Though not organized until several years after the party had formed at the national level, the Whig Party in Missouri enjoyed consistent, albeit minority, support from the electorate during its two decades in existence from the 1830s to the 1850s. As the slavery issue became increasingly important in state and national politics, Missouri’s Whigs managed to use the divisions within the Democratic Party to gain some power within the General Assembly in Jefferson City. Their political power was short-lived, however, as the Whigs learned that their own party was divided on whether to expand slavery into new territories.
Antecedents of the Whig Party
Defined political parties disappeared in the United States after the Federalist Party disintegrated following the War of 1812. By the 1820s, Americans operated under a one-party system as all politicians began to identify with the Democratic-Republican Party. The disappearance of the Federalist opposition, however, served to emphasize the divisions within the remaining organization. One group, led by Henry Clay of Kentucky, shared their former Federalist opponents’ sympathy for the Hamiltonian idea of national economic development. The other branch of Republicans held a more restrictive view of federal authority, seeing the national government’s increased involvement in the economy as a potential threat to the egalitarian republican society that Thomas Jefferson had worked to create. It was within this political climate that Missouri entered the Union in 1821.
Political lines began to form in Missouri during the contentious presidential election of John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson in 1824. In a four-way contest for the presidency, Missourians overwhelmingly chose Clay as their preferred candidate. Likewise, Missouri’s lone representative in the US House of Representatives, John Scott, and both of its senators, Thomas Hart Benton and David Barton, pledged their support to Clay. But Scott had to reconsider after Clay earned the fewest Electoral College votes of the four candidates and failed to qualify under the terms dictated in the Twelfth Amendment by which the House would decide the winner from among the top three finishers. After approaching both Benton, who viewed Jackson as the best choice, and Barton, who favored Adams, Scott opted to vote for Adams. Benton expressed to Scott that he believed his vote for Adams went against the will of the people of Missouri, since most of them favored the westerner Jackson over Adams, who hailed from New England. Though the 1824 election did not mark the formal beginning of the Whig Party in the state or the nation, Scott and Barton represented the faction of Missourians who favored the sort of economic nationalism that became a uniting force for Whigs in and beyond Missouri.
At the national level, the Whig Party came into being during the winter of 1833–1834 as National Republicans led by Clay began to find common cause with states’ rights southerners, all of whom believed that the actions of Andrew Jackson, who had succeeded Adams as president, represented an unconstitutional use of executive power. Clay and the National Republicans stridently opposed Jackson after his veto of the National Bank in 1832. Southerners were alarmed by Jackson’s threat of military force during the Nullification Crisis of 1832–1833, in which South Carolina challenged federal authority to impose tariffs on the state. Followers of the Anti-Masonic Party, which had emerged in the 1820s, shared the southerners’ perception that Jackson represented a threat to the rule of law and the Constitution. Recognizing that together they formed a majority in the US Senate, these anti-Jackson groups began working together to thwart the president’s agenda. Drawing on the tradition of opposition to tyrannical rulers, they adopted the label of Whigs, thus tying their cause to the American Revolution.
Missourians who opposed the Jacksonians delayed a few years before adopting the Whig label. Unlike areas of the country that had to rely on a coalition of two or more anti-Jackson groups to achieve their full political strength, Missouri’s opposition consisted almost entirely of supporters of Clay’s American System. Because of their relative homogeneity, they saw no pressing need to take a new name for themselves, but as the popularity of the new party became clear, the Missouri opposition began to self-identify as Whigs. In October 1839, Missouri’s Whigs held their first state convention in Jefferson City, initiating the formal party structure in the state.
Missouri’s Minority Party
Having officially organized the year before, Missouri’s Whig Party embraced the 1840 presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison, the famous general who had fought Native Americans on the western front during the War of 1812. Missouri Whigs held a three-day convention beginning on June 18 at Rocheport in Boone County. Delegations from several counties made their presence known, with St. Louis Whigs traveling up the Missouri River in three steamboats laden with banners and a brass band. Artist and Whig politician George Caleb Bingham painted a four-sided banner, six feet square on each side, which included a portrait of Harrison, a depiction of the Battle of the Thames from the War of 1812, and the log cabin that had become associated with him. Despite the show of support for Harrison and his successful campaign, he did not carry Missouri. Whigs in the state never claimed majority support in the years that followed, and because of the state’s electoral makeup, few of its leading Whig politicians were willing to commit to running for any of the statewide offices or even its congressional districts. Instead, Whigs frequently worked to take advantage of fissures within the dominant Democratic Party. As monetary and banking policy divided Missouri Democrats in the 1840s, Whigs offered support to Democratic politicians who held positions that were closest to their own instead of presenting a separate slate of candidates.
Though Whigs were unable to garner large-scale support across the state, there were two regions where they enjoyed a strong presence. The urban center of the state, St. Louis, boasted the largest single concentration of Whigs. As a large river port city, St. Louis was attractive to Whig partisans since people engaged in business and commercial trade tended to identify with the Whig Party. Whig policies supporting internal improvements and a strong banking system appealed to the large merchant and professional classes of the city. The party’s strength in the city was illustrated by the election of Whig mayors exclusively from the inception of the party in Missouri in 1838 through the early 1840s. Additionally, several of the mayors prior to 1838 later became members of the party. Yet despite its early strength, the Whig Party saw a gradual decline in its appeal within St. Louis after 1842. When increased European immigration during the 1840s agitated a nativist strain within St. Louis’s Whig Party, German and Irish immigrants responded by flocking to the Democratic Party. Although not all Whigs saw the immigrants as a threat, even those who rejected nativism suffered, as popular two-time mayor John F. Darby lost his bid for reelection in 1843 because his Democratic opponent successfully tied him to the nativist faction. As the demographics of the city changed, St. Louis Whigs could win elections only by exploiting divisions among their opponents.
Outside of St. Louis, the Whigs enjoyed strong support among many of the older rural counties along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Wealthier and more established communities in these counties tended to support the Whig Party. Many of Missouri’s early white settlers had come to the state from the Bluegrass area of Kentucky, bringing with them an affinity for Henry Clay and his policies that manifested in the American System. Much like their urban counterparts, large-scale farmers near the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers appreciated Whig arguments for internal improvements, particularly for river transport and, later, railroad development, since better transportation meant more commerce with larger markets in St. Louis and New Orleans.
By 1848, the Whigs in Missouri had witnessed many defeats. But when it appeared that the party’s candidates would include Mexican War heroes Zachary Taylor for president and Alexander Doniphan for governor, Missouri Whigs believed they had a chance to win. Doniphan declined the nomination, however, and James Sidney Rollins, from the Whig stronghold of Boone County, ran instead. The race became more focused on unpopular Whig policies than military records, and Democrat Austin King beat Rollins by over eighteen percentage points.
Following the disastrous 1848 gubernatorial election, Missouri Whigs had no reason to believe they would soon achieve their greatest amount of power. But debates over whether slavery would be allowed to expand into new territories acquired from the Mexican War soon fractured the Democratic Party, dividing Missouri Democrats into factions led by Claiborne Fox Jackson, who took a strong pro-slavery position, and Thomas Hart Benton, who did not. The state’s Whigs took advantage of this split, managing to increase their presence in the General Assembly by twenty-nine members during the election of 1850. Though this did not give them an outright majority, it did allow the Whigs to set the legislative agenda, since they now held a plurality of seats. Whigs also managed to claim victory in three of the state’s five congressional districts, but only Gilchrist Porter of the Second Congressional District won with a majority of votes. Most importantly, however, the strength of their caucus in the General Assembly meant that they had the power to decide who would replace Benton in the Senate. Whig legislators selected Henry Geyer as their choice for senator, opting to partner with the anti-Benton forces in the General Assembly. Soliciting support from the Claiborne Jackson faction caused some concern, however, within the Whig Party. Many popular Whigs, including Abiel Leonard, James Rollins, and Edward Bates, believed the more natural alliance would have been with the Benton Democrats. Nevertheless, it was a high point for the Whigs in Missouri, who had never experienced such a shift in electoral fortune.
By 1854 the Whig Party in Missouri had perfected its ability to capitalize on the divisions among its opponents. The Missouri Democrats’ split was apparent at every level of the electoral ticket during the debates surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Benton and his supporters in the Democratic Party strongly opposed any repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which had drawn the boundary for extending slavery into new territories, while the anti-Benton Democrats believed that the settlers in new territories should determine for themselves whether to permit slavery. Whigs were divided over the issue as well, but still managed to pick up five additional seats in the US House of Representatives. This meant that Whigs controlled six of Missouri’s seven congressional districts, including four that had been won with an outright majority of the votes cast.
Despite their electoral success in the statehouse and in Washington, Missouri Whigs found themselves hopelessly divided when called upon to elect a senator. Thomas Hart Benton petitioned the General Assembly as a Democratic candidate in opposition to the incumbent, David Rice Atchison, an advocate of slavery expansion. Within the Whig caucus, Abiel Leonard decided to take a position on the Missouri Supreme Court rather than risk losing the Senate race. Many Whigs worked to get James Rollins to run, but the nomination went instead to the hero of the Mexican War, Alexander Doniphan. Each of the three political factions—the Bentonite Democrats, anti-Bentonites, and Whigs—refused to compromise, leading to a deadlock in the Missouri legislature. Pleas to have Rollins substituted for Doniphan were ignored even though some pro-Benton Democrats suggested they would change their votes to support Rollins. As a result, the General Assembly failed to elect a new senator after forty-one indecisive ballots and the seat was left vacant until 1857.
The Whigs in Missouri nevertheless enjoyed enough success during the 1854 election cycle to largely resist a merger with the rapidly rising anti-immigrant Know Nothings, as had happened in other states. Even St. Louis, where a Know Nothing political organization had arisen in reaction to the city’s significant German and Irish populations, initially resisted being drawn into the movement. But after the failure of the Senate election in the General Assembly, many of the state’s Whigs began to identify with the American Party, the political apparatus of the Know Nothings. In the fall of 1855 a call for a Whig convention to determine the next slate of candidates failed. By the time the General Assembly reconvened on November 30, 1855, fewer than half of the legislators who had been elected as Whigs attended the Whig caucus. These setbacks mirrored the erosion of the party at the national level. Divided along ethnocultural lines as well as on the increasingly contentious issue of slavery, by 1856 the Whigs had collapsed as a national party, leaving the American Party and the fast-rising, northern-based Republican Party to challenge the Democrats for political supremacy.
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Mering, John Vollmer. The Whig Party in Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1967.
Newhard, Leota. “The Beginning of the Whig Party in Missouri, 1824–1840.” Missouri Historical Review 25, no. 2 (January 1931): 254–80.
Smith, William Benjamin. James Sidney Rollins, Memoir. New York: De Vinne Press, 1891.
Published July 14, 2020
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