Michael Holt of the University of Virginia, the author of several books on antebellum American politics, including The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, is the latest historian to play the historical analogy game. Over at Larry Sabato‘s blog at University of Virginia Center for Politics, Holt shows the limits of comparing the present Republican Party with the 19th-century Whig Party.
Here is a taste:
Far more parallel to the contemporary situation was the rise of notorious Know-Nothing Party, which in fact did far more to gut the Whig Party before 1856 than did Republicans’ exploitation of anti-southern hostility. Economic dislocation that destroyed blue-collar jobs, unemployment during a severe recession in 1854 and 1855, and the palpable growth of both the foreign-born population and the Catholic Church, which in precisely those years demanded that local governments divide local tax revenues between public and Catholic parochial schools, allowed Know-Nothings to exploit burgeoning religious and anti-immigrant prejudices. “How people do hate Catholics,” future Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote in his diary after watching Know-Nothings sweep Cincinnati’s fall elections in 1854, “and what happiness it was to thousands to have a chance to show [that hatred] in what seemed like a lawful and patriotic manner” by voting Know-Nothing. But Know-Nothings allowed angry voters to vent more than religious and ethnic prejudices. They also allowed them to smite established Whig and Democratic leaders who had betrayed them by groveling so overtly for Catholic and immigrant support. A genuinely spontaneous, populist grassroots revolt of angry working- and lower middle-class dissidents, Know-Nothings initially pledged that they would never support any candidate who had ever held or previously sought public office. All professional politicians, they ranted, were the enemy. In their oft-repeated phrase, they exclusively sought candidates “fresh from the ranks of the people.” In its causes and expression, in sum, the Know-Nothing uprising of the 1850s comes as close to previewing today’s Trump phenomenon as one can imagine. Yet it took a different form than the Trump crusade, and that is the all-important difference between then and now.
Read the entire piece here.