October 16, 2005 Sunday
Late Edition - Final


Bush's Ancestors

By Sean Wilentz.

Sean Wilentz is a professor of American history at Princeton. His new book, ''The Rise of American Democracy,'' is out this month from W.W. Norton.


Ever since Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the strength of American conservatism has largely confounded historians and intellectuals. Before then, a generation of influential scholars claimed that liberalism was the core of all American political thinking and suggested that it always would be. Well into the 1970's, many observers wondered whether a Republican Party that allied itself with the conservative movement could long survive.

History has, to say the least, disproved these judgments. Yet many prominent liberals continue to see contemporary conservatism as a rhetorical smoke screen intended to deceive the masses -- even as conservatives often trace their movement back no farther than William F. Buckley Jr.'s founding of National Review in 1955, fusing religious and pro-business-minded voters. Such thinking, however, slights the coherence and durability of conservative politics in America. The blend of businessmen's aversion to government regulation, down-home cultural populism and Christian moralism that sustains today's Republican Party is a venerable if loosely knit philosophy of government dating back to long before the right-wing upsurge that prepared the way for Reagan's presidency. A few pundits and political insiders have likened the current Republicans to the formidable, corporate-financed political machine behind President William McKinley at the end of the 19th century. The admiration Karl Rove has expressed for the machine strengthens the historical connection. Yet neither conservatives nor liberals have fully recognized that the Bush administration's political and ideological recipe was invented decades before McKinley by a nearly forgotten American institution: the Whig Party of the 1830's and 40's.

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 of the United States and his forceful claims for presidential authority, the Whigs 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. In the Senate, the legendary Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts magnified the Whig Party's influence far beyond Capitol Hill with the power of their oratory. 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: Modern conservatism rests on the proposition that Democrats and liberals thrive on a huge, wasteful federal bureaucracy that discourages individual initiative and lavishes public money on the liberals' shiftless political base. In his first Inaugural Address, Reagan denounced ''government by an elite group,'' by which he unmistakably meant parasitic liberal Democrats.

In the 1830's and 40's, Whigs said much the same about the Jacksonians. They charged that President Jackson had established an executive tyranny, while Jackson's 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, like Reagan and his successors, 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.

A century and a half before Reagan's election, the Whigs worked out the basic ideas of supply-side, trickle-down economics. They acclaimed the romance of risk and private investment and a compelling but simplistic view of America as, in one widely used Whig phrase, ''a country of self-made men.'' These views would reappear in Reagan's and Newt Gingrich's celebrations of a coming ''opportunity society,'' later reformulated by George W. Bush as the ''ownership society.'' The Whigs also dismissed the Jacksonians' attacks on the privileged classes as demagogic -- much as Bush, running in 2000 as a unifying ''compassionate conservative,'' labeled his opponent's criticisms of corporate power and tax breaks for the wealthy a mean-spirited effort ''to wage class warfare to get ahead.''

Of course, there are significant differences between the Whigs and today's conservatives. Governing in an age before giant private corporations, the Whigs saw federal spending on the nation's infrastructure as imperative to economic development. On this point, modern G.O.P. dogma departs from Whig principles -- a difference that has recently caused the Bush administration severe embarrassment.

Conservative Populism: Modern conservatives present themselves as the party of the oppressed taxpayer and small businessman -- citizens Reagan lionized as ''hard-working Americans.'' Similarly, leading Whig operatives, like the New York wire-puller Thurlow Weed, refined a vocabulary and a public image befitting a party of the toiling American majority pitted against selfish politicians.

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 and Tennessee rifleman 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.

Today's Republicans have repeated the makeover. In the 1970's, the conservative movement's adoption of the sunny-tempered Hollywood cowboy Reagan as its leader in place of the dour, bespectacled Barry Goldwater was the great breakthrough of modern conservative populism. Thereafter, the transformation of the Massachusetts-born patrician George H.W. Bush into a lover of pork rinds and of his Andover-, Yale- and Harvard-educated son into a rugged Texas pioneer extended the conservative populist theme. The Democrats, meanwhile, remain trapped in the public's image of them as effete ''brie and Chablis'' liberals.

Moralism, Self-Reform and the Culture War: Today's Republican Party owes a great deal to its political alliance with resurgent conservative evangelical Christians, part of a wider conservative attack on liberals as the enemies of traditional morality. That attack reinforces the fundamental idea of the ''opportunity society'': personal failure stems not from economic and social inequalities but from the moral failings of thriftless, heedless, lawless, libertine and lazy individuals -- precisely the sorts of people (conservatives charge) liberals want to coddle with needless, destructive social spending.

The Whigs portrayed the Jacksonians in very similar terms. ''Wherever you find a bitter, blasphemous Atheist and an enemy of Marriage, Morality, and Social Order,'' The New-York Daily Tribune under Greeley 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.'' Jackson's successor as president, 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.''

Fate was unkind to the Whig Party. Its first president, Harrison, took sick on his frigid Inauguration Day in 1841, died one month later and was succeeded by a Virginia ex-Democrat, John Tyler, whom some in the party considered to be no Whig at all. The other Whig elected to the presidency, Zachary Taylor, a retired general, lasted only slightly longer than Harrison, felled by an attack of acute gastroenteritis in 1850 after just 16 months in the White House. In between the Tyler and Taylor presidencies, the acquisition of vast Western territories from the war against Mexico led to severe wrangling over the extension of slavery, which neither of the major parties could handle. The Democrats wound up losing their anti-slavery Northern partisans in the 1850's and became dominated by Southern slaveholders. The Whig Party collapsed completely: its anti-slavery wing joined with the Democratic bolters to form the Republican Party in 1854; its Southerners either enlisted in the pro-slavery Democratic fold or floundered in vain attempts to restore sectional comity.

The party's sorry demise helps explain why today's Republican conservatives who study history resist any comparison to the Whigs. If they look back before the McKinley era to the 1830's, as Karl Rove has done on occasion, they prefer to liken themselves to the Jacksonians, sticking up for ''the little guy'' against the federal government. But the Jacksonians, unlike conservatives then and now, also battled against the country's financial and mercantile elites and sought to reduce the power of what Jackson called ''associated wealth'' over the nation's economy and politics. Rove's argument distorts the nature of contemporary conservatism's political achievements.

By lashing Whig principles to Southern states rights dogma, and updating them both, modern conservatives have created a new mutation far more tenacious than the old Whig Party. Invigorating the core Whig tenets about trickle-down opportunity, the Republicans have enriched a plutocracy of Americans unimaginable in the early 19th century and won their financial support as well as their political allegiance. By relying on the Southern version of evangelicalism, stressing personal holiness more than the do-good reformism of Northern evangelical Whigs and enlisting the Christian right in their culture war, they have built a larger and more loyal political base than the Whigs ever enjoyed.

Of course, today's conservatives shouldn't be complacent about the future of their movement. Bad luck aside, sectional tensions between Northern anti-slavery Whigs and Southern Whig slaveholders finally proved the party's undoing. And even at their high tide, the Whigs had to paper over conflicts between the party's hard-drinking populists and its teetotaling moralists, its moss-backed bluenoses and its more flexible officeholders and party managers. Thurlow Weed's closest political friend, the New York Whig (and later Republican) William Henry Seward, despaired in the early 1840's that ''my principles are too liberal, too philanthropic, if it not be vain to say so, for my party.'' Modern conservatives cope with similar fault lines, including divisions between the old Confederate states and the old Union states, which have placed many ''moderate'' Northern Republicans like Lincoln Chaffee and Christine Todd Whitman at odds with the party's hard-line directorship.

And yet modern conservatism has outlived every expectation of its demise. Even today, unsettled by hurricanes, scandals and an increasingly unpopular war, the G.O.P. nonetheless stands for conservative principles and speaks a political language readily understood by voters. Those principles and that language are venerable and, as proclaimed by today's Republicans, more compelling than the confused and uncertain message coming from their opponents. As inadequate, or worse, as the G.O.P.'s privatizing policies may appear, the conservatives' often misunderstood connection to the American past may yet carry them successfully into the future.