Holiday Book Recommendations: The Whigs

American politics and government was largely shaped by the polarizing Jackson era. The Democrats became a party shaped by Andrew Jackson’s personality and his supporters (Similar to today’s Republicans with Donald Trump) while Jackson’s foremost opponent, Henry Clay became a member of a new party called the Whigs which basically was a bunch of people tied together by one principle – opposition to Andrew Jackson (which is what I worry today’s Democrats are becoming with opposition to Trumpism).

Even with Joe Biden in office, it seems many Democrats like Terry McAuliffe in his recent failed campaign for Virginia Governor see opposition to Trump as the key messaging point of any campaign or fundraising effort.

If you want a quick read on the era and the anti-Jackson leaders, H.W. Brands, Heirs of the Founders: Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants is a good read.

Brands’ is one of the preeminent historians of American history that is active today. The subjects he’s tacked previously include Ben Franklin, FDR, the state of Texas and Ulysses S. Grant. In this new work, he tackles a formative era in the nation’s history, the era from The War of 1812 until the ill-fated Compromise of 1850.

The key figures of this book are predictably Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. The era’s politics were defined by Andrew Jackson more than anyone though Clay as history reminds us was the leading Anti-Jackson figure in the country for most of this period.

Clay’s “American system” of infrastructure improvements depended on a robust Federal government and unionism. That world view often butted heads with Calhoun’s defense of southern regionalism, nullification and slavery as well as Webster’s New England-oriented perspective. All three however had a dislike for the politics and policies of Jackson, but Clay more than anyone save perhaps John Quincy Adams was Jackson’s great rival.

The narrative is laid out in a readable and quick form by Brands – the book is about 400 pages in length but proves a page turner. For me, it is now an indispensable reference book about that period.

Florida obviously plays a fairly large role in the narrative, first because of Jackson’s incursions of the late 1810’s which eventually soured his relationship with Calhoun and also because of the effort of some abolitionists to make Florida a “free” state or territory in the 1840’s.

As one who has a particular interest in Clay because of his advocacy of the American System and Second Bank of the United States among other topics, it was interesting to see the contrast/competition with Webster and Calhoun whom Clay is forever linked in history to as well as the well-known contrasts with Jackson.

For any student of American history this is a highly recommended purchase.

For those who seek a longer read on the Jacksonian era and how the Whig Party formed, governed and then broke apart over slavery before the Civil War, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War is a fantastic read. Written in 1999 it’s a long book, almost 1,000 pages. But it is worth it if you have the time or desire.

One comment

  1. Brands is excellent. Really enjoyed American Colossus.


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