The World According to Whigs

No less than five different U.S. presidents held office during the 1840s. Plagued by short tenures and perceived ineffectuality, none of the five have left a large imprint on American popular memory. It also does not help that the period was sandwiched between two eras when executive power was arguably at its strongest – the Jackson and Lincoln administrations.

Three of these “forgotten” presidents – William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Zachary Taylor – were members of the now-defunct Whig Party. Because the Whigs were divided by the question of slavery’s expansion into the territories, the party fractured and died out before the onset of the Civil War. Whiggery has become synonymous with obscurity. However, the creative mechanisms that the party used to deal with its own disillusionments during the 1840s serve as a reminder of the once-great magnetism of its ideology. One example of these mechanisms can be found in a column of a single day’s newspaper.

A engraving of Henry Clay by John Chester Buttre.

A engraving of Henry Clay by John Chester Buttre.

The Carroll Free Press, founded in 1832 in Carrollton, Ohio, was a vehicle for Whig interests, publishing editorials, speeches, and even creative writing in support of the party. In the presidential election of 1844, the paper supported the candidacy of dynamic Whig leader Henry Clay. Clay, who had run two previous times without success, was finally poised for victory; popular expectations were that he would “carry all the four Great States of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio.” However, the Whigs were wholly unprepared for the “calamitous” result that ensued. Winning only Ohio out of the four “Great States,” Clay was defeated by Democrat James K. Polk by only 38,000 votes.

Henry Clay is remembered far beyond the shortcomings of his party. Today, he is sometimes regarded as one of the best Senators in U.S. history, a “Great Compromiser” who helped delay southern secession with the Compromise of 1850. But to Whigs living in 1844, Clay’s defeat was apocalyptic, “the greatest blow to elective government that was ever given.” Overwhelming disillusionment forced them, in the words of political historian Michael F. Holt, “to reassess the purpose, principles, and the viability of their party.” Whigs newspapers like the Carroll Free Press shared in these calls for recalculations and reassessments. If the party could not win under a candidate such as Clay, Whigs asked, could it ever win again?

On February 28, 1845, just weeks after the sting of Polk’s inauguration, the Press printed an international news column titled “Foreign Extracts Received by the Roscius.” The Roscius was a “packet ship,” a type of vessel used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to carry mail, passengers, and other freight between North America and Europe. Due to the relative infrequency of these trips, updates from across the Atlantic would have been a treat for the average American. Items about Great Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey are included in the column.

An illustration of a packet ship close in approximation to the Roscius.

An illustration of a packet ship close in approximation to the Roscius.

Each of the items under “Foreign Extracts” might come across as frustratingly brusque for modern readers, whose mid-nineteenth-century counterparts simply did not have the luxury of receiving better quality news.  Statements of facts must be taken with a grain of salt. For example, one of the first items states that “the Duke of Normandy, heir to the throne of France, has narrowly escaped assassination in England.” Unassuming Ohioans who read the sentence were lead to believe that such a person as the Duke of Normandy existed. In reality, he was almost certainly an imposter, modeled off of the popular European legend of the “Lost Dauphin.”

Provisional stamps issued by the St. Louis Post office in 1845-46 to facilitate prepayment of postal fees

Provisional stamps issued by the St. Louis Post office in 1845-46 to facilitate prepayment of postal fees

More importantly, the Press skewed its own analysis of events abroad to validate Whig ideology. With an identity crisis at hand, editors tried to show triumphant Whig policies functioning on a global scale. The Whig platform of 1844 had advocated for a “well-regulated and wise economy,” opposed to territorial expansion but dedicated to internal improvements. In 1845, Whigs strongly supported American postal reform, such as improving routes and preventing mail fraud. In line with this, the paper gushed that “the postage reform in Russia is producing the very best results.”

Whigs also believed that all economic interests, no matter how different, were interconnected. Manufacturing and industrialization, for example, could not by nature harm agriculture and commence. Thus, editors could not resist commenting at length on the balance between industry and agriculture in Great Britain’s economy, while at the same time carefully navigating the state of Anglo-American tensions that existed during the time. One one hand, the paper laments how “the wages of agricultural laborers in the neighborhood of Chippenham have recently been reduced to 7s. per week.” One the other, it praises how the steamship Great Britain broke a speed record, a reflection of the power of technological progress.

Perhaps the most egregious sign of political slant in the foreign reports is an item concerning the actions of Jesuits in Paris:

The Paris Constitutionnel intimates that the Jesuits wrote anonymous letters of the most fearful character to M. Villemain, late Minister of Public Instruction, because he refused to favor their plans for obtaining control of the schools. These letters resulted in driving him crazy, and now the Jesuits say his loss of reason is a judgment from Heaven for refusing to favor their measure.

In the early 1840s, Americans increasingly feared the political influence of foreigners and Catholics—one need only be reminded of the Know-Nothing Party that would come to prominence a decade later. In particular, a riot of Catholic immigrant workers that occurred after a Whig convention in Baltimore in May of 1844 fueled disgust. Other events caused anti-Catholic backlash amongst the Whigs, including charges that Catholic clergy in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania had pledged to infiltrate and destroy public schools “by hook and crook.” The French Jesuit controversy is put on display to echo the situation concerning American Catholics, again as if to help legitimize and validate the Whig platform.

The “Foreign Extracts Received by the Roscius” are not only more “American” than foreign, they are more “Whig” than American. By examining how this Whig newspaper chose to reflect events abroad, historians can learn much more about the Whig party’s own struggles than actual facts. The Whigs who managed the Carroll Free Press needed a mouthpiece to vent their frustrations about the party’s decline in power, and used all aspects of the paper, not just its political articles, to achieve this goal. The result was a series of trim headlines that provide a fascinating look into common fears, dreams, and biases that help penetrate the veil of obscurity that marks this period of American history.

A screenshot of the column. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

A screenshot of the column. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

Sources

Carroll free press. (Carrollton, [Ohio]), 28 Feb. 1845. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83035366/1845-02-28/ed-1/seq-2/>

Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

“SHIP WRECKS.; Loss of the Packet Ship Roscius Rescue of her Officers and Crew Their Arrival at this Port,” New York Times, September 1, 1860.

Ohio History Connection and the State Library of Ohio, “Carroll Free Press,” About section, http://www.ohiomemory.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16007coll31

Charles James Fèret, Fulham Old and New: Being an Exhaustive History of the Ancient Parish of Fulham, (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1900): 240.

The Whig Almanac and Politicians’ Register for 1844, New York: Greeley & McElrath, 1844.

http://millercenter.org/president/jqadams/essays/cabinet/166

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One thought on “The World According to Whigs

  1. Pingback: This Week’s New York History Web Highlights | The New York History Blog

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