A History of the Whig Party

By R. Mc KINLEY ORMSBY. Boston : Crosby Nichols, & Co.
THE duties of an historian, always difficult, are peculiarly so when he attempts to treat of recent events. In such a case, the historian whose mind is not so warped by sympathies and antipathies as to make him utterly incompetent to his task must possess a rare impartiality of judgment and extraordinary keenness of insight, all assisted by candid and painful research. To what extent these qualities are united in Mr. Ormsby, we propose to inquire.
We are at first favorably impressed. Mr. Ormsby’s Preface is most striking,— uniting not only touching candor, but innocence absolutely refreshing. The duties of historian, which we just now called so weighty, rest lightly upon his conscious strength. The historian remarks, that " he is aware that his outlines are very imperfect, and in many things may be erroneous. He has had no access to libraries or public documents ; and his statistics are sometimes given from general recollection, and are but approximations to accuracy. But, feeling that some history of the parties of this country is needed, he has the temerity to offer this, till its place shall be supplied by one more reliable and satisfactory.”
Any man’s apology for deficiencies in his book may be accepted, provided he be able to make good the suppressed premise upon which, after all, the whole depends, namely, — that there was need of his writing at all. Mr. Ormsby seems to think there was, but gives no reasons in support of his opinion. Supposing it proved, however, it might be gravely debated whether the fortunate owner of this book would have any advantage over the man so unlucky as not to possess it.
We have all heard of the man who planned a house on so magnificent a scale, that, when the porch was finished, the funds were found to be nearly exhausted, and the main body of the house had to be built much smaller than the porch. Mr. Ormsby has avoided this error. His porch is not half of the whole structure. His book contains 377 pages; of these, only 188 (actually less than half!) are devoted to porch, or introductory matter. This part is richly studded with blunders of every description, and written in language which for copiousness and clearness rivals the fertilizing inundations of the Nile.
The decorous appearance of impartiality, necessary to an historian, is well preserved by such choice language as “crusade against the institutions and people of the South,”— “fratricidal hand in sectional warfare,” — “first to arouse jealousy and hatred,” — " the South at the mercy of the North,” — “ shriek for freedom,” — “ political mountebank,” — “and it is to the stunted, obtuse, bigoted, fanatical, ignorant, jaundiced, self-righteous, and self-conceited millions of such in the North, that Mr. Seward, and others of his kidney, address,” etc., etc., — “British gold,” (a favorite phrase,)*— “ cant of British philanthropy ,” — etc., etc.
Mr. Ormsby devotes some little space to what may be called the legitimate object of his work,— that is, the vindication of the distinctive tariff policy of the Whigs,— and here advocates a good cause in a singularly illogical, bungling way. Most of his book, however, is given up to foolish invective against British machinations in the United States, — an idea which may have been plausible in Jefferson’s time, but has long been abandoned to minds of our author’s calibre,— and to arguments against the Republican party which show only that he is entirely ignorant of the doctrines of that party, and entirely incompetent to understand them, if he were not ignorant.
We can present only a few specimens, taken almost at random from the pages of this book. The author’s ignorance (omitting the frequent instances of error in the names) may be shown by his ranking R. M. Johnson of Kentucky and Davy Crockett among the eminent statesmen of their time ! He says of Mr. Clay, “ When, in 1825, as a Senator from Kentucky, he sustained Mr. Adams (in the House) for the Presidency, he acted,” etc. Now Henry Clay was not in the Senate at any time between March 3, 1811, and March 4, 1831. Moreover, if he had been, he could not have voted for Adams, as Mr. Ormsby would have known, had he known anything of the Constitution to which he professes such entire devotion. Of the Missouri Compromise he says, “It was an arrangement by which the South made concessions, and gained nothing ” ! If we are to adopt the principle, that slavery is to be fostered, not discouraged, the South did make concessions. The essential principle of the Republican party is, that slavery is a great evil and brings in its train many other evils, and that the legislation of the United States is not to be warped by vain attempts to save the slave-holding interest from inevitable disaster by systematic injustice to the other interests of the country. If we adopt this view, which is admitted even by so ardent a pro-slavery leader as Senator Mason of Virginia to have been the view of the framers of the Constitution, then the South gave up what she never owned, and was paid for so doing. And taking either view, we must admit that she has since, by the Kansas-Nebraska act, revoked the grant, without refunding the pay.
Mr. Ormsby mentions “ the significant and highly encouraging fact,” that many leading Democrats, including Mr. Hallett, (whose name, of course, he spells incorreetly,) declared for Protection in the campaign of 1856. His taking courage from so insignificant a fact as any of these gentlemen declaring for any serviceable doctrine in a campaign shows Mr. Ormsby to be by no means intimately acquainted with Massachusetts Democracy.
It is commonly thought that General Taylor's nomination kept the Whigs from sinking in 1848, and that the Whig party died in 1852 “ of trying to swallow the Fugitive Slave Law.” But Mr. Ormsby thinks Taylor hurt them, and that the Baltimore Platform was too anti-slavery. He frequently alludes to Garrison and Phillips as Republicans, although nearly every other adult in the country knows that they are bitter opponents of that party,-—says that Mr. Seward can rely only upon the Abolitionists in the; North,— misunderstands, of Course, the “ irrepressible confliet,”—says that no Northern editor ventures to speak or write against Personal Liberty bills, although probably not a day passes without their being assailed by a dozen in New England alone, — that slaves never can be carried into New Mexico, although they have been carried thither, and slavery has even been declared perpetual by enactment of the Territorial Legislature,— and, speaking of Kansas, that President Buchanan’s “ best endeavors to secure the people of that Territory equal rights were thwarted by factionists ” ! — in other words, “factionists” declined to admit Kansas under the pro-slavery Lecompton constitution, forced by gross frauds upon a loathing and reluctant people. He adds, that “ no one denies Mr. Buchanan eminent patriotism and statesmanship.” Now, whether the President possesses these qualities or not, there can be no doubt that a great many deny them to him. And so Mr. Ormsby continues, heaping blunder upon blunder, to a greater length than we can follow him.
On p. 79, he makes the following unorthodox statement: “ We have a right to hate and detest slavery, and should belie our natures, were we not to do so.” Elsewhere, however, he dwells rapturously upon the happy lot of the slave. The apparent inconsistency is explained on p. 318 : “ We will not insult our understandings by doubting the great enormity of so foul a thing as human bondage.” “ In regard to detestation of slavery, there is no difference between the people of the North and South.” “ But these two people (! !) differ widely in their feelings in regard to negro servitude,” Oh, that is it, then ? Vast is the difference between “human bondage” and “negro servitude ! ”
Mr. Ormsby’s argument is aimed against the Republicans. Accordingly, he assails the Abolitionists ! Now we do not find fault with him because his arguments are pitiably silly,— because an intelligent Abolitionist would refute them instantly, but because, even if they were sound, they have no bearing upon his point. They are not only nonsensical, but irrelevant.
“ For the ignorance of the Southerners,” says our author, “ we should pity them, and send them our schoolmasters, who, in happy years past, have ever found a cordial reception.” Exactly so,— “ in happy years past.” He then innocently asks, Is it strange that the South should think it necessary that she should have the ascendency in at least one branch of the national government ? Oh, no, — not at all, — but as Republicans don’t consider it necessary, is it strange that they should vote as they think ?
Here is a sample of most eminently logical reasoning : “ The powerful efforts made by the British government to suppress the slave-trade have been far from successful. The exportation of negroes from Africa has not been discontinued, but the sufferings of the middle passage have been increased twofold ; showing that an attempt to thwart by legislation the, decrees of Providence is of but little avail. ’ If murder were frequent in New York, and an insufficient force called out to suppress it, the consequence being only more bloodshed, Mr. Ormsby, to be consistent, would have to say it was not well to try to suppress murder, the event showing it to be only a futile legislative attempt to thwart the decrees of Providence !
“ Not that any Whig was more in favor of the extension of slavery into the Territories, by the general government, than Mr. Fremont, or the best Republican at his back : but the idea of the formation of a party based on the slavery question could not be entertained for a moment by any one imbued with genuine Whig sentiments. ” pp. 357-8.
There is precisely the old argument of timid conservatism, although its champions are seldom unskilful enough to advance it in a form so easily dealt with. You may be bitterly opposed, forsooth, to the extension of slvery; but you must not organize or even vote against it ! Where, then, is the good of being opposed to it ?
The object of all this bad logic, bad history, and bad language is to attack the Republicans, and advocate the claims of modern Democracy,—not the Democracy of Jefferson and Silas Wright, but of Cushing and Buchanan. And what is the conclusion ? What is the mission of the surviving Whigs'?
“ The existence of a conservative, enlightened, and patriotic opposition party is the necessary condition of the existence of the Democracy as a national party.” p. 355.
“ The slightest reflection, after even a superficial observation of the condition of our country, will satisfy any candid person, of ordinary ability, that the reconstruction of the Whig party is indispensable to the perpetuity of the Union. The Democratic party, though now national, if left to the sole opposition of the Republican, which is a sectional party, must inevitably, sooner or later, itself degenerate into sectionalism. This must be the necessary result of such antagonism. But a party based upon intelligence and moral worth must, most of the time, be in the minority of the country, and much of the time exceedingly small. This the Whigs see, and readily accept the conditions of their existence.” pp. 368-4.
This, then, is the banquet to which we are invited! The mission of the resuscitated Whig party is to be —not gaining any victory, but — being beaten by the Democrats ! It is important to the nationality of the Democratic party that they have a sound and national opposition for them to defeat regularly, year after year,— and this want the Whigs are to be so obliging as to supply !
After all, is there anything very strange in silly men writing silly books ?