Meet the Whigs

Abraham Lincoln. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The subject of a third major political party in the United States brings out generally predictable reactions: cynicism in cynics, fantasy in fantasists, partisanship in partisans. But it is worth remembering that there already has been a very successful third party: the Republican Party, which skyrocketed to power very shortly after its founding in 1854, with the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, winning the White House in 1860. By contrast, the Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, has topped out at 3.3 percent in presidential elections—and that was in 2016, when the party’s ticket comprised two moderate Republican former governors (Gary Johnson and William Weld) running against two corrupt and contemptible New York Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The Libertarians have not had much success in state legislatures or town councils or school boards. The Greens and the other exotic minor parties are for hobbyists, the political equivalents of people who build miniature ships in bottles or collect stamps. 

The Republican Party emerged from the wreckage of the Whig Party because the Republicans believed in something and the Whigs did not: When it came to the most important issue of the day—slavery—the Republicans had a firm position, if a painfully moderate one, while the Whigs could not quite figure out what they should think about it. The Republicans were not a radical abolitionist party but a conservative anti-slavery party that ended up being the political home of radical abolitionists because the abolitionists had nowhere else to go. Lincoln’s position on slavery was, in fact, much narrower than many of those of us who admire him might have wanted from him at the time: He did not propose to abolish slavery but only to prevent its spread in the hopes that it would die out on its own; a constitutionalist might concur with Lincoln’s assertion in his first inaugural address that as president he did not have the power to interfere with slavery in the southern states, but Frederick Douglass was not wrong to fault him for going beyond that to add that he would not be inclined to use such power if he had it. The word politician has a disreputable odor on it, but Lincoln was a gifted and wily politician, a politician of the first order, and it was such a politician that the convulsing republic needed. A saint would have simply denounced slavery as an unbearable moral evil—which, of course, it was—but it took a politician to work against that evil while also working to ensure that the United States would remain the United States, enduring even through the treachery of the slave power and the brutality of the Civil War. It was Lincoln’s saintliness that failed him and us, setting the course toward a Reconstruction that was too conciliatory and insufficiently reformist. 

A compromise position is not necessarily a position that lacks moral clarity—it may be, and often is, a position that recognizes the limitations of the current political situation and that does not indulge the adolescent tendency to pine for the impossible. At the same time, a position that is uncompromising or even extreme often is one that lacks genuine clarity, moral or political. 

The Republican Party in our time is a confused and debased thing. Trump and Trumpism have made that worse, but the decadence of the GOP did not begin in 2016. Faced with the great moral question of their day, the Republicans of Lincoln’s time offered moral firmness tempered by realism; faced with the great moral questions of our time—abortion, Russia, the attempted coup d’etat of 2021—Republicans offer moral hysteria instead of moral firmness, delusion rather than realism. (It does not help that on two out of three of those big issues, a great many Republicans are on the wrong side.) But even on abortion, Republicans are now unsteady. In the pre-Dobbs era, Republicans could organize themselves around the outrage that was Roe vs. Wade, as naked a piece of judicial usurpation of the lawmaking power as modern American history has to offer. But with Roe vacated, Republicans have been made to give up the thing they are good at—opposition—and instead try to do the one thing that they have shown themselves more or less incapable of for 30 years or more—governing.

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