular institution. If the question of the re-charter of the National Bank had been submitted to popular vote in 1832, a popular majority would probably have declared in its favor. Jackson's victory was due partly to his personal popularity, partly to the unwise manner in which the Bank was defended, but chiefly to his success in convincing public opinion that the Bank was an institution whose legal privileges were used to the detriment of the American people. As a matter of fact, such was not the case. The Bank was a semi-public corporation, upon which certain exceptional privileges had been conferred, because the enjoyment of such privileges was inseparable from the services it performed and the responsibilities it assumed. When we consider how important those services were, and how difficult it has since been to substitute any arrangement, which provides as well both a flexible and a stable currency and for the articulation of the financial operations of the Federal Treasury with those of the business of the country, it does not look as if the emoluments and privileges of the Bank were disproportionate to its services. But Jackson and his followers never even considered whether its services and responsibilities were proportionate to its legal privileges. The fact that any such privilege existed, the fact that any legal association of individuals should enjoy such exceptional opportunities, was to their minds a violation of democratic principles. It must consequently be destroyed, no matter how much the country needed its services, and no matter how difficult it was to establish in its place any equally efficient institution.
The important point is, however, that the campaign against the National Bank uncovered a latent socialism, which lay concealed behind the rampant individualism of the pioneer Democracy. The ostensible grievance against the Bank was the possession by a semi-public corporation of special economic privileges; but the anti-Bank literature of the time was filled half unconsciously with a far more fundamental complaint. What the Western Democrats disliked and feared most of all was the possession of any special power by men of wealth. Their crusade against the "Money Power" meant that in their opinion money must not become a power in a democratic state. They had no objection, of course, to certain inequalities in the distribution of wealth; but they fiercely resented the idea that such inequalities should give a group of men any special advantages which were inaccessible to their fellow-countrymen. The full meaning of their complaint against the Bank was left vague and ambiguous, because the Bank itself possessed special legal privileges; and the inference was that when these privileges were withdrawn, the "Money Power" would disappear with them. The Western Democrat devoutly believed that an approximately equal division of the good things of life would result from the possession by all American citizens of equal legal rights and similar economic opportunities. But the importance of this result in their whole point of view was concealed by the fact that they expected to reach it by wholly negative means—that is, by leaving the individual alone. The substantially equal distribution of wealth, which was characteristic of the American society of their own day, was far more fundamental in their system of political and social ideas than was the machinery of liberty whereby it was to be secured. And just as soon as it becomes apparent that the proposed machinery does as a matter of fact accomplish a radically unequal result, their whole political and economic creed cries loudly for revision.
The introduction of the spoils system was due to the perverted application of kindred ideas. The emoluments of office loomed large among the good things of life to the pioneer Democrat; and such emoluments differed from other economic rewards, in that they were necessarily at the disposal of the political organization. The public offices constituted the tangible political patrimony of the American people. It was not enough that they were open to everybody. They must actually be shared by almost everybody. The terms of all elected officials must be short, so that as many good democrats as possible could occupy an easy chair in the house of government; and officials must for similar reasons be appointed for only short terms. Traditional practice at Washington disregarded these obvious inferences from the principles of true democracy. Until the beginning of Jackson's first administration the offices in the government departments had been appropriated by a few bureaucrats who had grown old at their posts; and how could such a permanent appropriation be justified? The pioneer Democrat believed that he was as competent to do the work as any member of an office-holding clique, so that when he came into power, he corrected what seemed to him to be a genuine abuse in the traditional way of distributing the American political patrimony. He could not understand that training, special ability, or long experience constituted any special claim upon a public office, or upon any other particular opportunity or salary. One democrat was as good as another, and deserved his share of the rewards of public service. The state could not undertake to secure a good living to all good democrats, but, when properly administered, it could prevent any appropriation by a few people of the public pay-roll.
In the long run the effect of the spoils system was, of course, just the opposite of that anticipated by the early Jacksonian Democrats. It merely substituted one kind of office-holding privilege for another. It helped to build up a group of professional politicians who became in their turn an office-holding clique—the only difference being that one man in his political life held, not one, but many offices. Yet the Jacksonian Democrat undoubtedly believed, when he introduced the system into the Federal civil service, that he was carrying out a desirable reform along strictly democratic lines. He was betrayed into such an error by the narrowness of his own experience and of his intellectual outlook. His experience had been chiefly that of frontier life, in which the utmost freedom of economic and social movement was necessary; and he attempted to apply the results of this limited experience to the government of a complicated social organism whose different parts had very different needs. The direct results of the attempt were very mischievous. He fastened upon the American public service a system of appointment which turned political office into the reward of partisan service, which made it unnecessary for the public officials to be competent and impossible for them to be properly experienced, and which contributed finally to the creation of a class of office-holding politicians. But the introduction of the spoils system had a meaning superior to its results. It was, after all, an attempt to realize an ideal, and the ideal was based on a genuine experience. The "Virginian Oligarchy," although it was the work of Jefferson and his followers, was an anachronism in a state governed in the spirit of Jeffersonian Democratic principles. It was better for the Jacksonian Democrats to sacrifice what they believed to be an obnoxious precedent to their principles than to sacrifice their principles to mere precedent. If in so doing they were making a mistake, that was because their principles were wrong. The benefit which they were temporarily conferring on themselves, as a class in the community, was sanctioned by the letter and the spirit of their creed.
Closely connected with their perverted ideas and their narrow view of life, we may discern a leaven of new and useful democratic experience. The new and useful experience which they contributed to our national stock was that of homogeneous social intercourse. I have already remarked that the Western pioneers were the first large body of Americans who were genuinely national in feeling. They were also the first large body of Americans who were genuinely democratic in feeling. Consequently they imparted a certain emotional consistency to the American democracy, and they thereby performed a social service which was in its way quite as valuable as their political service. Democracy has always been stronger as a political than it has as a social force. When adopted as a political ideal of the American people, it was very far from possessing any effective social vitality; and until the present day it has been a much more active force in political than in social life. But whatever traditional social force it has obtained, can be traced directly to the Western pioneer Democrat. His democracy was based on genuine good-fellowship. Unlike the French Fraternity, it was the product neither of abstract theories nor of a disembodied humanitarianism. It was the natural issue of their interests, their occupations, and their manner of life. They felt kindly towards one another and communicated freely with one another because they were not divided by radical differences in class, standards, point of view, and wealth. The social aspect of their democracy may, in fact, be compared to the sense of good-fellowship which pervades the rooms of a properly constituted club.
Their community of feeling and their ease of communication had come about as the result of pioneer life in a self-governing community. The Western Americans were confronted by a gigantic task of overwhelming practical importance,—the task of subduing to the needs of complicated and civilized society a rich but virgin wilderness. This task was one which united a desirable social purpose with a profitable individual interest. The country was undeveloped, and its inhabitants were poor. They were to enrich themselves by the development of the country, and the two different aspects of their task were scarcely distinguished. They felt themselves authorized by social necessity to pursue their own interests energetically and unscrupulously, and they were not either hampered or helped in so doing by the interference of the local or the national authorities. While the only people the pioneer was obliged to consult were his neighbors, all his surroundings tended to make his neighbors like himself—to bind them together by common interests, feelings, and ideas. These surroundings called for practical, able, flexible, alert, energetic, and resolute men, and men of a different type had no opportunity of coming to the surface. The successful pioneer Democrat was not a pleasant type in many respects, but he was saved from many of the worst aspects of his limited experience and ideas by a certain innocence, generosity, and kindliness of spirit. With all his willful aggressiveness he was a companionable person who meant much better towards his fellows than he himself knew.
We need to guard scrupulously against the under-valuation of the advance which the pioneers made towards a genuine social democracy. The freedom of intercourse and the consistency of feeling which they succeeded in attaining is an indispensable characteristic of a democratic society. The unity of such a state must lie deeper than any bond established by obedience to a single political authority, or by the acceptance of common precedents and ideas. It must be based in some measure upon an instinctive familiarity of association, upon a quick communicability of sympathy, upon the easy and effortless sense of companionship. Such familiar intercourse is impossible, not only in a society with aristocratic institutions, but it can with difficulty be attained in a society that has once had aristocratic institutions. A century more or less of political democracy has not introduced it into France, and in 1830 it did not exist along the Atlantic seaboard at all to the same extent that it did in the newer states of the West. In those states the people, in a sense, really lived together. They were divided by fewer barriers than have been any similarly numerous body of people in the history of the world; and it was this characteristic which made them so efficient and so easily directed by their natural leaders. No doubt it would be neither possible nor desirable to reproduce a precisely similar consistency of feeling over a social area in which there was a greater diversity of manners, standards, and occupations; but it remains true that the American democracy will lose its most valuable and promising characteristic in case it loses the homogeneity of feeling which the pioneers were the first to embody.
It is equally important to remember, however, that the social consistency of the pioneer communities should under different conditions undergo a radical transformation. Neither the pioneers themselves nor their admirers and their critics have sufficiently understood how much individual independence was sacrificed in order to obtain this consistency of feeling, or how completely it was the product, in the form it assumed, of temporary economic conditions. If we study the Western Democrats as a body of men who, on the whole, responded admirably to the conditions and opportunities of their time, but who were also very much victimized and impoverished by the limited nature of these conditions and opportunities—if we study the Western Democrat from that point of view, we shall find him to be the most significant economic and social type in American history. On the other hand, if we regard him in the way that he and his subsequent prototypes wish to be regarded, as the example of all that is permanently excellent and formative in American democracy, he will be, not only entirely misunderstood, but transformed from an edifying into a mischievous type.
Their peculiar social homogeneity, and their conviction that one man was as good as another, was the natural and legitimate product of contemporary economic conditions. The average man, without any special bent or qualifications, was in the pioneer states the useful man. In that country it was sheer waste to spend much energy upon tasks which demanded skill, prolonged experience, high technical standards, or exclusive devotion. The cheaply and easily made instrument was the efficient instrument, because it was adapted to a year or two of use and then for supersession by a better instrument; and for the service of such tools one man was as likely to be good as another. No special equipment was required. The farmer was obliged to be all kinds of a rough mechanic. The business man was merchant, manufacturer, and storekeeper. Almost everybody was something of a politician. The number of parts which a man of energy played in his time was astonishingly large. Andrew Jackson was successively a lawyer, judge, planter, merchant, general, politician, and statesman; and he played most of these parts with conspicuous success. In such a society a man who persisted in one job, and who applied the most rigorous and exacting standards to his work, was out of place and was really inefficient. His finished product did not serve its temporary purpose much better than did the current careless and hasty product, and his higher standards and peculiar ways constituted an implied criticism upon the easy methods of his neighbors. He interfered with the rough good-fellowship which naturally arises among a group of men who submit good-naturedly and uncritically to current standards.
It is no wonder, consequently, that the pioneer Democracy viewed with distrust and aversion the man with a special vocation and high standards of achievement. Such a man did insist upon being in certain respects better than the average; and under the prevalent economic social conditions he did impair the consistency of feeling upon which the pioneers rightly placed such a high value. Consequently they half unconsciously sought to suppress men with special vocations. For the most part this suppression was easily accomplished by the action of ordinary social and economic motives. All the industrial, political, and social rewards went to the man who pursued his business, professional, or political career along regular lines; and in this way an ordinary task and an interested motive were often imposed on men who were better qualified for special tasks undertaken from disinterested motives. But it was not enough to suppress the man with a special vocation by depriving him of social and pecuniary rewards. Public opinion must be taught to approve of the average man as the representative type of the American democracy, so that the man with a special vocation may be deprived of any interest or share in the American democratic tradition; and this attempt to make the average man the representative American democrat has persisted to the present day—that is, to a time when the average man is no longer, as in 1830, the dominant economic factor.
It is in this way, most unfortunately, that one of the leading articles in the American popular creed has tended to impair American moral and intellectual integrity. If the man with special standards and a special vocation interfered with democratic consistency of feeling, it was chiefly because this consistency of feeling had been obtained at too great a sacrifice—at the sacrifice of a higher to a lower type of individuality. In all civilized communities the great individualizing force is the resolute, efficient, and intense pursuit of special ideals, standards, and occupations; and the country which discourages such pursuits must necessarily put up with an inferior quality and a less varied assortment of desirable individual types. But whatever the loss our country has been and is suffering from this cause, our popular philosophers welcome rather than deplore it. We adapt our ideals of individuality to its local examples. When orators of the Jacksonian Democratic tradition begin to glorify the superlative individuals developed by the freedom of American life, what they mean by individuality is an unusual amount of individual energy successfully spent in popular and remunerative occupations. Of the individuality which may reside in the gallant and exclusive devotion to some disinterested, and perhaps unpopular moral, intellectual, or technical purpose, they have not the remotest conception; and yet it is this kind of individuality which is indispensable to the fullness and intensity of American national life.
THE WHIG FAILUREThe Jacksonian Democrats were not, of course, absolutely dominant during the Middle Period of American history. They were persistently, and on a few occasions successfully, opposed by the Whigs. The latter naturally represented the political, social, and economic ideas which the Democrats under-valued or disparaged. They were strong in those Northern and border states, which had reached a higher stage of economic and social development, and which contained the mansions of contemporary American culture, wealth, and intelligence. It is a significant fact that the majority of Americans of intelligence during the Jacksonian epoch were opponents of Jackson, just as the majority of educated Americans of intelligence have always protested against the national political irresponsibility and the social equalitarianism characteristic of our democratic tradition; but unfortunately they have always failed to make their protests effective. The spirit of the times was against them. The Whigs represented the higher standards, the more definite organization, and the social inequalities of the older states, but when they attempted to make their ideas good, they were faced by a dilemma either horn of which was disastrous to their interests. They were compelled either to sacrifice their standards to the conditions of popular efficiency or the chance of success to the integrity of their standards. In point of fact they pursued precisely the worst course of all. They abandoned their standards, and yet they failed to achieve success. Down to the Civil War the fruits of victory and the prestige of popularity were appropriated by the Democrats.
The Whigs, like their predecessors, the Federalists, were ostensibly the party of national ideas. Their association began with a group of Jeffersonian Republicans who, after the second English war, sought to resume the interrupted work of national consolidation. The results of that war had clearly exposed certain grave deficiencies in the American national organization; and these deficiencies a group of progressive young men, under the lead of Calhoun and Clay, proposed to remedy. One of the greatest handicaps from which the military conduct of the war had suffered was the lack of any sufficient means of internal communication; and the construction of a system of national roads and waterways became an important plank in their platform. There was also proposed a policy of industrial protection which Calhoun supported by arguments so national in import and scope that they might well have been derived from Hamilton's report. Under the influence of similar ideas the National Bank was rechartered; and as the correlative of this constructive policy, a liberal nationalistic interpretation of the Constitution was explicitly advocated. As one reads the speeches delivered by some of these men, particularly by Calhoun, during the first session of Congress after the conclusion of peace, it seems as if a genuine revival had taken place of Hamiltonian nationalism, and that this revival was both by way of escaping Hamilton's fatal distrust of democracy and of avoiding the factious and embittered opposition of the earlier period.
The Whigs made a fair start, but unfortunately they ran a poor race and came to a bad end. No doubt they were in a way an improvement on the Federalists, in that they, like their opponents, the Democrats, stood for a combination between democracy and nationalism. They believed that the consolidation and the development of the national organization was contributory rather than antagonistic to the purpose of the American political system. Yet they made no conquests on behalf of their convictions. The Federalists really accomplished a great and necessary task of national organization and founded a tradition of constructive national achievement. The Whigs at best kept this tradition alive. They were on the defensive throughout, and they accomplished nothing at all in the way of permanent constructive legislation. Their successes were merely electioneering raids, whereas their defeats were wholly disastrous in that they lost, not only all of their strongholds, but most of their military reputation and good name. Their final disappearance was wholly the result of their own incapacity. They were condemned somehow to inefficiency, defeat, and dishonor.
Every important article in their programme went astray. The policy of internal improvements in the national interest and at the national expense was thwarted by the Constitutional scruples of such Presidents as Monroe and Jackson, and for that reason it could never be discussed on its merits. The Cumberland Road was the only great national highway constructed, and remains to this day a striking symbol of what the Federal government might have accomplished towards the establishment of an efficient system of inter-state communication. The re-charter of the National Bank which was one of the first fruits of the new national movement, proved in the end to be the occasion of its most flagrant failure. The Bank was the national institution for the perpetuation of which the Whig leaders fought most persistently and loyally. They began the fight with the support of public opinion, and with the prestige of an established and useful institution in their favor; but the campaign was conducted with such little skill that in the end they were utterly beaten. Far from being able to advance the policy of national consolidation, they were unable even to preserve existing national institutions, and their conspicuous failure in this crucial instance was due to their inability to keep public opinion convinced of the truth that the Bank was really organized and maintained in the national interest. Their policy of protection met in the long run with a similar fate. In the first place, the tariff schedules which they successively placed upon the statute books were not drawn up in Hamilton's wise and moderate national spirit. They were practically dictated by the special interests which profited from the increases in duties. The Whig leaders accepted a retainer from the manufacturers of the North, and by legislating exclusively in their favor almost drove South Carolina to secession. Then after accomplishing this admirable feat, they agreed to placate the disaffected state by the gradual reduction in the scale of duties until there was very little protection left. In short, they first perverted the protectionist system until it ceased to be a national policy; and then compromised it until it ceased to be any policy at all.
Perhaps the Whigs failed and blundered most completely in the fight which they made against the Federal executive and in the interest of the Federal legislature. They were forced into this position, because for many years the Democrats, impersonated by Jackson, occupied the Presidential chair, while the Whigs controlled one or both of the Congressional bodies; but the attitude of the two opposing parties in respect to the issue corresponded to an essential difference of organization and personnel. The Whigs were led by a group of brilliant orators and lawyers, while the Democrats were dominated by one powerful man, who held the Presidential office. Consequently the Whigs proclaimed a Constitutional doctrine which practically amounted to Congressional omnipotence, and for many years assailed Jackson as a military dictator who was undermining the representative institutions of his country. The American people, however, appraised these fulminations at their true value. While continuing for twelve years to elect to the Presidency Jackson or his nominee, they finally dispossessed the Whigs from the control of Congress; and they were right. The American people have much more to fear from Congressional usurpation than they have from executive usurpation. Both Jackson and Lincoln somewhat strained their powers, but for good purposes, and in essentially a moderate and candid spirit; but when Congress attempts to dominate the executive, its objects are generally bad and its methods furtive and dangerous. Our legislatures were and still are the strongholds of special and local interests, and anything which undermines executive authority in this country seriously threatens our national integrity and balance. It is to the credit of the American people that they have instinctively recognized this fact, and have estimated at their true value the tirades which men no better than Henry Clay level against men no worse than Andrew Jackson.
The reason for the failure of the Whigs was that their opponents embodied more completely the living forces of contemporary American life. Jackson and his followers prevailed because they were simple, energetic, efficient, and strong. Their consistency of feeling and their mutual loyalty enabled them to form a much more effective partisan organization than that of the Whigs. It is one of those interesting paradoxes, not uncommon in American history, that the party which represented official organization and leadership was loosely organized and unwisely led, while the party which distrusted official organization and surrounded official leadership with rigid restraints was most efficiently organized and was for many years absolutely dominated by a single man. At bottom, of course, the difference between the two parties was a difference in vitality. All the contemporary conditions worked in favor of the strong narrow man with prodigious force of will like Andrew Jackson, and against men like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster who had more intelligence, but were deficient in force of character and singleness of purpose. The former had behind him the impulse of a great popular movement which was sweeping irresistibly towards wholly unexpected results; and the latter, while ostensibly trying to stem the tide, were in reality carried noisily along on its flood.
Daniel Webster and Henry Clay were in fact faced by an alternative similar to that which sterilized the lives of almost all their contemporaries who represented an intellectual interest. They were men of national ideas but of something less than national feeling. Their interests, temperament, and manner of life prevented them from instinctively sympathizing with the most vital social and political movement of their day. If they wanted popularity, they had to purchase it by compromises, whereas Andrew Jackson obtained a much larger popular following by acting strictly in accordance with the dictates of his temperament and ideas. He was effective and succeeded because his personality was representative of the American national democracy, whereas they failed, on the whole, because the constituency they represented concealed limited sympathies and special interests under words of national import. Jackson, who in theory was the servant and mouthpiece of his followers, played the part of a genuine leader in his campaign against the National Bank; while the Whigs, who should have been able to look ahead and educate their fellow-countrymen up to the level of their presumably better insight, straggled along in the rear of the procession.
The truth is that the Democrats, under the lead of Jackson, were temporarily the national party, although they used their genuinely national standing to impose in certain respects a group of anti-national ideas on their country. The Whigs, on the other hand, national as they might be in ideas and aspirations, were in effect not much better than a faction. Finding that they could not rally behind their ideas an effective popular following, they were obliged to seek support, partly at the hands of special interests and partly by means of the sacrifice of their convictions. Under their guidance the national policy became a policy of conciliation and compromise at any cost, and the national idea was deprived of consistency and dignity. It became equivalent to a hodge-podge of policies and purposes, the incompatibility of whose ingredients was concealed behind a smooth crust of constitutional legality and popular acquiescence. The national idea and interest, that is, was not merely disarmed and ignored, as it had been by Jefferson. It was mutilated and distorted in obedience to an erroneous democratic theory; and its friends, the Whigs, deluded themselves with the belief that in draining the national idea of its vitality they were prolonging its life. But if its life was saved, its safety was chiefly due to its ostensible enemies. While the Whigs were less national in feeling and purpose than their ideas demanded, the Democrats were more national than they knew. From 1830 to 1850 American nationality was being attenuated as a conscious idea, but the great unconscious forces of American life were working powerfully and decisively in its favor.
Most assuredly the failure of the Whigs is susceptible of abundant explanation. Prevailing conditions were inimical to men whose strength lay more in their intelligence than in their will. It was a period of big phrases, of personal motives and altercations, of intellectual attenuation, and of narrow, moral commonplaces,—all of which made it very difficult for any statesman to see beyond his nose, or in case he did, to act upon his knowledge. Yet in spite of all this, it does seem as if some Whig might have worked out the logic of the national idea with as much power and consistency as Calhoun worked out the logic of his sectional idea. That no Whig rose to the occasion is an indication that in sacrificing their ideas they were sacrificing also their personal integrity. Intellectual insincerity and irresponsibility was in the case of the Democrats the outcome of their lives and their point of view; but on the part of the Whigs it was equivalent to sheer self-prostitution. Jefferson's work had been done only too well. The country had become so entirely possessed by a system of individual aggrandizement, national drift, and mental torpor that the men who for their own moral and intellectual welfare should have opposed it, were reduced to the position of hangers-on; and the dangers of the situation were most strikingly revealed by the attitude which contemporary statesmen assumed towards the critical national problem of the period,—the problem of the existence of legalized slavery in a democratic state.