Whither the Whigs? Donald Trump, the Know-Nothings, and the Politics of the 1850s

Whither the Whigs? Donald Trump, the Know-Nothings, and the Politics of the 1850s

The historical curiosity of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Republican nomination has resulted in, among other things, a seeming endless litany of historical comparisons. As modern pundits, politicos, and historians have attempted to explain the success of Trump’s campaign, they have compared his candidacy to any number of historical precedents, ranging from Barry Goldwater and George Wallace in the 1960s, to Teddy Roosevelt and Huey Long, and, perhaps most frequently, Andrew Jackson.[1] Of course, Trump’s candidacy is also notable for the fractious impact it has had on the Republican Party, and that, too, has produced its own share of historical parallels. Predictions of a contested Republican nominating convention earlier this year, for example, invoked the stereotype of the supposedly corrupt party conventions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when wirepullers brokered nominations in smoke-filled back rooms. When that scenario failed to materialize, the divisive rhetoric of this summer’s Republican National Convention prompted several prominent historians and political scientists to rate it among the worst conventions ever, placing the 2016 RNC alongside such luminaries as the 1868 and 1968 Democratic National Conventions.[2] (As a side note, however, it was disappointing that the 1860 DNC failed to make that list, as it is difficult to imagine a less successful convention than one that adjourned without a nominee.)

Some historians have compared the 2016 Republican National Convention to the Democratic National Convention that met in New York City in July 1868. Harper’s Weekly, July 7, 1868. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

Earlier this month, political commentator Rachel Maddow and the host of MSNBC’s nightly The Rachel Maddow Show offered an extended piece exploring the similarities between the current state of the Republican Party and the collapse of the Whig Party and the so-called “Second Party System” of Whigs and Democrats during the decade of the 1850s.[3] To be sure, Maddow is by no means the first observer to compare the fortunes of today’s Republican Party with the fate of the Whigs. For that matter, neither is today’s political milieu the only historical moment when Americans have predicted the doom of a political party by hearkening back to the Whigs. Indeed, as the only major, national, political party in American history to disappear, over the years the Whigs have served, if nothing else, as political fodder for commentators to invoke any time a modern political party appears in a state of disarray.

Maddow’s piece is noteworthy, however, not only for her focus on the collapse of the Whigs and the Second Party System, but also her explicit, and at times even sophisticated, discussion of the link between the disintegration of the Whigs and the political nativism of the 1850s. That nativism produced the so-called Know-Nothing Party—an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic third party that experienced substantial electoral success in 1854 and 1855. In the editorial Maddow argues that, historically, the breakdown of America’s two-party system (in her words, “when normal politics collapses”) has allowed fringe voices to gain a mainstream audience, even if temporarily, thereby eclipsing “decent political discourse.” Thus, as Maddow tells it, in the context of the 1850s, the collapse of the Whigs created a political “wasteland,” which allowed the Know-Nothing Party to emerge and spread their nativistic message of intolerance, bigotry, and hatred. Maddow suggests that this provides a lesson for our contemporary election, as she claims a similar political message of intolerance, bigotry, and hatred has emerged, in part, “because the Republican Party was weak, and failing.”[4]

The so-called Know-Nothing Party produced virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric. Its supporters believed German and Irish immigrants were disrupting American democracy, as depicted in this ca. 1850s political cartoon, likely penned by political cartoonist John H. Goater. Original held at the New York Public Library. The author thanks Tyler Anbinder for providing the location of the original cartoon, and Jason Stacy for help in tracing the cartoon’s origins, particularly in identifying its hitherto unknown artist.
The so-called Know-Nothing Party produced virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric. Its supporters believed German and Irish immigrants were disrupting American democracy, as depicted in this ca. 1850s political cartoon, likely penned by political cartoonist John H. Goater. Original held at the New York Public Library. The author thanks Tyler Anbinder for providing the location of the original cartoon, and Jason Stacy for help in tracing the cartoon’s origins, particularly in identifying its hitherto unknown artist.

While there certainly exist eerie parallels between the politics of the 1850s and some of the developments of the 2016 presidential election, Maddow has it slightly backwards. The Know-Nothing Party did not emerge, as she claims, only after the Whig Party collapsed, but rather the other way around. As Michael F. Holt, author of the (1,248 page) book on the Whig Party (and in the interest of full disclosure, my dissertation advisor) has pointed out elsewhere, it was precisely the meteoric rise of the Know-Nothings that served, in part, to finish off the Whigs (rather than the collapse of the Whigs producing the rise of the Know-Nothings).[5] At the very same moment when nativism was emerging primarily in Northern cities as a grassroots social and political movement, some Whig leaders had been openly courting the support of immigrant voters—particularly Catholics who had traditionally voted Democratic. In response, native-born white voters registered their disgust by seeking political outlets outside of the two major parties. In sum, the emergence of political nativism helped destabilize the two-party system, rather than the breakdown of party politics giving rise to political nativism, as Maddow claims. I would argue that the same is true today: Donald Trump has not emerged because the Republican Party is weak and failing, but the other way around. Much like his Know-Nothing forbears, Trump’s success stems from a grassroots appeal. It is that appeal which has in turn created the perception that the Republican Party may be failing, thus drawing comparisons to the Whigs.

Moreover, while the politics of the 1850s provides an intriguing comparison to our current political moment, any serious discussion of the collapse of the Second Party System has to account for the role that slavery played, and on that point, there is simply no modern parallel. As the Whig Party crumbled between 1852 and 1856, Northern outrage at the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act fueled the subsequent rise of the Republican Party. It was only those developments, combined with the Know-Nothings, which led to the displacement of the Whigs. Maddow does briefly mention slavery at the outset of her editorial, though she brushes over the disappearance of the Know-Nothings, which also stemmed largely from the disagreement between its Northern and Southern wings over the issue of slavery extension.[6] In other words, Maddow is correct that there is a link between nativism and the disruption of politics in the 1850s (even as she slightly mischaracterizes that link), but the real story was slavery extension.

It is certainly possible that we are in the midst of some sort of extended political realignment, though I am not sure the 1850s and the death of the Whigs provides the best historical example for comparison. In the years immediately following the Civil War, political observers regularly offered predictions that both political parties would soon disappear, commenting repeatedly on “The Reorganization of Parties” and offering forecasts and explanations as to “Why the Republican Party is Breaking up” (there were plenty of similar predictions for the Democrats, as well).[7] One cannot overstate just how ubiquitous these predictions were. The assumption was that Republicans were essentially an ad hoc coalition that had come together to end slavery and stop secession, while others argued that the Democrats might never overcome the stigma of secession and treason. Informing these predictions was also the belief of many Americans in the mid-nineteenth century that political parties were fundamentally impermanent organizations—as evidenced by the disappearance of major parties like the Federalists and Whigs, not to mention a host of third parties along the way. The decade that followed witnessed several third parties come and go and produced a significant amount of shifting across party lines. Yet, even as the politics of Reconstruction evolved and some voters and politicians switched parties, both the Republican and Democratic organizations remained intact. That, I would argue, provides a more relevant historical parallel. The Republican Party may emerge from this election in a modified form, but the past would suggest that it is unlikely that it will go the way of the Whigs.

If you have thoughts, comments, or questions for the author, please discuss your ideas or pose questions in the comments section below. We would love to hear from you!

[1] Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, “Why I Support Donald Trump: He’s The New Roosevelt,” Forbes, December 15, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/12/15/donald-trump-teddy-roosevelt/#4607493d349c; Matthew Mason, “The Disturbing Parallels Between Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson,” History News Network, March 20, 2016, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/162259; Steve Inskeep, “Donald Trump’s Secret? Channeling Andrew Jackson,” New York Times, February 17, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/17/opinion/campaign-stops/donald-trumps-secret-channelling-andrew-jackson.html?_r=1.

[2] “The Worst Convention in U.S. History?” Politico Magazine, July 22, 2016, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/07/rnc-2016-worst-convention-historians-214091.

[3] “Trump anti-immigrant speech follows dark pattern of US history,” The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC), September 1, 2016, http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow/watch/trump-nativist-speech-follows-dark-us-pattern-755626563851.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael F. Holt, “Are the Republicans Going the Way of the Whigs?” Sabato’s Crystal Ball, University of Virginia Center for Politics, March 10, 2016, http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/going-the-way-of-the-whigs/. See also 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), 956–957.

[6] On this point, see Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know-Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 162–193.

[7] Baltimore Sun, August 31, 1865; Mount Vernon (Ohio) Banner, July 7, 1865.


Erik B. Alexander

Erik B. Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, where he teaches classes on American history, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and Abraham Lincoln. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. He was an Assistant Editor on volume 9 (1831) of the Papers of Andrew Jackson (University of Tennessee Press, 2013). He is currently finishing his first book manuscript, a study of Northern Democrats after the Civil War, titled Revolution Forestalled: Northern Democrats and the Politics of Reconstruction, 1865–1877. He can be reached at eralexa@siue.edu.

2 Replies to “Whither the Whigs? Donald Trump, the Know-Nothings, and the Politics of the 1850s”

  1. I don’t consider myself well-informed enough on these topics to engage this piece substantively.
    I’m writing instead to thank you for contributing to my education, and to make a request.
    Can you–and other historians who are your readers–help laypeople like myself understand more about how our country has moved from periods of fierce division to periods of relative unity? Can you help us know where we can go from here, and how to begin?

    1. This is a great, though complicated, question. There have been a number of historians who have studied the process of reconciliation (and we published a review essay of this in our most recent issue of the JCWE). You could check out Nina Silber’s The Romance of Reunion and David Blight’s Race and Reunion as two books that address this within the context of the Civil War. And hopefully some of our readers can discuss that with you more here! If I get the chance, I will try to find some shorter discussions of this as well, that are available online.

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