Sean Wilentz on the Whigs (Whigs are bad guys):

Daniel Walker Howe on the Whigs (Whigs are good guys):

The Whigs arose in 1834 to oppose Andrew Jackson's anti-elitist Democratic Party. Furious at Jackson’s destruction of the privately controlled, all-powerful Second Bank and his forceful claims for presidential authority, they built a national following dedicated to protecting business and reducing federal economic regulation. Enriching the rich, they proclaimed, would eventually enrich everyone else. By combining a pro-business conservatism geared to the common man with an evangelical Christian view of social virtues and vices, they won the presidency twice in the 1840's and controlled either the House or the Senate for most of the decade. Insofar as perennial themes shape our politics, it is remarkable how so many of contemporary conservatism's central ideas and slogans renovate old Whig appeals.


--The Opportunity Society and the Attack on Big Government: Whigs charged that President Jackson had established an executive tyranny, and his followers, as the Whig journalist Horace Greeley wrote, had turned government into ''an agency mainly of corruption, oppression and robbery.'' In defiance of Jacksonian despotism, one North Carolinian declared in an 1835 editorial, the Whigs rallied ''in defense of LIBERTY against POWER.'' The Whigs particularly objected to federal regulation of business and financial matters. A typical Whig editorial from 1837 denounced the Democrats for warring on ''the merchants and mercantile interests'' in order to support federal power.


--Conservative Populism: Whig rhetoric departed fundamentally from the aristocratic hauteur and gloominess that old-line conservatives inherited from the defunct Federalist Party. On the political stump, the example of the buckskinned Whig congressman Davy Crockett was widely imitated. Even classical-style orators like Webster learned to put aside their Cicero on the campaign trail, declare themselves rip-snorting Democrats—and threaten to punch out anybody who said otherwise. The Whigs also invented new satirical characters who, in newspapers and onstage, ridiculed politicians who ''manage to git hold of the money of the people and keep turning it to their own account.'' While they cast themselves and their rich supporters as just plain folks, the Whigs portrayed the Democrats as smooth-handed, Champagne-drinking, out-of-touch professional politicians. The appeals helped the Whigs win the presidency in 1840 with their famous ''log cabin and hard cider'' campaign, presenting their well-born presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, as a plebeian hero who lived in a humble abode and drank the common frontiersman's brew.


--Moralism, Self-Reform and the Culture War: 

''Wherever you find a bitter, blasphemous Atheist and an enemy of Marriage, Morality, and Social Order,'' The New-York Daily Tribune charged, ''there you may be certain of one vote for [the Jacksonians].'' Upon enlisting in the Whig Party in 1835, Representative John Bell of Tennessee sounded like a forerunner of William Bennett, declaring that ''we have, in truth, in the last 8 or 10 years, been in a continual state of moral war.'' Martin Van Buren, a widower, came in for special abuse as a man of dubious morals, including fantastic Whig charges that he held secret orgies in the White House. The Whigs were drawn disproportionately from devotees of the enormous wave of evangelical revivalism known as the Second Great Awakening. Evangelicalism quickly led a minority of Northern Whigs into the crusade against slavery. But mainstream Whigs despised anti-slavery politics and were preoccupied by evangelically inspired efforts to enforce public morality with coercive temperance and Sunday blue-law campaigns. Democrats opposed these efforts, upholding the separation of church and state in order to prevent Congress, one Kentucky Jacksonian wrote, from becoming the ''proper tribunal to determine what are the laws of God.''






The market revolution, which the Whigs championed, was good for the vast majority of Americans: “most American family farmers welcomed the chance to buy and sell in larger markets,” and they were right to, since selling their crops made their lives better. Stuff was cheaper: a mattress that cost fifty dollars in 1815 (which meant that almost no one owned one) cost five in 1848 (and everyone slept better). Finally, the revolution that really mattered was the “communications revolution”: the invention of the telegraph, the expansion of the postal system, improvements in printing technology, and the growth of the newspaper, magazine, and book-publishing industries: market delivers eager self-improvers from stifling Jacksonian barbarism.


“What if people really were benefitting in certain ways from the expansion of the market and its culture? What if they espoused middle-class tastes or evangelical religion or (even) Whig politics for rational and defensible reasons? Capitalism is like compost, feeding the soil where democracy grows.”


Evangelical religion was better for everyone, and people chose to believe it because it helped them: In 1776, about one in six Americans belonged to a church; by 1850, that number had risen to one in three. In roughly the same period, the amount of alcohol that Americans drank dropped from more than seven gallons per adult per year to less than two gallons (about what it is today). If you were to look at a map, and chart these changes, you’d see that they follow the course of the nation’s growing network of canals and railroads. The canal or railroad arrives, and the people join churches; the people join churches, and they drink less. How do historians account for these correlations? The answer, at first, seems obvious: preachers spread the Gospel; the same boats and trains that carried cash crops from farms to towns brought revivalist ministers from towns to farms. But, once they got there, why did anyone listen to them?  “Evangelical religion was not foisted upon the industrial working classes,” Howe writes. Factory workers and farmers joined churches, and stopped drinking, for the same reason that their middle-class counterparts did: they were persuaded by evangelism’s embrace of egalitarianism, and “its trust in the capacities of ordinary people.”


“What we think of as Victorian prudery can also be seen as a clumsy effort to make men regard women as something other than sexual objects.” The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a wholesale transformation of manners, a politeness revolution. “Although polite culture put women on a pedestal to avoid challenging the prerogatives of men,” Howe writes, “it represented in important respects an advance over the subjugation of women common in pre-modern society.”

Howe argues that, in the end, the market nourished democracy, giving women more, rather than fewer, choices. And what do women gain and lose? If men lose the family farm but gain the right to vote, women lose their reputation as the more passionate sex but gain the capacity to demand suffrage. At least for women, Howe insists, “economic development did not undercut American democracy but broadened and enhanced it.”

Abigail Kelley’s life is an example. Born in Massachusetts in 1811, she became a Grahamite in the eighteen-thirties. She gave up coffee, tea, meat, and alcohol, and ate a lot of Graham crackers. In 1832, she saw William Lloyd Garrison lecture, and became an abolitionist. She joined the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Lynn, Massachusetts, where her contributions consisted, at first, of stitching and selling pincushions with mottoes such as “Oh sisters! sad indeed’s the thought/ That in our land poor slaves are bought!” In 1837, she wrote to her sister, “My variety is made up in watching the progress of moral enterprises--Grahamism and Abolition and Peace.” Three years later, she was the first woman nominated to an office of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

As Kelley later explained, for her, and for many women, work within the abolitionist movement, trying to free the nation of slavery’s chains, persuaded her that “we were manacled ourselves.” The women’s-rights movement, which grew out of the antislavery movement, which grew out of revivalism, which was made possible by advances in transportation and communication, is the strongest evidence for the interpretive weight that Howe places on social, cultural, and religious forces as agents of change. Economic changes separated men’s work from women’s, and made “work” a place that men went to and “home” a place where women stayed. Revivalist ministers celebrated women’s moral purity, and drew women into reform movements, including abolitionism, which sowed the seeds for Seneca Falls.