Barack Obama: Whig in the White House?

The president shouldn't turn to the 1840s for political ideas.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who is billed as the conservative op-ed voice at the paper, reached back into the far regions of American political history the other day in search of a bit of advice for President Obama. He said the president should embrace the tradition of the American Whig Party, which operated on the country’s political scene from about 1834 to 1856.

This is a curious analytical illustration for any conservative, which raises the question whether Brooks is truly a conservative. The answer is that he isn’t one. He is a thoughtful and often creative political commentator with some conservative instincts but also an overarching penchant for sidestepping the messy political clashes of our time and pursuing instead ancillary lines of thinking that keep him above the fray. Nobody ever seems to make him mad, certainly not liberals.

The columnist’s sojourn back to the time of the Whig Party illustrates this aspect of Brooks’s work—but also offers an occasion to ponder just what might be the lessons to be derived from the brief story of the Whigs, founded by Henry Clay as a counterweight to the hated Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson, and crushed just two decades later in the crucible of the country’s fearsome slavery debate.

Brooks portrays it as focused on "enhancing opportunity and social mobility" and dedicated to giving "marginalized Americans the tools to compete in a capitalist economy." It fought against the "divisive populist Jacksonians" in championing big public-works projects—roads, canals, bridges—designed to propel America into greatness. Brooks adds the party "believed in expanding immigration along with assimilation and cohesion."

Even allowing for its brevity, this is not a particularly accurate rendition of the Whig political sensibility, and it finesses some of the lessons of the party’s brief history, particularly for conservatives. In point of fact, the Whigs were the forerunners of today’s big-government Democrats. They believed in high taxes (tariffs), flexibility in interpreting the Constitution so government could be expanded, relatively easy money, government-corporate alliances and the ability of governmental elites to shape the country’s future.

They were not for social mobility, as it was understood in that time, or for loose immigration policies. Indeed, the greatest lever of social mobility in those days was government-owned land—more than a billion acres of it in the West and the South. The Whigs wanted to make it available to the highest bidders, meaning well-heeled Easterners, in order to generate massive federal monies that could be used for governmental projects. For them, these lands represented a great infusion of cash for greater federal activity and control.

Democrats, led by Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, advocated a system of graduated prices, with free grants to actual settlers who would promise to develop the land. Benton argued the country could benefit most by making these lands readily available to ordinary citizens who would raze the foliage, till the soil, build wealth through hard work, establish communities, and, in the process, expand the culture of American democracy. Elites weren’t needed, in this view, because the people would build up the nation from below. The Whigs took a particularly rough political hit when an internal report was leaked indicating some party leaders also wanted the land sold at high prices in order to keep cheap labor in place for Eastern manufacturers. Social mobility hardly seems to be the motivation here.

As for immigration and assimilation, Michael F. Holt, author of the most comprehensive recent history of the Whig Party, has written, "To immigrants and Catholics, the Whig party seemed impossibly hostile and bigoted." The Whigs nominated for U.S. vice president in 1840 a former New Jersey senator named Theodore Frelinghuysen, described by Holt as being associated with not only "zealous Protestant do-gooders but also fanatical anti-Catholic bigots." Although Holt does note that the country’s most virulent nativists "found the Whigs’ anti-Catholic and anti-foreign credentials too suspect," it was the Democrats of the day, not the Whigs, who most heartily welcomed immigrants.

The purpose here is not to malign the Whig Party, or particularly to set Brooks straight on some important American history, but to take a cue from Brooks and channel the Whig experience of fifteen decades ago into lessons for our own time. Brooks’ portrayal of the Whigs as genteel politicians, however overblown, leads him to suggest Obama should modernize the Whig impulse and then "travel the country…questioning current divisions and eroding the rigid battle lines." He wants the president to foster probing inquiries into whether the government can "improve family patterns so disadvantaged young children grow up in more ordered environments." He wonders if there are ways to improve Head Start, expand early childhood education intelligently, restructure neighborhoods so teenagers can more likely thrive, subsidize the lives of young men so they can afford to get married, or craft job-training programs for middle-aged workers.