Why I’m a Whig

I am a Whig, perhaps the last member, after Jack Benny’s death, of the American Whig party that existed until the late 1850’s. A party of also-rans, a party that never got its real leaders elected president.

As much as I can relate to the Whigs’ political failures, I am a Whig mostly because I wish I could have been a Federalist. “Then why not say you are a Federalist, and be done with it?” I hear a reader ask rhetorically. “The Whigs are no less defunct.”

Yes, but the distinction lies with their respective projects. The Federalists built something, and they wanted to build more. Most Whigs just wanted to return to something the Federalists started. I have the latter political instinct – the instinct to look back and to recover. That’s the main reason I relate to and revere the Whig Lincoln more than the Federalist Washington.

“Then why not say you are a Democrat or a Republican?” you might ask. “One can see Federalist influences in both parties.” But I see mostly nineteenth century Democratic-Republican leanings in both of our current major parties. Today’s Democrat vs. Republican isn’t Hamilton vs. Jefferson, you know. It’s kind of Jackson vs. Calhoun, an intra-party squabble. The views of today’s dominant American political parties are mostly derived from what Madison in Federalist No. 10 called “interest.” But their ideologies – to the extent they have consistent ideologies – are similar; in fact, they complement each other. The Democrats’ historicism, which dominates the social science curricula in many undergraduate programs today, prepares us for the Republicans’ law-school positivism. At least with regard to the parties’ ideologies, I agree with George Wallace’s assessment: “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats.”

So to explain why I’m a Whig, I must first explain why I wish I were a Federalist. My first fourteen reasons do that, and my remaining reasons explain why I like the Whigs without regard to the Federalists, too.


Most Federalists opposed the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution. They did so neither because they didn’t recognize the rights (they did), nor because they were afraid that any enumeration of rights would limit rights to those recognized (though they were (afraid of just that)). Most Federalists opposed the adoption of a bill of rights principally because they believed that people would eventually come to see a bill of rights as the source of their rights.


It’s not the Federalists’ fault. It’s all the Federalists’ fault.


The Federalists were bumbling politicians, as a whole. They overplayed their hand following the XYZ Affair with the thirty-five bumbling arrests under the Alien and Sedition Acts. They were, therefore, the first party to nationally snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I can relate.

The High Federalists lived in a shrinking sectional echo chamber. They made life miserable for the moderate Federalists living south of New York. I get that, too.


When I was growing up in Tidewater, Virginia, the whole state shared the same telephone area code – 703. Now my county alone has three area codes. Mine is 703.


The theme of the introductory Federalist essay reminds me of the theme of the Gettysburg Address:

. . it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government by reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

I think Madison, Hamilton, and Lincoln were the big names who were the most consumed with the central problem of our democracy, then and now: the capacity of a people to govern themselves. (Madison was a Republican, of course, but he was a Federalist when it counted most – when Hamilton adroitly applied the term to describe those in favor of the 1787 convention’s proposed constitution.)


Adams was as disheveled as Jefferson, but he had no instinct for PR. There’s an innocence about Adams that makes Jefferson look even more like a crocodile.


John Marshall.


Marshall gets two numbers. He’s one of those “but for” guys: but for Marshall, we might not have ratified our Constitution, and we might not have avoided war with France. He fought with great distinction under Washington and Daniel Morgan, but his father, Thomas Marshall, gets the earliest “but for”: but for his slowing Cornwallis at Brandywine, we most likely would not have won the Revolutionary War (Jean Edward Smith’s John Marshall: Definer of a Nation).

John Marshall, George Washington, and a few others gave Federalism a share in Virginia’s past, for which, as a Virginian, I’m grateful. Marshall was elected to Virginia’s ratifying convention and to Congress from a heavily Anti-Federalist district in Richmond because the people there liked him and cared more about his character than his views. I like that, too.

Marshall turned the Supreme Court from a national joke into a respected branch of government. In the process, he defined the Constitution’s relationship to law and society. Smith writes:

. . . the Marshall court established the ground rules of American government. The Constitution reflected the will of the people, not the states, said Marshall, and the people made it supreme. That Federalist concept provided the basis for the constitutional decisions of the Marshall era. It was bitterly contested at the time; in many respects it lay at the root of the Civil War.

(As John C. Calhoun did years later, Patrick Henry and other Anti-Federalists disliked the Constitution’s “We the people” preamble, preferring “We the states” instead. Even as early as 1788, nationalism was seen as a threat to states’ rights, and states’ rights was linked to slavery. Henry’s frequent refrain against the Constitution during the ratification debate was, “They’ll free your niggers.”)

Marshall took over a Federalist bench when he was appointed Chief Justice at the end of the twelve years of Federalist administrations. Twenty-four years of Republican rule later, it was still a Federalist bench, thanks to Marshall’s leadership skills, his legal acumen, and his insistence that the justices share living quarters during term. And all but a relative handful of the court’s opinions under Marshall’s long stewardship were unanimous. Imagine anything close to that today!

Marshall loved Jane Austin’s novels. I mean, he was the whole package.


Okay, three numbers. As Hadley Arkes points out in Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law (Cambridge 2010), Marshall sometimes went out of his way to base his Supreme Court opinions on natural law principles instead of on specific constitutional language. In other words, Marshall was no legal positivist. (A legal positivist believes only in the law posited by a sovereign.)

Marshall seemed to believe what most of the Founders seemed to have taken for granted:

If there is no natural law, there are no natural rights; and if there are no natural rights, the Bill of Rights is a delusion, and everything which a man possesses – his life, his liberty and his property – are held by sufferance of government, and in that case it is inevitable that government will some day find it expedient to take away what is held by a title such as that.

(From Harold R. McKinnon’s book, The Higher Law, 1946.)


Jefferson, not Nixon, pioneered the Southern Strategy:

. . . the prominence of slaveholders among the Jeffersonian critics of Federalism is more than an irony: slaveholding was, in fact, central to the preservation, not just of a racial hegemony, but of a ruling class among whites in the South after the Revolution, and that ruling class preserved itself in the face of revolutionary egalitarianism only by pretending that slavery had, in fact, created a kind of white egalitarianism. By equating the slaveholder and the rural farmer as “agriculturalists” and allying them together in a white racial alliance which ensured that enslaved blacks could never become the “equals” of whites, Jeffersonians like Randolph, Taylor, and Jefferson himself ensured the support of white farmers, who cared far more about keeping blacks in bondage than about leveling white elites. They looked, in other words, to slavery to preserve gentility; and then insisted that the presence of blacks made all white men, ipso facto, into gentlemanly equals. Hence, in the 1790s, rural farmers in Virginia and Pennsylvania found themselves lining up behind a slave-holder in order to oppose merchant “aristocrats”; and in the 1830s, Northern workers would oppose those same merchant “aristocrats” and pay the same price by following Andrew Jackson and acquiescing in Southern slavery.

(From Allen C. Guelzo’s article “Learning to Love the Federalists.”)


The Federalists believed in the political oversight of the market economy. Guelzo again: “[Jefferson] abandoned the Federalist goal of a strong mercantilist state and detached the economy from political oversight at just the moment in the great market revolution when that oversight might have done it some good.”


I don’t dislike Jefferson. Honest. While I spent my evenings sleeping in the library of the university he founded, Dumas Malone was two stories above me, almost blind by then, dictating the last of his six-volume biography of Jefferson. I joined my classmates in referring to “Mr. Jefferson” in hushed tones as if he were just out of earshot. You’ve got to visit Charlottesville and Monticello just to feel his presence.

Jefferson’s great enemy Hamilton paid him the highest and most accurate compliment, I think, describing him as “a man of sublimated and paradoxical imagination.” Anyway, I can’t figure the guy out, even after reading four and a half of Malone’s volumes.


The Federalists were the only actively anti-slavery party in America to hold power. (The 1850’s – 1860’s Republicans were anti-slavery, but in sentiment more than in policy. (I take Lincoln at his word on this.))


I’m a republican more than a democrat. (Small r, small d.) The threat of majority faction scares me more than the threat of aristocratic rule. Madison’s checks and balances have saved us more than either side in a given debate would ordinarily acknowledge.

The Anti-Federalists wanted a more democratic form of government, one that made the other branches more accountable to the legislative branch. They wanted more representatives per capita, they weren’t wild about bicameralism, and they wanted term limits.

But I agree with Madison in Federalist No. 10: direct democracy is not an ideal that the Constitution aspires to, or should. I prefer the Constitution’s representative democracy and its tensions between the branches to direct democracy for the reason Madison preferred them: direct democracy would lead to majority factions – permanent arrangements of majority oppression of minorities.


The last long stretch my political party has been in power was from 1789 until 1801. I don’t think the Federalists or Whigs or anything like them will ever be in power for longer than a term or two at a time. The reason comes down to this quote from Book 1 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

. . . What it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action[?] Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise.

I’m not up for Aristotle’s class-structured government, and Aristotle’s teleological understanding of happiness is a tough sell in a democracy dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But I agree with his teleological understanding of happiness, and I agree that, usually, “the many do not give the same account as the wise.” I think Lincoln agreed with both, too. In fact, I think he lived out this paradox. A democracy is blessed if its leaders, during a critical time such as our Civil War, demonstrate wisdom consistent with a high notion of what Jefferson called “societal happiness.”

In the late 1850’s, the Republican Party inherited the Whigs’ role of representing a kind of American aristocracy. The Whig Party’s notion of aristocratic duty was less class structured than Aristotle’s, and while it generally represented the country’s labor and mercantile interests, I think it sometimes rose to Aristotle’s and Jefferson’s notions of societal happiness.

Since Lincoln’s death, though, the Republican Party has frequently confused money for the wisdom Aristotle alludes to in my Nicomachean Ethics quote above. Americans themselves frequently confuse money and wisdom, which accounts for a lot of the Republicans’ success at the polls. The Preacher acknowledges the similarity but still insists on a distinction:

For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it. [Ecclesiastes 7:12]

So, for me, small r, not big R.


The old battles are the only battles worth fighting, the ones that never get won: Jefferson vs. Hamilton, Jackson vs. Clay, Douglas vs. Lincoln. You get clarity today only if you can see a political fight in those lights. If you can’t, you can pretty much bet the problem will take care of itself or hasn’t really begun to manifest itself. Today’s movements – even the Tea Party – will fade if they don’t line up on one side or the other of an old battle. In one sense, a big political problem we have today is that we don’t understand any of the old arguments, that we don’t see anything in terms of the old fights.


Something about the Whigs’ aversion to territorial expansion resonates with me, even though it contradicted Madison’s reasoning in the Federalist that the bigger the territory, the better the republic, and even though Hamilton was the original advocate of something like Manifest Destiny. Jefferson through the Louisiana Purchase must have co-opted for the antebellum Democrats the Federalist desire to rule the hemisphere, leaving Lincoln to demand on the House floor (to general derision) that President Polk mark the exact spot where Polk had claimed American blood was spilt in his justification of the Mexican War.


President Webster. President Clay. You gotta believe.


I like to think I would have supported the temperance movement, the abolition movement, and the suffrage movement, as Lincoln did. These movements were easy targets for Democrats, but many Whig politicians kept uneasy alliances with them. These movements were end runs around Jefferson’s separation of church and state, and their takeover of “the goals of secular rationalism” made Lincoln afraid that “extreme expectations of worldly perfection would engender extreme political solutions” (Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, at 244).

I suppose that, since the Founding generation, all successful national politicians have surfed some dangerous waves, and were I a nineteenth century politician, those might have been my waves of choice.


I believe in internal improvements. I also think we’re deliberately sabotaging passenger rail.  The Whigs wouldn’t have countenanced it.


Like many thoughtful Whigs, Lincoln found the best of Jefferson and made it his own. Under Lincoln, “all men are created equal” became the proposition that the nation was dedicated to.

I believe that, in reading the Constitution, one must distinguish between its compromises and its truths, and I believe that its truths are the truths of the Declaration of Independence. This view, enshrined in the Gettysburg Address, had been standard Whig doctrine for years, according to Guelzo in his Lincoln biography, Redeemer President. The Democrats back then didn’t subscribe to this view of the Constitution, and neither today’s “strict constructionism” nor its “living Constitution” is based on it.


Like Obama, I don’t get the Scotch-Irish, and they don’t get me.

My ancestry is largely British, and I grew up in Virginia’s Episcopal Church, which had a small following in my blue-collar, shipbuilding hometown. Bruton Parish Church in nearby Williamsburg wasn’t a tourist attraction for my family but a church – a religious touchstone, in fact.

“It is more than curious that all the greatest Whig names – e.g., Adams, Webster, Clay, Harrison and Tyler, Taylor and Fillmore, and Lincoln – were of predominantly English ancestry. . . . from Washington to Lincoln, the Federalist-Whig-Republican presidents are exclusively of English ancestry” (Jaffa, supra, 72 – 73).

But the Democrats were anything but British. “Jackson and Polk were both of Scotch-Irish descent, Van Buren Dutch, Buchanan Scotch, among the presidents. Even Jefferson traced his ancestors to Wales. Calhoun was of Scotch-Irish stock . . . Douglas, of course, bore one of the most famous of all Scottish names” (73).

The English betrayed the Federalist cause. They did it not so much by their belligerence leading up to the War of 1812 but by their persecution of the Scots and the Irish who moved to the American West largely as a result of it. Professor Wilfred E. Binkley believed that “The nucleus of Jacksonian democracy was an ethnic group, the Scotch-Irish stock. These were descendants of the unfortunates . . . harried from their Ulster homes and finding refuge in the American wilderness, where they nursed an undying hatred of their British persecutors.” Jackson lead them to victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 before they lead him to victory at the polls years later.

The Scotch-Irish resented the Whigs’ mixture of Northern mercantile interests and Northern evangelism. Today’s Scotch-Irish seem to support the Republican’s championing of big and small business, though, and they seem to have inherited, more than most other stock, the Whig’s mixture of evangelism and politics, though of a decidedly more politically conservative variety.

Jefferson and Jackson understood the Scotch-Irish, and the Scotch-Irish helped to make the Democrats the dominant political party for the decades before the Civil War.


I hate an organized party. (Oxymoron: party discipline.) The Democrats’ lock-step organization would spook the Whigs every time.


The most thoughtful Democrats read the Whig newspapers. Those papers were quite superior to the Democrats’ papers, I understand.


If you believe in the American Dream, you must consider the Whigs, which was the only party in history to have something close to a monopoly on it.  (The Democrats couldn’t do too much to support free labor: they were too tied to the “Slave Power.”)


Douglas and Lincoln both fought hard to keep the Union together, though each accused the other of hastening its division. Douglas’s impulse was to defuse the slavery issue by distracting America through territorial expansion and the export of republicanism (“Manifest Destiny”) and by making slavery the subject of territorial votes (“Popular Sovereignty”). I distrust expansion, particularly expansion tinged with evangelistic fervor, and popular sovereignty was a forfeiture of natural law to positivism.

Lincoln’s impulse was to face the slavery issue squarely, as he began to do in Peoria in 1854:

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it . . . If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.

I suppose Lincoln is my apotheosis of the inward-looking leader, the leader who, unlike Jimmy Carter, could call for a national, or at least a sectional, soul-searching and still win an election.

Lincoln’s Peoria speech was Whiggery at its best. Befitting the Whig party, though, Lincoln, and the rest of the party’s leaders, would be gone within four years. It’s been lonely around here ever since.

Posted January 15, 2011.