Skip to main content

When Henry Clay Led the #Resistance

To get a sense of the quandary facing the Democratic Party, look back two centuries, to the plight of the short-lived National Republican Party.
A portrait of Henry Clay, by Matthew Harris Jouett, circa 1818.

A portrait of Henry Clay, by Matthew Harris Jouett, circa 1818.

There are times when history rhymes, and times when it just seems to be plagiarizing. If you want to get a sense of the quandary currently facing the Democratic Party, it's helpful to examine the plight of a short-lived party from two centuries ago, the National Republicans.

The National Republicans of the late 1820s and early '30s are generally considered the precursor to the Whigs, one of America's two major parties until the 1850s. They were also often referred to as the Anti-Jacksonians because their primary function and orientation was opposition to Andrew Jackson, whose 1828 election and norm-breaking administration stunned political observers on a nearly daily basis.

That's not to say Andrew Jackson is a perfect analogy for Donald Trump or that National Republican leader Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky is the forebear of today's establishment Democrats. But the parallels are still striking.

As Michael Holt describes in his 1999 book The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, Clay and others were horrified by Jackson's 1828 election. They worried he was a potential despot who would undermine the nation's fragile institutions and democratic norms. They simultaneously dismissed his election as a fluke. "They regarded the outcome," Holt writes, "as a triumph by the magnetic Jackson over the aloof and colorless [John Quincy] Adams. Hoopla, demagoguery, and Jackson's refusal to take a stand on matters of national policy, they thought, had temporarily dazzled voters, while sheer opportunism had engaged politicians with divergent policy goals in the Jackson cause."

The National Republicans at first pursued a passive strategy of opposition to Jackson, confident that people would naturally turn against him once he was forced to take stances on actual policy issues. But they had misread the public and underestimated Jackson.

Jackson's "vigorous advocacy of Indian removal increased his popularity in the South and the West," according to Holt. "His demand for rotation in office among federal officeholders and his defiant contempt for ... snobbish social pretension ... enhanced his image as a foe of privilege and elitism." In other words, Jackson maintained his base through racist policies, calls for term limits, and populist rhetorical appeals. I mean, seriously people.

National Republicans soon recognized that the Jackson administration wouldn't implode on its own. So they sought an alliance with a third-party group, the Anti-Masonic Party. The Anti-Masonics aren't a perfect match for today's allies of Bernie Sanders, but there are parallels. The Anti-Masonics were foremost opposed to what they saw as a conspiracy of an elite fraternity known as the Freemasons to control American political institutions. Many of them feared Jackson as a threat to republicanism. But they also distrusted the National Republicans, whom they saw as secretive elitists.

National Republicans, Holt explains, "clung to an eighteenth-century version of republicanism that stressed governance by an insulated elite on behalf of the public good rather than other republican values like self-government, equal rights, and liberty." He continues: "Public issues, they thought, should be decided by reasoned debate among leading public figures, not by referenda at the polls. In their eyes, the egalitarian populism of Anti-Masonry was just as dangerous as the anti-establishment impulse that had brought Jackson to power."

National Republican leaders hoped for a ticket in 1832 that would unite them with the Anti-Masonics to take on Jackson, but it was particularly hard to get Anti-Masonics to back the National Republican's preferred candidate, Henry Clay. Not only was Clay a pretty comfortable elite, but he was also a Freemason. Nevertheless, Holt writes, "The convention nominated Clay unanimously, and then issued a staggeringly long address explaining their action.... The very length of this document, the detail in which it reviewed Jackson's record, and its language all indicated that National Republicans were still trying to convert leaders rather than court voters." This effort failed. The Anti-Masonics nominated their own candidate, William Wirt, but even their combined vote fell well short of Jackson's, who won re-election in 1832 with 55 percent of the popular vote.

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War.

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War.

Now, historical parallels like this are provocative and suggestive, but they don't really tell us how to act. After all, Jackson, Clay, and other political actors and observers of the 1820s and '30s were watching events unfold and seeking to understand them, but they hardly had any better a grasp on the fundamental causes of election outcomes than we do today. Holt's claim that Jackson's anti-Indian policies increased the president's popularity in the South and West are plausible, but we often have a very difficult time figuring out what causes popularity shifts today in an era of massive polling information; making such inferences about events from the 1820s involves a good deal of conjecture.

And even if we accept events as Holt wrote them and decide Democrats are following the same path today that National Republicans were on then, what route would that suggest modern Democrats take? Should they pursue a broad platform even at the expense of core issue stances? Should they be patient and slowly build a larger party that seizes control after the incumbent party wins three successive elections? Or does history, in fact, provide very little in the way of proscriptive advice?

Regardless, the National Republicans provide a great example of a party trying to understand why it lost an election and figuring out, perhaps too late, what to do about it.