Date of Degree

9-2018

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

History

Advisor

James Oakes

Committee Members

Thomas Kessner

Kathleen McCarthy

Subject Categories

Intellectual History | Political History | United States History

Keywords

Whig Party, Political Culture, Freedom, Slavery, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln

Abstract

This dissertation explains why the American Whig Party consisted of the most anti-slavery and pro-slavery segments of American politics during the Second Party System (1834 to 1854), as well as why it broke up. I argue that slavery was a major reason for the creation and continuation of the party, particularly in the South. A common Whig political culture – economically capitalistic while also emphasizing the integrity of the “social fabric” over individualism – helped spur both northern and southern Whigs to oppose Democrats over slavery from opposite perspectives. Southern Whigs honestly and understandably saw themselves as more pro-slavery, prioritizing the slavery’s stability over its expansion. Northern anti-slavery Whigs opposed slavery’s westward expansion, and this provided enough basis for policy consensus: protecting slavery against abolitionism while opposing its spread to new territories. This left room for the two wings of the party to adopt opposing stances on a variety of issues, including allowing slavery in the national capital. Once the Mexican War’s territorial acquisitions meant that expansion would happen, however, the party’s internal differences became irreconcilable. The Compromise of 1850 was a largely southern Whig-inspired attempt to resolve slavery matters in one fell swoop, but it failed when, with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Democrats moved to allow slavery in western territories. While they maintained a common political culture prioritizing social stability, northern Whigs refused to be complicit in altering society by allowing slavery’s expansion, while most southern Whigs could not resist the opportunity to shore up their main social institution. This broke up the Whig Party, leading to a Republican alternative and the triumph of anti-slavery politics.

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