Why did the Whig Party collapse?

by on February 28, 2016 at 1:48 am in Books, Current Affairs, History, Law, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

The Whigs were also badly hurt by the short-lived Native American or Know-Nothing party, which was primarily anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic.

That is just part of the answer of course. Here is another account, again too simplistic:

  • For a brief time, many Americans supported the nativist Know-Nothing Party, concerned that the Know-Nothings might represent the only truly national party possible, largely united by a general fear of Catholic immigrants.
  • But in the end, the issue over slavery proved stronger than fears over non-protestant immigrants, and southerners lined up behind the Democratic party and northerners behind the Republican party.
  • Sectional party systems replaced a national party.

This seems to be the definitive detailed account.  Try this book too.  Most of the time, however, parties do not collapse but rather party members fall in line, fearing the costs of the alternatives, including the costs to their careers.

Here is my previous post Why did the Federalist Party collapse?

1 Ray Lopez February 28, 2016 at 1:58 am

Perhaps the same reason the moderate “Catholic Party” collapsed in pre-Hitler Germany: the rise of extremes makes one take sides and avoid the center. I often wonder how many Germans supported Hitler because they feared the Communists even more.

2 Chris February 29, 2016 at 12:23 pm

Bad example, as the Centre Party did not collapse. It still obtained the same popular vote (12-14%) and Reichstag members (60-70) throughout the Weimar Republic including the Depression years. In November 1932, the Centre still got almost 12% of the vote and 70 Reichstag members. Better examples would be the German People’s Party and German Democratic Party who used to collectively get 15-20% of the vote earlier, but in 1932 were under 2%.

3 Bob February 28, 2016 at 3:17 am

1. Ray Lopez the Catholic Center party didn’t collapse in Nazi Germany. It kept it’s 11% and only disbanded after it was clearly not needed for parlimentary majority and thus would have been targeted for purges by Nazis.

2. Tyler, why no books by Michael Holt?

4 Ray Lopez February 28, 2016 at 9:13 am

@Bob – your interpretation of the Catholic Center party belies Wikipedia, which is closer to mine. Note the Catholic party itself was divided (that is, it was trying to pick whether or not to support the extremists like Hitler, which it ultimately did).


Still the Centre Party campaigned hard against the Hitler administration and managed to preserve their former vote of roughly 11%. The government parties NSDAP and DNVP however jointly won 52% of the vote.

This result shattered the Centre Party’s hopes of being indispensable for obtaining a majority in parliament. The party was now faced with two alternatives – either to persist in protesting and suffer reprisals like Communists and Social Democrats, or to declare their loyal cooperation, in order to protect their members. As shown by subsequent events, the party, though deeply uncomfortable with the new government, opted for the latter alternative

The Centre Party, whose vote was going to be decisive, was split on the issue of the Enabling Act. Chairman Kaas advocated supporting the bill in parliament in return for government guarantees. These mainly included respecting the President’s Office retaining veto power, religious liberty, its involvement in culture, schools and education, the concordats signed by German states and the existence of the Centre Party. Via Papen, Hitler responded positively and personally addressed the issues in his Reichstag speech but he repeatedly put off signing a written letter of agreement.

Kaas was aware of the doubtful nature of such guarantees but when the Centre Party assembled on 23 March to decide on their vote, Kaas advised his fellow party members to support the bill, given the “precarious state of the party”. He described his reasons as follows: “On the one hand we must preserve our soul, but on the other hand a rejection of the Enabling Act would result in unpleasant consequences for faction and party. What is left is only to guard us against the worst. Were a two-thirds majority not obtained, the government’s plans would be carried through by other means. The President has acquiesced in the Enabling Act. From the DNVP no attempt of relieving the situation is to be expected.”

A considerable number of parliamentarians opposed the chairman’s course, among these former Chancellors Heinrich Brüning, Joseph Wirth and former minister Adam Stegerwald. Brüning called the Act the “most monstrous resolution ever demanded of a parliament” and was sceptical about Kaas’ efforts: “The party has difficult years ahead, no matter how it would decide. Sureties for the government fulfilling its promises have not been given. Without a doubt, the future of the Centre Party is in danger and once it is destroyed it cannot be revived again.”

5 Steve Sailer February 28, 2016 at 4:01 am

A bigger question is why no major American party has collapsed since the Whigs. Earlier, the Federalists collapsed after their Hartford Convention of late 1814-early 1815 was shamed by news of Andy Jackson’s victory at New Orleans. So it was common for parties to collapse and then get restructured under a new name.

But then parties stopped collapsing. The really weird survival is that the Democrats survived the Civil War.

In contrast, across the border in Canada, parties come and go.

6 dearieme February 28, 2016 at 7:14 am

“The really weird survival is that the Democrats survived the Civil War.” It also seems weird that they morphed from the party of lynching and segregation to the party that gets the black vote.

7 The Other Jim February 28, 2016 at 9:38 am

>It also seems weird that they morphed from the party of lynching and segregation to the party that gets the black vote.

Having a long-term monopoly of the national news media will confer certain advantages to your political party. Erasure of inconvenient history is right up there. Slavery, segregation, Japanese internment — you just won’t find a whole lot of people who know these were planks of the Democrat platform.

All the more reason Fox News must be destroyed.

8 prior_test1 February 28, 2016 at 10:31 am

‘Slavery, segregation, Japanese internment — you just won’t find a whole lot of people who know these were planks of the Democrat platform.’

Well, apart from Americans older than 50 who knew anything about the political shifts that occurred in the 60s and 70s. But then, Americans of that age can also remember when it was establishment Republicans that easily mocked the quaint sort of religious beliefs often found in the south among ignorant Democratic voters.

9 Art Deco February 28, 2016 at 10:42 am

But then, Americans of that age can also remember when it was establishment Republicans that easily mocked the quaint sort of religious beliefs often found in the south among ignorant Democratic voters

We can? Care to come up with a quotation from Henry Cabot Lodge slamming Catholics or evangelicals?

10 Derek February 28, 2016 at 7:40 am

It depends how able the party structure is able to represent the various factions within the coalition. There is a natural division; conservative, socialist/progressive/communist, soft middle social democrat. It can be broken up a little bit more, and proportional representation systems end up with all the divisions represented in multiple parties.

The parliamentary systems don’t have a separate executive, it is the result of having more seats than the rest. Vote discipline is required; a government falls if it can’t get it’s legislation passed. There is no room within the party for dissent. So the inevitable dissent ends up being represented by spin off parties.

In the US houses there are whipped votes but government doesn’t fall if legislation fails to pass. Various factions thrive within the party system and have power akin to the small minority parties in PR systems that must be satisfied to get legislation passed.

What will threaten the two party structure in the US is the inability to buy off factions due to fiscal restraint. That put an end to the Progressive Conservatives in 1988, and the Liberal coalition fell apart later. Liberals came back with the national desire and ability to borrow and spend.

What is happening in the US is a large constituency is at play; they don’t fit in the orthodoxies of either party and generally don’t matter because they usually don’t participate. They don’t fit the grievance based coalition of the Democrats or the manicured Conservatism of the Republicans.

May we live in interesting times.

11 Gale February 28, 2016 at 11:54 am

The dominant U.S. 2-Party political system is a direct consequence of the unjust winner take all + plurality-wins structure of U.S. elections.

There are no U.S. “national” elections. All elections are at state or local level,
including U.S. President via Electoral College. In 1789, the Federal Government was to be a limited cooperative function of sovereign state governments directly representing state citizens. But State and local governments abdicated their responsibility to fairly oversee the actual American election process. They turned the job over to political parties and brazenly funnel huge sums of taxpayer money to establishment party campaigns, primary elections and party conventions.

Private political parties control the American government offstage. Differences among Republican/Democrat officeholders are minor in overall practice. There are no significant political differences among the current major 2016 Presidential candidates; status quo will reliably triumph in November, though most citizens are unhappy with it and strongly leaning “independent”. Private political parties are fine, but their official direct nexus to daily government power is not.

Government sponsored primaries should be eliminated. Private political organizations should choose their candidates any way they want (dartboard?).

12 Nathan W February 28, 2016 at 11:16 pm

I’m curious what sort of propaganda would be launched were there to be a credible movement to reduce the winner-takes-all aspects of American elections or to introduce some degree of proportional representation into the electoral mix.

Funny how Israel is lauded as a model democracy, until the question of proportional representation comes up, at which point in time many of the very same people start to blame proportional representation for Israel’s ills.

I can hardly fathom how America can break free of the 2-party stranglehold on power. Having observed corruption in the one, or that the party is merely less bad that the other for one’s personal views, there is only the option of supporting the other party. A new party would be essentially devoid of resources and capacity, and in a winner-takes-all system would have to invest massively for many many years to earn so much as a single seat in Congress. It is not conducive to the existing party establishments being forced to do a whole lot better.

13 Kris February 28, 2016 at 4:11 am

Similar reasons to why the Liberal Party collapsed in the UK post WW1. After universal franchise produced a true left-wing alternative to the Tories in the form of the Labour Party, there was no need for a pro-war, pro-imperialist, center left party in the country.

Both the US Whigs and the UK Liberals collapsed under the weight of their internal contradictions. The factors unifying their adherents (anti-mass democracy, federal bank, role of government in internal improvements, etc. for the former, and a broad liberal imperialist agenda for the latter) ceased to matter and others issues took center stage.

14 education realist February 28, 2016 at 7:03 am

“Earlier, the Federalists collapsed after their Hartford Convention of late 1814-early 1815 was shamed by news of Andy Jackson’s victory at New Orleans.”

Well, they were largely over by that point anyway, as I mentioned in the earlier thread. Jefferson coopted much of their platform.

But really, the only time parties collapsed and reformed were around slavery. The federalists died out because they couldn’t really compete with the 3/5ths thumb on the scale, and the Whigs died in large part because they were fatally compromised by slavery. Their party was torn between realpolitik sorts who desperately wanted to keep the party together, and abolitionists who considered slavery a dealbreaker. The Republican party was basically reborn out of ex-Whigs.

Once the Civil War ended, we’ve had the same parties. So arguably it was the tensions from slavery and sectionalism that led to parties cracking up.

Now that I think on it. the sectionalist era had many of the most impactful third parties–Free Soil, Liberty, and the aforementioned Know-Nothings. The Liberty Party arguably kept poor Henry Clay from his fourth shot at the presidency, and the Free Soil party probably aided in Scott’s election.

15 Art Deco February 28, 2016 at 7:56 am

Well, they were largely over by that point anyway,

Federalist Parties had blocs in state legislatures as late as 1828.,

The federalists died out because they couldn’t really compete with the 3/5ths thumb on the scale

That would have diminished their performance in federal elections. They imploded at lower levels as well.

16 Peldrigal February 28, 2016 at 7:57 am

Modern parties have a much more structured and heavy infrastructure, so their collapse is usually not a history of disbanding and reforming, but of conquest from the inside by actors that were marginal.
The modern Republica Party has almost nothing in common with the historical Republican Party, and Democrats are very different if you compare them before and after the Civil Rights movement.

17 Art Deco February 28, 2016 at 8:01 am

Why did the Whig Party collapse?

Because the issues which differentiated them from the Democrats were no longer salient and they could not craft a common position on slavery. The Free Soil wing founded the Republican Party and the rump reconstituted itself as the Constitutional Union, which evaporated when its platform was superceded by events.

18 Lee A. Arnold February 28, 2016 at 8:24 am

Tyler, thanks for this. Required reading.

19 celestus February 28, 2016 at 9:20 am

If I take the meaning of these posts correctly, it would be equally instructive (or possibly more instructive) to examine why various party realignments took place.

20 Nathan W February 28, 2016 at 11:23 pm

This is something I’ve long been interested in, but lack even sufficient basis of knowledge to use the right words for a Google search on it.

21 PD Shaw February 28, 2016 at 9:58 am

Holt’s argument (he of the “definitive detailed account”) is that the Whig Party never moved far from its origins as a catch-all party opposed to Jackson. Initially, the tent was large and divided, but coalesced to get Harrison elected, and after the disappointment of his early death and succession of someone opposed to Congressional Whigs, coalesced again around Henry Clay and his agenda, but lost a heartbreaking election to uber-Jacksonian Polk.

Recriminations and self-questioning in the fallout, the downward slide was marked by inner-party conflicts that sapped a national identity and a return to a heterogenous Whig identity that varied by location and personality. At the same time, Democrats became more pro-business, which reduced the saliency of the Clay economic plan. More importantly, the Democratic Party was splitting from the Free-Soil movement in the North. Taylor and Whigs were some how able to win elections when the slavery issue came to the fore.

The death blow was the Compromise of 1850. By adopting positions most congenial to Northern Democrats and their efforts to seal the breach, Fillmore handed-away the one issue that arguably put him into the position to sign the law. The 1852 elections were a disaster.

22 Josh February 28, 2016 at 11:16 am

If you are taking an interest in the history of political parties, I recommend the study by m. Ostrogorsky; political parties: a study in extra constitutional government (or something like that). Written at a time when historians were at least a bit more honest and brave (it’s not polemical, despite the title, but it is honest).

23 jorod February 28, 2016 at 9:25 pm

The Federalist Party collapsed because Jefferson convinced people they (the Federalists) were monarchists. He was the first lying, thieving democrat.

24 Chris February 29, 2016 at 12:33 pm

The Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans represented the same kind of policies. They were all vehicles for Hamiltonian-style national development. The reason the Whigs collapsed is that northern Whigs could no longer ignore the slavery issue to keep southern Whigs on board. Northern domestic pressure meant the northern Whigs had to adopt more anti-slavery positions which the southern Whigs could not tolerate and remain competitive in the south. So the party disappeared only for the northern Whigs to come back as the Republicans, and the southern Whigs to go through several incarnations in the 1850s before the Civil War ended the debate.

25 David Tenner March 1, 2016 at 6:27 pm

Michael Holt blames the rise of the Australian ballot for the failure of any major party to collapse since the 1850’s. As I once posted in soc.history.what-if:

Michael F. Holt in *The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party* notes
that some Whigs attempted to keep their spirits up after their party’s
1852 defeat by saying that the victorious Democrats were bound to make
some terrible mistake. As he notes, they were right about that–they were
wrong only in thinking that Democratic mistakes and disunity would
automatically benefit *them.* As Holt writes (pp. 772-3):

“During the twentieth century, American electoral politics has always been
organized around the same two major parties–Republicans and Democrats–in
large part because the adoption of state-printed ballots in the 1890s
measurably increased the difficulty of launching a third party to
challenge them. Since those major parties had an automatic slot on the
ballots and since the legal hurdles for other parties to get on those
ballots were so high, Republicans and Democrats effectively monopolized
voters’ choice. During this century, therefore, the Republican party has
been the only realistic alternative to the Democrats. Thus it, and not
some other party, has usually benefited when voters sought to punish
Democrats and to replace them in office.

“In the 1850s and for most of the nineteenth century, however, the rules
of the political game encouraged rather than inhibited the creation of new
parties. Instead of state-printed ballots that gave legally recognized
major parties pride of place and disadvantaged other groups who sought to
be listed on them, political parties distributed and printed their own
ballots. As a result, it was far easier for new parties to challenge the
old ones. As Whigs would learn to their dismay, therefore, politics in
the 1850s was not a zero-sum game…Unlike their twentieth-century
Republican successors, in sum, Whigs could not monopolize opposition to
Democrats and that simple, if easily overlooked, fact more than anything
else explains the death of the Whig party.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: