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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Activity, Passivity, Spontaneity:
Understanding Whig Ideology, 1836-1840

By Chris Lang

After news of his defeat for the presidential candidacy arrived in December of 1839, Henry Clay sent a letter on the final day of the Whigs’ first national convention offering his “best wishes” and “cordial support” to whatever ticket the party put together (Remini 553). As the letter was being read aloud, many delegates in the audience listened with relief and gratitude, praising the statesman’s magnanimous character. At the exact hour of his defeat, however, Clay had been drinking with several friends at the nearby Brown’s Hotel, clinging to the belief that Whigs would never actually reject him. According to one observer, the more he drank, the more he reassured himself. “Open and exceedingly profane in his denunciations of the intriguers against his nomination,” the report went, he started swearing “in words befitting only a bar-room in vulgar broil” (554).

As the night went along, Clay’s behavior became more outrageous. When two strangers entered the hotel dressed in black, Clay allegedly walked over to a well-stocked sideboard and poured several drinks for them. “Gentlemen,” Clay retorted, “for aught I know, from your cloth you may be parsons, and shocked at my words. Let us take a glass of wine” (554). Dejected, torn, and clearly inebriated, Clay walked across Pennsylvania Avenue to his boardinghouse to await the arrival of friends from Harrisburg. When they entered his room, and found him sitting in a chair, they told him of Harrison’s victory. Immediately, Clay jumped out of his seat and started cursing, swearing, and pacing back and forth. “Such an exhibition,” one reported, “we never witnessed before…and we pray never again to witness such an ebullition of passion, such a storm of desperation” (554). Stamping his feet as he paced, he finally burst out: “My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them!” (554).

Clay’s outburst described above came after a long, hard fought campaign for the Whig presidential nomination. It was one of the first major elections to be highly organized, and it was carried out in a time when “running” for office was considered somewhat suspect, if not downright inappropriate, for a truly “republican” democracy. Throughout his campaign, Henry Clay would publicly deny having any motives of personal ambition to win his party’s nomination, yet beneath the surface, as we can see from his outburst, this was clearly not reflective of his true private thoughts and feelings.

Karl Mannheim once wrote: “There is implicit in the word ‘ideology’ the insight that in certain situations the collective unconscious of certain groups obscures the real condition of society both to itself and to others and thereby stabilizes it” (40). Drawing from this definition, my reading of Whig ideology will argue that Whigs both consciously obscured the way they conducted organized politics, and yet unconsciously denied this organization through various different means. By analyzing letters and correspondences of Henry Clay, the diary of Philip Hone, and the New-York Weekly Whig during the years 1836-1840, I will show how Whigs created the appearance of passivity around election time, while they maintained quite a bit of active organization “behind the scenes.” For nineteenth-century Whigs, it was important to obscure any sense of corrupt “interest” around election season, and they helped produce and maintain this obscurity by staging naturalized, spontaneous actions after deliberately long periods of passivity. These alternating periods of passivity, activity, and spontaneity came to define the basic structure of Whig ideology during the nineteenth century.

Most historians agree that in the three to four years leading up to the national convention in 1839, the Whig party first began to accept the need for a more organized form of politics. Sean Wilentz claims that between 1836 and 1840, the Whigs worked hard to create a “truly national party organization,” with Whig managers and organizers paying close attention to raising funds and building party infrastructure (484). Marc Kruman concurs that while strains of antipartyism persisted in various ways throughout the late 1830s, gradually, many Whigs came to see by 1836 that “party” should not only be viewed as a threat to republicanism, but as the only possible way to protect it from opponents (522). And Lynn Marshall adds that due to the decisive defeat by Van Buren in 1836, the Whigs finally came to realize the efficacy of Jacksonian party organization and techniques, and began to adopt such measures of their own by 1840 (460).

Despite the generally shared view, then, that party politics came to the forefront of Whig politics during this time period, many of the same historians believe that the “key element in the formation of the Whig party was party organization, not ideology” (Marshall, 445). Lynn Marshall, for instance, argues that the most significant aspect of Whig politics during this time was not “elevated political ideology,” but merely “changes in the ways Americans organized themselves” (445). Robert Formisano similarly avoids calling it “ideology.” Among those who “articulated elaborate condemnations of party organizations,” Formisano writes, “antiparty can be called a belief-system, a term suggesting, unlike ‘ideology,’ not so much a reasoned, coherent and perhaps logical thought pattern, but rather a hierarchy of values linked by quasi-logical, unstructured ideas” (“Antipartyism” 688). I will argue, in contrast, that Whigs during this time had developed quite a sophisticated ideology in combination with their organization. The very practice of Whig party organization, in fact, depended upon such ideology, and it was this careful combination of ideology with organization that allowed Whigs to mediate within the various complex new forms of politics taking shape in the 19th century.


On April 18th, 1838, Whig members of the New York legislature called for a national convention to be held in Harrisburg on the first Wednesday in December, 1839. The convention would nominate candidates for both president and vice president in the 1840 election. This election year was a pivotal one for Whigs, as the long reign of “King Andrew” and “Martin Van Ruin” was plagued by an unstable economy, furious debates over tariffs, and constant harangues over land prices. As early as July 20th, 1837, a small committee of New York City Whigs was already writing Henry Clay, stating that “after much enquiry” a “decided majority” of them expressed “favorable” feelings towards his candidacy for the presidency (Committee to Henry Clay, 20 July 1837, Seager and Hay 68).

Clay viewed these initial voices of support with trepidation. In a letter to Alexander Hamilton in July of 1837, he warned that “by stirring the Presidential subject” too early, the Whigs “expose themselves to the danger of bringing the sincerity and disinterestedness of their patriotism into doubt” (Clay to Hamilton, 18 July 1837, SH 63). This is exactly what his rival Webster was charged with when a meeting was arranged to publicly present him as a candidate earlier that year. “Ambition,” the statesman claimed, has a “powerful blinding effect. And I think Mr. Websters (sic) case is a shocking proof of it” (Clay to Waddy Thompson, Jr., 8 July 1837, SH 58). For Clay, this exposed the Whigs to the “animadversion that their impatience will not allow them to wait until the fruit is ripe but prompts them to pluck it before it is mature” (Clay to Matthew Davis, 3 July 1837, SH 54). If the party focused too much on electioneering, Clay wondered, “Do we not expose our patriotism to a charge of selfishness and insincerity?” (55).

In response to his supporters in August of 1837, however, Clay admitted that while he “desired and sought retirement from the cares of public life,” his sincere “sense of duty,” by which he had been “ever guided,” would “prompt obedience” to his fellow citizens’ will (Clay to Comm. of Whigs, 8 Aug 1837, SH 68). In his temporary enjoyment of “comparative repose,” “tranquility,” and “candor,” Clay contended that “entertaining these feelings and sentiments,” and having “resolved to occupy a position of perfect passiveness,” his fellow Whigs should wait and act only after the wishes of the convention had been made clear (67-68). To George Prentice he reinforced this stance, saying he would “take the ground of entire passiveness,” not wishing his name to be used unless there is reason to believe it is wanted by a majority (Clay to George Prentice, 14 Aug 1837, SH 69). By May 1838, in a letter to John Leeds Kerr, Clay turned down the opportunity to meet with large portions of supporters, declaring he “resolved to take a position of perfect passiveness in respect to the next Presidential election” (Clay to John Leeds Kerr, 22 May 1838, SH 188). And finally, to Peter Porter in June of 1838, he explained how he was “perfectly satisfied” to make no journey that would “wear the aspect of electioneering” (Clay to Peter Porter, 3 June 1838, SH 197). It appeared to Clay that the dignity of the presidential office recommended “standing still” over trying to visit all the important points to which one was invited (197).

Edrita Fried’s study of the active/passive dimensions in psychology claims that one of the main goals of psychotherapy is to lead patients from depression, anxiety, and passive dependency to vitality, activeness, and efficacy (1, 3). When a patient suffers from severe anxiety, it predicts in the face of danger that the mind, and in particular the ego, lacks the flexibility and facilities needed for overcoming any external or internal threats (69). “Quiescence, inertness, and a withdrawn existence,” Fried writes, “provide a hideaway for people who wish to lay low, to remain inconspicuous so as to conceal their psychological inadequacies” (189). People who lead passive lives “stay on the sidelines of action” and “avoid competition” lest they be found “clumsy and ineligible” should they enter the flow of activity (189).

Fried’s study can help us understand Clay’s own lifelong battles with anxiety and ambition, but only to a certain extent. As we will see, Clay’s own “withdrawn” existence and “inconspicuous” personality was in many ways just a public mask for what was in reality a very active stance. Biographer Robert Remini argues that Clay’s “craving for the presidential office” was a severe shortcoming that plagued him throughout his life (Remini 344). Although he was a prominent senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State, Clay ran for president five times, but never won. Eventually this began to wear heavy on his sense of self-- and on his health. When he ran unsuccessfully for office in 1828, for example, Clay almost worked himself to exhaustion. President Adams noted in the spring of the same year that Clay’s condition was one of “a general decay of the vital powers, a paralytic torpidity and numbness” (Remini 327).

Clay dealt with problems in his personal life in similar ways. When two of his daughters died within months of each other in 1825, Clay allegedly “buried himself in his work,” working twelve and fourteen hours a day in Washington. Many of his closest friends warned him about this unsustainable work ethic. Daniel Webster once wrote him saying “You must allow me to admonish you to take care of your health. Knowing the ardor, and the intensity, with which you may probably apply yourself to the duties of your place, I fear very much you may over-work yourself” (Remini 283).

The years 1836-1840 were no different. Clay’s correspondences during this period reveal a man constantly at work on the most controversial issues of the day. Indian  removal. Abolitionism. War with Mexico. The annexation of Texas. Sub-Treasury bills. Internal improvements. National banks. Clay was involved in all of these debates, and the weight of their significance seemed often to be overwhelming. “We have been acting,” he wrote in December of 1837, “not for ourselves and posterity only, but all mankind are concerned in the successful issue of the great experiment of self-government confided to our care. I have watched, therefore, with intense anxiety the progress and the development of our system” (Clay to Gulian C. Verplanck, 8 Dec. 1837, SH 99).

Clay’s assertions of passivity seem to have been his way of dealing with his various forms of anxiety. Writing to Epes Sargent in January of 1838, he reinforced the fact that he would not deviate from the “rule” of “absolute passiveness,” which he had admitted to have “prescribed” for himself (Clay to Epes Sargent, 13 Jan. 1838, SH 130). Whether speaking to personal or private affairs, the medical terminology does not seem to be accidental. When his own son was accused of being too idle and dissolute, Clay again admitted he felt “exceedingly anxious” that he should avoid all dissipation (Henry Clay to James Clay, 22 Jan. 1838, SH 133). In a letter to Henry Jr. in March of 1838, Clay stated that he was “almost borne down” by the weight of his labors, public and private (Henry Clay to Henry Clay, Jr., 2 Mar. 1838, SH 152). “Company –Company --Correspondence--Correspondence, they are eternal and incessant” (152). To his other son James written three weeks later, he noted “I received your favor of the 1st. Inst. I have been a little unwell, and have been so oppressed with business, correspondence and company, that I have obliged to engage a young friend to act for me as Amanuensis” (Henry Clay to James Clay, 23 Mar. 1838, SH 165). To his daughter Lucretia, he admitted he felt “much anxiety” from the most recent Session which had “worn him down” (Henry Clay to Lucretia Hart Clay, 21 May 1838, SH 187). Night and day, then, Henry Clay was constantly either reading, digesting, or preparing matters connected with his various personal and public duties.

If Clay’s repeated claims to passivity were his way of dealing with anxiety or with his shattered ego from previous election defeats, then one might assume this stance was an unhealthy development in his character. But Sylvia Brody’s study of passivity reveals a much more positive understanding of the term. Passivity is defined here as a “state or quality of readiness to be acted upon by external forces, or by internal forces beyond the control of the conscious ego” (66). Far from neurotic, this form of state could signify a particular kind of character trait, one that is habitual, conscious, stable, and of deep personal value (66). While many forms of passivity may serve as defenses against attacks on the ego, they may still in the same person contribute positively to character development and productivity. A mature ego, Brody adds, often grows out of the capacity for delay and is often a prerequisite for creative thinking--something even Edrita Fried admits in her description of “the useful pause” (77). Somewhere between the perception of a threat and the onset of anxiety, Fried notes, there is the need for useful and productive pauses. Timing, duration, and self-control are all important here, as short intermissions--not lasting states of aimlessness--can lead to better decision making and more healthy mental skills.

In his study on the “passive self” in Restoration and 18th-century writers, Scott Gordon has argued that a discourse of passivity in novels, moral philosophies, and religious discourses during this period was often deployed to insist that disinterested behavior was indeed possible in a culture that viewed all behavior as interested (6-7). “Only by constructing it as passive,” Gordon writes, could a self be imagined “whose disinterestedness is guaranteed by forces outside conscious control” (5). External forces that work “through the body” and “bypass the mind”--such as Nature or Providence- -were often viewed by writers not as causes of anxiety, but as reassuring signs for the possibility of disinterestedness (5,6). For Henry Clay, this outside external force was “the People,” and, as we saw above, it was this force that allowed him to believe his own behavior was free from the “blinding effect” of “ambition.” To be “prompted” to action by his “fellow citizens’ will” freed him from the ever-present dangers of insincerity, personal interest, and unpatriotic motives.

Clay’s insistence on passivity plays a key role in the formation of an ideology that stabilized the social order for Whigs in the 19th century. As mentioned earlier, there is implicit in the word “ideology,” drawing from Mannheim, the insight that in certain situations the “collective unconscious of certain groups obscures the real condition of society both to itself and to others and thereby stabilizes it” (40). The complementary discourse coupled with passivity here is “spontaneity”--and it reappears in the papers of not only Clay, but also the diary of Philip Hone and the New York Weekly Whig. In the late 1830s, Whigs deliberately staged “spontaneous” demonstrations by the electorate; they collectively obscured their own planned and active forms of organization by insisting on their own passivity. What are repeatedly described as sudden, unplanned movements by the people, then, are staged rituals that are collectively misrecognized as politics without organization.

On January 16, 1837, Henry Clay announced to the General Assembly of Kentucky that with “profound respect” he received news of his recent election to the Senate of the United States (Clay to General Assembly of Kentucky, 16 Jan. 1837, SH 7). Although he had both privately and publicly made clear that he wished to retire from public life, which “must have been known to every member of the Assembly,” this “spontaneous and flattering expression of the favorable opinion” excited “feelings of gratitude” in the statesman, which no language could adequately portray (7). Although twice Clay made known he would have remained “quite tranquil and happy” away from the “turmoils” of the Senate Chamber, he understood private interests must be kept at bay for the benefit of the country.

Not long after this announcement, preparations were being made for the next presidential election of 1840. When Webster was prematurely “recommended” by his supporters in July of 1837, Clay charged this would disrupt any sense of “harmony and concert” among Whigs, and hence, threaten to ruin their party’s chances of taking over the White House (Clay to Matthew Davis, 3 July 1837, SH 54). “Harmony” for Clay seems to have meant an instantaneous and unplanned, uncoordinated reciprocity between the will of the people and their respected leaders. When the November state elections of New York resulted favorably in a Whig victory, Clay called it a “most unexpected overthrow of the Van Buren party” (Clay to Peter Porter, 12 Nov. 1837, SH 91). “The People,” he wrote in a later letter to Samuel Lyman, “in their majority and their might have risen, and spontaneously rushing to the Polls, have saved their country and immortalized themselves” (Clay to Samuel Lyman, 22 Nov. 1837, SH 93). He learned, much to his satisfaction, that this “glorious achievement” had been effected “without organization among the Whigs,” “without leaders,” and “without any extraordinary immediate aid from the press” (93). New York had been “revolutionized”--and it had finally become a Whig state.

Clay reinforced the significance of the party’s recent success to Peter Porter later that month. “What renders it more gratifying is, as I understand, that it was the spontaneous work of the People, who, without Whig organization…rushed to the Ballot boxes and saved their country!” (Clay to Peter Porter, 24 Nov. 1837, SH 94). Surely, the statesman continued, “there will no longer be any doubts or fears of any as to the capacity of the American People for self-government” (94). The triumph in New York was quickly compared to the battles of Yorktown, of Leipzig, and of Waterloo, as a “glorious triumph of principle” (Clay to Gulian C. Verplanck, 8 Dec. 1837, SH 98). “The People, the deceived, the abused, the betrayed People,” have “risen in their majesty, and, by demonstrations which cannot be misunderstood, or perverted, have pronounced in a voice of thunder the doom of Experiments and Experimenters” (99).

Clay’s insistence on spontaneity in the election process of 1837 does not seem to be an isolated case. In October of 1839, Philip Hone was nominated by the Whigs of the New York City district for the Senate. He had promised the previous year that, like Clay, he would only accept the position if the party called him for it. “I hope,” Hone wrote resignedly in his diary, “that I will come to good for the cause, and that I may be elected now that I am up. But in truth it would be very inconvenient for me to pass my winters in Albany” (Hone, 10 Oct 1939, 426). Signs of personal interest begin to creep in to his writing on October 14, though, when the candidate notes how some of his party still looks at him as an aristocratic “gentleman”: “It annoys me a little to be told that some of the Locofocos of my own party (for we have such amongst us) are opposed to the nomination. These are the men that ruin a good cause” (Hone, 14 Oct. 1839, 427). His individual chances for winning the seat are then blended into the more acceptable movement for the “cause”: “As a set-off against the annoyance which their reports have given me, I have been gratified by the visits of several influential Whigs in the upper wards, who assure me that I shall run a better chance than any other person could have done. I have strong doubts of the success of our ticket; but I should hate confoundedly to find that I had been an injury to it” (Hone 427). Indeed, on the one hand Hone admits he feels personally gratified by the encouragement of his supporters, but at the same time he cannot appear as if he is interested in anything but “the ticket” (Hone 427).

Four days later, on October 18, a large procession of Whigs came in front of Hone’s house with banners, torches, and a band of music. Hone seems to have accepted this hoopla with mixed feelings: “I was visited Wednesday evening by a large procession of Whigs associated under the name of ‘the Unionists’ who collected in front of the house, cheering me and serenading me with patriotic airs” (Hone, 18 Oct. 1839, 428). This new “trade of candidate,” he described on the 24th, imposed some “new and tolerably hard duties” upon him (Hone, 24 Oct. 1839, 429). Pushed to publicly “show” himself to the assembly, he added “I am sent for to show myself, as they call it, to the voters, the rank and file, who, I am complacently told, only require to see me to like me” (429). This entry is revealing, for as it suggests, there is no need for Hone to convince the people who they should vote for. Only needing to be seen to be liked, the actual candidate is always already chosen by his most loyal supporters.

Hone’s own agency in this process is perhaps best summed up in the next diary entry. “When I arrived the meeting had adjourned, but the house was full, and as soon as my reverend head made its appearance, it was received with shouts of applause which shook the Liberty Pole in front of the house” (Hone, 24 Oct. 1839, 429). “I was carried almost bodily upstairs to the Long Room, raised to the stage on which my praises had just been sounded by one of the orators, and told to make a speech, which I did” (429). Whigs, in other words, never “run” for office to sway the voters’ opinions. They are swept up by the people--indeed, physically carried into candidacy--and all of this without any of their own personal agency at stake. “Every evening,” he continued two days later, “I am toted somewhere to show myself to the voters, to make a speech, and solicit their ‘sweet voices’ not for myself--O, no, by all means--but for the cause of which I am the deputed organ and representative” (Hone, 26 Oct. 1839, 430).

Despite having his “vanity” again “tickled” by all these signs of support, so “flattering” to the Whig statesman, on November 6 he admitted a “Waterloo defeat” (Hone, 6 Nov. 1839, 430). (Mangle Minthorn Thompkins, the Democrat candidate, actually beat Hone by a larger majority than most that year: 1979. The Whigs did carry both branches of the legislature, however). Denying his own personal interest in the matter, Hone described how he felt a “selfish joy” in having escaped the “excessive labor” and “numerous discomforts” which would have resulted from his election (430). It is a “reprieve,” he added, for which he “ought to be thankful” (431).

On March 16, 1839, the New York Weekly Whig published the remarks of General Doughty on the reception of N.P. Tallmadge back to his native state. On behalf of the Whig Young Men of New York, Tallmadge was praised for his “manly” and “independent” stand on the constitution and laws, and his “moral courage” that always took his country’s best interests to heart over his own (19). Tallmadge arrived “not as a conqueror graced with the laurels of victory,” nor “in the pride of pomp and power,” but as a “plain citizen”--received by his native state with “open arms” (19). In the face of “corrupt and corrupting men” who presently held “sway” in the great empire, the people throw around him an “adamantine wall” against the “impotent and malignant attacks of his enemies” (19). Doughty made clear that it would do great injustice to both himself and the people if he didn’t assure the honoree that this “sincere” and “heartfelt homage” was the “spontaneous offering” of his fellow citizens--an offering made on “the altar of public good” and as a sacrifice of all personal considerations (19).

The presentations of candidates within “spontaneous” contexts such as this one seem to have functioned as important cultural rituals in nineteenth-century America. Mention of “altars,” “offerings” and “sacrifices” suggests that much emphasis was placed on the importance of instantaneous outpourings of the public will. In order for the republic to stay free from corruption and decline--what J.A. Pocock posits as the republic’s confrontation with its own “temporal finitude”--American Whigs recognized that a vital component of republican theory (and practice) was time (viii, 1). In describing Guicciardini’s Dialogo, Pocock notes the importance of “judging time,” of determining the “moment to act,” and the considerations relevant to both the moment and the action (267). Virtue, along with the proper use of time, could help avoid the pitfalls of fortuna: chance, luck, political instability, and decay (36).

Fortune is, as defined by Pocock, “the circumstantial insecurity of political life” (38). But in antebellum America, there was no “chance” or “luck” for Whigs. When town election results came back from the interior part of New York in March of that same year, for example, the editors stated that “the Third sober thought of the people” was “very much the same with the first and second thoughts”--only “rather more so” (20). And when Aaron Clark was announced as the Whig candidate for Mayor, it was made clear that not many words would be written because the “great mass” of the city’s readers had “already hailed the nomination” as the “fruition of their earnest wishes” (20, emphasis added). The decision was unanimous.

On March 30, a letter to the editors of the Weekly Whig asserted that “the Loco Focos intend, if they should, by chance, obtain a majority in the common council, to appoint all the Inspectors of Elections in the city from their own party” (39). The opposition “labors”--through propaganda in newspapers, electioneering, and running campaigns--but Whigs spontaneously select candidates without any effort at all (16). In a meeting with the Whig Young Men of New York, John Sargent insisted that the “enemy’s camp” was filled with “activity” and “sleepless preparation” (37). These “haranguers” work to “excite” their supporters to the most “desperate exertions” (37). And again, on May 30, the Weekly admitted Whigs are “no match for the adversary,” either in “stratagem or in unremitting and all-pervading exertion” (92). Their opponents are found made to work “untiringly,”--“choking off candidates where they are in the way” (92). The response from their own Whig constituents to the recently announced resolutions, on the other hand, was met with “spontaneous and irrepressible bursts of applause,” the most “heart-stirring character,” and the most “enthusiastic concurrence and approbation” (37). Henry Clay’s run for office in the election would aim to follow this model of spontaneity, passiveness, and “harmony” found in Philip Hone’s diary and the Weekly Whig.

In a letter from Matthew Davis on July 12, 1837, we find the first hints of what goes on “behind the scenes,” so to speak, in Whig politics of the period. In response to the premature announcement of Webster’s recommendation for office, Clay is assured his supporters are still behind him. “Your friends here have acted; are acting, and will act, not only with discretion, but what is equally important, with Effect” (Matthew Davis to Clay, 12 July 1837, SH 60). “We are doing well,” Davis reassured him, “I speak with sincerity when I say, that the force which we are now in a condition to call into action, if deemed Expedient, is at least double what I thought it was possible for us to command” (60, 61). The movements of Webster’s friends produced “a feeling and an action among those who disapprove of the measure” that was “not even anticipated” by Davis himself (60). Clay’s opponents indeed will be “counteracted,” to use Davis’s words, by his constituents: “Means have already been adopted, and others are in progress, to meet the case” (60). Ironically, the false move of campaigning too early would be strategically used against the opposition in a move equally planned by Clay supporters. By the 6th of June, “About One hundred convened,” in two separate meetings, to discuss the next choice of action. A committee from each of the 17 wards was established “to report a plan of organization” (60).

By August of 1837, Clay, the ever-constant republican, continued to insist on his disinterestedness. “On the question of the propriety of agitating the public at this time, by a discussion of the fitness of candidates for the Presidency, I entirely concur in the opinion expressed by you, that it would be altogether premature” (Clay to Comm. of Whigs, 8 Aug. 1837, SH 66). His friends continued to inform their statesman of his favorable status with “the People.” Francis Latham from Tennessee, writing in December of the same year, noted: “I have been smothering my wishes to place your name before the People for a long time-and, anxiously watching every development of public opinion upon this most interesting question” (Latham to Clay, 4 Dec. 1837, SH 95). “Tennessee, --yes Tennessee--even the state of the Usurper will vote for any good Whig in preference to a Jacksonian or a Van-ite--and you--let me assure you--are the choice” (95).

Pierre Bourdieu contends that for any cultural system to work, agents must not be “entirely unaware” of the truth behind it, while “at the same time they must refuse to know and above all to recognize it” (6). Writing to Francis Brooke in 1837, Clay claimed that he could not “consent to the publication of anything as coming from me or by my authority” in relation to two very controversial issues of the day: tariffs and internal improvements (Clay to Francis Brooke, 10 Dec. 1837, SH 100). He goes on to add, “my objection to such publication is that I cannot consent to seem to propitiate any one for the purpose of advancing what may be thought to be an object personal to myself” (Clay’s emphasis, 100). Throughout Clay’s letters and correspondence, it seems this complex awareness and unawareness of his own personal interest plays an important role in his campaign for office in the late 1830s.

Bourdieu develops and expands his theory by studying the function of kinship among natives from Kabylia, Algeria. He describes how much of the “work” behind marriage arrangements is performed by what he labels “practical kin”--those least qualified to represent the group, such as old women or midwives (34). To have one’s “official kin” deal with such matters as economic conditions of the marriage, the status offered to the wife in the husband’s home, and relations with the husband’s mother, is to jeopardize the group’s overall honor or “hurma” (40). Increasingly, as more and more of the negotiations are established, and the marriage is more likely to succeed, more influential and powerful members of the group become involved: elder brothers before fathers, paternal uncles before grandfathers, etc. It is best to leave these matters to members of the group who have the least amount to lose in the event of a failed arrangement. When all of the practical concerns have been negotiated, then the highest-ranking officials step in at the end for what is in many ways a mere “theatrical representation” of what has already been determined. Often misunderstood by anthropologists as the carrying out of simplified codes or “rules,” when one draws up in theory a “closed, coherent system of purely logical relationships,” Bourdieu argues, the anthropologist “unwittingly brackets” the different practical functions of kinship terms (37). In other words, when one only maps out the final product of kinship exchanges, the various different strategies carried out in practice--strategies that involve various degrees of bargaining, maneuvering, and careful uses of time--often get too easily read as the carrying out of predetermined “rules.” Formisano’s claim that Whig political thought during the late 1830s was not so much a “reasoned, coherent and perhaps logical thought pattern,” but rather a “hierarchy of values linked by quasi-logical, unstructured ideas,” echoes Bourdieu’s theory here. But when one studies the structure of Whig politics closely, it seems there is a very coherent and structured ideology that supports--and indeed determines--their particular method of organization.

For example, we see a similar kind of “cultural theatrics,” as described by Bourdieu, in Henry Clay’s run for office. In a letter from William Mangum on March 26, Clay is informed that North Carolina will send a delegation to the Whig national convention to support Clay only if it is “perfectly sure” that he will be nominated there; if not a certainty, they will “decline” (William Mangum to Clay, 26 March 1838, 166). Peter Porter, in a related letter to Clay in May of 1838, asked his views on the “expediency” of meetings designed to advance his candidacy, but noted in the same breadth that “it is perhaps best” that such views “not be publicly known” (Peter Porter to Clay, 25 May 1838, SH 190). He tells Clay he himself will not attend the Castle Garden meeting on the 29th because he lives in such a remote part of the state and it will appear as if he is a “traveling partizan” (190). But be “rest assured” however, Porter concluded, “that your cause is constantly gaining ground in the State” (190).

Just as Bourdieu’s “practical kin” perform much of the necessary “work” behind marriage arrangements, 19th-century Whig organizers constantly made sure their public appearances would be free of political risk. The system of ideology that went along with such practices was consistently present throughout. Again, I draw from Mannheim here when I argue that in certain situations “the collective unconscious of certain groups obscures the real condition of society both to itself and to others and thereby stabilizes it” (40).Whig ideology seemed to convince Clay’s supporters that when all was said and done, his candidacy for the presidency would not be one of “interest” and campaigning, but one of spontaneous “harmony” with the people. In response to Porter, Clay admitted he was aware a meeting was being arranged in the city by his friends, but added quickly that he had, of course, “nothing to do in originating or organizing it” (Clay to Peter Porter, 28 May 1838, SH 192). “There can be no doubt,” he addressed to the Senate on May of 1838, “that the more there may be spontaneous demonstrations of popular feeling and opinion, on this subject, the greater will be the probability of ultimate union and cooperation” (192). To Edward Harden in March, he expressed sincere gratitude for the invitation to speak at a Georgia commencement ceremony, but added that because he was a presidential candidate, his visit would unfortunately be viewed in political terms. He resolved, in the end, to remain “perfectly passive” so that the “public judgment” on him could be formed “unaffected by any personal efforts” of his own (Clay to Edward Harden, 14 March 1838, SH 164).

As more and more supporters continued to inform him that New York was increasingly in favor of his candidacy, Clay maintained his stance of passivity. When invited to tour through Buffalo and sight-see the state’s great canal and internal improvements, he declared “no one would be deceived as to the purpose. I might proclaim a thousand times that I was only going to see your great Canal and other improvements. Nobody would believe me; and, what is worse, I should feel that I ought not to be credited” (Clay to Peter Porter, 3 June 1838, SH 198). It “best becomes him,” Clay continued, “to remain in an attitude perfectly passive, doing nothing with the intention of attracting the current of public feeling,” nothing to “disturb or affect the exercise to the free and unbiased judgment of the people” (Clay to Gulian C. Verplanck, 8 June 1838, SH 201). The office of the president was so exalted, that it “ought not to be, and, happily, never can be, reached by individual efforts” (202). It should be bestowed by the “free, spontaneous, and deliberate judgment of the people” (202). “If it were possible for 15 million of people to hold their breath, and suppress all expression of their wishes, until December 1839 when they shall be promulgated through the organ of a Nat. Convention, the explosion…would then be only the greater” (Clay to Harrison Otis, 1 Sept. 1838, SH 226).

As the summer months of 1838 passed into winter, Clay began to sense a rising popularity of General Harrison. By November, he feared that if New York was lost, there would be occasion for something Whigs detested most: “long, strenuous and persevering exertions,” possible ending in revolution, “the last resource of an oppressed People” (Clay to Robert Swartwout, 15 Nov. 1838, SH 249). He, in contrast to Webster and this newest rival, had “displayed less action” than either of them, and whatever manifestations of public feeling were presented in favor of him came “unprompted” (Clay to Alexander Wyckoff, 18 Nov. 1838, SH 250). The best, and only way, to secure the great experiment of self-government would be if the convention avoided trying to “make” public sentiment, but instead, merely to “express” and “know” it. And for Clay, it cannot “know it” unless the public “demonstrate it” (Clay to Harrison G. Otis, 13 Dec. 1838, SH 252).

Through January and February of the crucial year 1839, Clay believed the current was sweeping back in his favor. By May, he informed Peter Porter that he intended to leave for a trip to Canada the first of July. It was his “anxious desire,” Clay wrote, to “proceed on the excursion as quietly, and with as little noise and parade as possible” (Clay to Peter Porter, 14 May 1839, SH 313). Due to his previous public pledges, and to his own feelings, Clay admitted that if couldn’t have it in this way, he would abandon the journey. But he hoped his friend would help in executing his plan.

Porter quickly responded to Clay, outlining an entire route by which he could take his trip. Realizing the statesman wanted to avoid the appearance of electioneering, he advised him to pass from Lexington to Columbus, and then to Cleveland or Sandusky on Lake Erie. He would arrive by steamboat in Buffalo, where his arrival would be kept secret until he made his one, and only, dinner speech. His trip would be “bounded” in the interior of New York State by Niagara Falls, Lockport, Rochester, Canandaigua, Wadsworth’s on the Genesee River, Avon, and Batavia. The whole of this trip, Clay is advised, would be through the “infected” or Anti-Mason district (Peter Porter to Clay, 26 May 1839, SH 320). Most of the people in this area were already in favor of Clay, including a large portion of abolitionists, and the “impulse” created by Clay’s presence would “influence many more” (320).

On June 6th, however, Clay informed Porter that he had great concern about this trip. “What I wanted was to pass along quietly, without noise, and without any personal public demonstrations; and what I feared was the difficulty of accomplishing that object amidst your dense population. Your letter augments my apprehensions” (Clay to Peter Porter, 6 June 1839, SH 324). In both “appearance” and in “fact,” Clay reiterated his firm conviction against electioneering. Press and campaign literature was to be kept to a minimum. When he arrived in Niagara Falls, he wrote to Joshua Giddings, “As I am not making a political tour, I have thought it best to avoid all appearances which might tend to excite a belief that politics and not natural curiosities were the object of my excursion” (Clay to Joshua Giddings, 13 July 1839, SH 330).

Clay arrived at Niagara Falls on July 13, viewing the natural scene of beauty and splendor with political friends and supporters. Clay then moved on to Buffalo, where, according to Remini’s account, he continued the “charade” of disinterestedness (Remini 535). “Although my wish is to pass quietly without display or parade,” he said to the crowd that gathered, “I am penetrated with sentiments of gratitude for the manifestations of attachment and confidence with which I am honored in this beautiful city of the lakes” (Remini 535). Since little preparation had been made for his arrival, the enthusiastic response he received from the people pleased the senator.

Clay moved on to Lockport, Rochester, Canandaigua, and Oswego--meeting important political allies all along the way--stopping off to see Governor Seward at Auburn, as well as Congressman Francis Granger and former congressman Albert H. Tracy. He then toured the salt works and the Erie Canal, meeting, dining, and speaking with various local politicians. Everywhere, “enthusiastic demonstrations” paved the way, as masses of people came out to see him. “Quasi public dinners, suppers, vast concourses of people, Committees, & Speech” marked every mile of his journey from one end of New York to the other (Remini 537).

After staying briefly in Montreal and Quebec, Clay’s return to Saratoga, New York, was much anticipated. On August 7th, Philip Hone recorded in his diary how Clay was to be received at the United States Hotel. A program was signed by more than 100 Whigs for the event. “We wished to repress this public demonstration,” Hone noted, but it could not be; the movement is spontaneous, and the people seem determined to out-glorify the other party” (Hone, 7 Aug. 1839, 411-412). More pointedly, Hone adds, “This may be accidental, but it is a happy coincidence for us, and I am mistaken if we do not model something handsome out of this Clay (Hone’s emphasis, 412).

The Weekly Whig had been steadily updating Clay’s progress as he headed from Canada to New York. Although the Whigs are no “man-worshippers,” the report began, “and are not fond of royal democratic pageants,” they had observed “with much attention” the manner of his reception by the “People” (186). “It is well known,” the piece continued, “that Mr. Clay’s visit was entirely of a private nature. He left his farm at Ashland, on an excursion to Niagara and the Lakes for the purpose of visiting the scenery of that region, and himself inspecting the wonders of nature, and the works of art and enterprise” (186).

When he passed through Troy to Albany, the Commercial Advertiser and Journal reported that despite Clay’s attempt at downplaying all of the extravagant shows of popular support, “the people, --and they are sovereign in this manner--will not allow him to travel as he intended” (Remini 540). The Niles Weekly Register, looking back on the tour, added that whenever he entered a community, “there was an immediate and spontaneous assemblage of citizens, in numbers far greater than that which received the president in the Saturday before” (540). For Van Buren, there had been weeks of preparation producing an “official and military pageant” (540). But for Clay, there had been “one day’s notice,” and the result was “an uprising of the people” (540).

It is difficult to imagine how Clay’s procession was thought to be different from his opponent’s “royal” pageants. At Buffalo, sixty-eight carriages had led the senator up to the gates of L.F. Allen’s mansion. At Saratoga, Hone notes how Clay was placed in a new barouche, led by Gerald Coster’s four gray horses and accompanied by Judge Walton and two other gentlemen of the Saratoga committee. With Frank Johnson’s “band of music” leading the way, “such a cavalcade was never before seen in the county of Saratoga” (Hone 413). Their approach was met by the discharge of artillery, and all down the avenues leading to the U.S. Hotel, “expecting crowds” made the village “ring with welcome” (413). Ladies filled the large piazza in festive support, waving handkerchiefs “amid the shouts of men” (414). The dining room was decorated with “bouquets of flowers and festoons of evergreens” as the “fatigued” and “exhausted” statesman finally was led indoors to the sound of “Hail Columbia” and the roar of his many supporters (414). Hone, ever the constant observer, viewed the affair as a “spontaneous expression of public opinion, accomplished with no expense and very little preparation” (417). “Unaccompanied by military parade,” it “exceeded anything of the kind” he had ever witnessed, “excepting the reception of Lafayette” (417).

Writing shortly after Clay’s death in 1853, Epes Sargent reflected on the “tens of thousands” of Clay’s supporters who showered him with praise through Hudson Street, up Fourteenth Street to Union place, and down Broadway to the park. For a distance of nearly four miles long, a “dense mass of horsemen, carriages, carmen, and citizens” paved the way (194). Every window on both sides was filled with waving handkerchiefs. As he reached the park, the “grounds, the windows, and roofs of the surrounding edifices” were all filled with the signs of expectation and joy for the “gallant, generous, warm-hearted, and noble-minded citizen” (194). “But,” Sargent concluded, “The reception was merely a civic one. It was not a got-up, official pageant, where the populace exhibit their gratitude by an invitation of the common council. It was the voluntary, unbought, unbidden, movement of the people, to greet the arrival among them of one, who had ever been eminently the MAN OF THE PEOPLE” (194).

In the late 1830s, as I have shown, Whigs alternated between various periods of passivity and activity in order to blind themselves to their own active forms of party organization. Nineteenth-century Whigs mediated the complex new world of politics by staging “spontaneous” movements by the people, creating what J.V. Matthews describes as a much-needed bond between past and present, between nineteenth-century Whigs and 17th-century colonists. In order to fully grasp the complex, systematic forms of organized politics that were starting to take form in the late 1830s, Whigs needed to understand American history itself as the product of unplanned organization, as passive activity, and as “natural” spontaneity.

About the author: Chris Lang an independent scholar from Bethlehem, PA, and works at Lincoln Financial in Radnor, PA, as a proofreader in the marketing department.

Works Cited
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