Whither the Whigs? Donald Trump, the Know-Nothings, and the Politics of the 1850s

The historical curiosity of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Republican nomination has resulted in, among other things, a seeming endless litany of historical comparisons. As modern pundits, politicos, and historians have attempted to explain the success of Trump’s campaign, they have compared his candidacy to any number of historical precedents, ranging from Barry Goldwater and George Wallace in the 1960s, to Teddy Roosevelt and Huey Long, and, perhaps most frequently, Andrew Jackson.[i] Of course, Trump’s candidacy is also notable for the fractious impact it has had on the Republican Party, and that, too, has produced its own share of historical parallels. Predictions of a contested Republican nominating convention earlier this year, for example, invoked the stereotype of the supposedly corrupt party conventions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when wirepullers brokered nominations in smoke-filled back rooms. When that scenario failed to materialize, the divisive rhetoric of this summer’s Republican National Convention prompted several prominent historians and political scientists to rate it among the worst conventions ever, placing the 2016 RNC alongside such luminaries as the 1868 and 1968 Democratic National Conventions.[ii] (As a side note, however, it was disappointing that the 1860 DNC failed to make that list, as it is difficult to imagine a less successful convention than one that adjourned without a nominee.)

Some historians have compared the 2016 Republican National Convention to the Democratic National Convention that met in New York City in July 1868. Harper’s Weekly, July 7, 1868. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

The rest of the article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

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