The Whigs' last stand

April 09, 1991|By Peter Kumpa CO : On Maryland History

WHIGS were on the march. Whigs were riding in on horseback. Whigs were hauled in by ox carts. They sported Harrison badges and buttons, sold their Harrison almanacs and waved buckeye canes and huge kerchiefs. Barrels of hard cider refreshed the revelers.

Baltimore was awash with Whigs. Their cries of "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!" clashed with band music and the cheers of the people. Newspapers estimated the crowd on May 2, 1840, welcoming the national convention of Whig Young Men, at 100,000, equal to the population of the city. Baltimore had never seen such a mob.

But Whigs? What sort of creatures were these? A decade earlier, no one had heard of Whigs.

In the center of the swarming Whigs was John Pendleton Kennedy, lawyer, novelist, politician and the founder of Baltimore Whiggery. He had happily voted for Andrew Jackson for president in 1828. He had expected the general and wealthy cotton planter to be a conservative, a nationalist and an expansionist. An 1830 Jackson veto of Kentucky turnpike improvements alarmed Kennedy. When Jackson declared war on the United States Bank, Kennedy leaped into opposition.

On April 23, 1834, at a mass rally at Monument Square on Calvert Street, Kennedy called for the formation of a Maryland Whig Society. With some 10,000 cheering him on, he declared that "the great and glorious Whig principles that worked out the Revolution and gave political liberty and independence to this land are awake again."

The name Whig was the short form of Whiggamore, a Scottish band that marched to Edinburgh in 1648 to oppose the court party. The Whigs emerged as the party aimed at limiting royal authority and increasing parliamentary power in Britain.

Now Kennedy in Baltimore and others all over the country were forming into local groups to oppose what they considered was another tyrant, Jackson, whom they called "King Andrew the First." The new party was put together from disparate and conservative elements. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were its idols.

Whigs were the party of property and business. Kennedy supported a central bank, a protective tariff, internal improvements funded by the federal government, as well as distribution to the states of proceeds from Western land sales. Running as a Whig, Kennedy lost a 1937 congressional race but won a special contest a year later.

As a political party, the Whigs proved to be a transitory phenomenon. Though they could brag of notable national figures, they repeatedly embraced popular generals for presidential candidates. In their first election, 1836, they tried three White House candidates, Gen. William Henry Harrison, Hugh L. White and Daniel Webster, each running in different regions. The idea was to win enough electoral college votes to combine them for one candidate, or else throw the election into the House of Representatives. It didn't work.

With Harrison leading their ticket, they did capture the White House in 1840. And it was a Baltimore editor, James H. Cox of the Republican, who inadvertently supplied the Whigs with their magic slogan. The editor had sneeringly suggested that Harrison, an ancient warrior known only for his 1811 victory over the Indians at Tippecanoe, would be better off staying with his log cabin and barrel of hard cider.

Harrison died only a month into office. John Tyler of Virginia, placed on the ticket to lure Southerners, proved to be a Whig killer. He vetoed the core of the Whigs' program, tariff protection and a central bank. The Whig cabinet resigned. A "Whig Manifesto" written by Kennedy read Tyler out of the party. Kennedy wept as he wrote that the affair showed "a history of baseness, falsehood, privation and hypocrisy on the part of Tyler unmatched in history."

The upset of Henry Clay in the 1844 White House race was another disaster. Kennedy, for his part, failed to win a U.S. Senate seat. The pro-slavery advocates in the Maryland legislature hooted him down.

In 1848, another military hero, Gen. Zachary Taylor led the Whigs to their second and last presidential victory. He, too, died in office. Millard Fillmore succeeded but somehow did not appoint Kennedy, his old friend, to any post until 1852 when he made him secretary of the Navy.

With the end of the Fillmore administration, the Whigs went into decline. Their presidential candidate in 1852, Gen. Winfield Scott, was trounced. The final convention was in Baltimore in tTC 1856. The last platform was weak, as usual. The candidate, Fillmore, carried one state -- Maryland.

Without a party, Kennedy trying more grand tours of Europe. Back home, he took a dislike to the new and wealthy upper crust of Baltimore. "Bores," he called them, men unfamiliar with literature and good taste. Kennedy wrote appeals to keep the union together, broke with his Virginia cousins over the impending war. His last appearance publicly was to defend the Republican party and the new industrial society. But he was too old and too tired for any active role and faded away as quietly as did the Whigs.

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