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Whiggism Is Still Wrong

Vivek Ramaswamy says he wants to “make hard work cool again.” He isn’t the first.

andrew jackson

Vivek Ramaswamy says he wants to “make hard work cool again.” The long-shot Republican candidate has been visiting places GOP politicians typically avoid, like college campuses, preaching the supposedly countercultural virtue of toil. His messaging won’t win him the nomination, much less address the crises of the American labor market. Yet they are a striking reminder of the stability of Whig ideology in our political life across nearly 200 years.

Whig ideology—or “the Whig Counter-Reformation,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called it—denies the existence of enduring social classes in the United States, or else suggests that there are no enduring conflicts between the classes. Social misery is the product of either rare misfortune or the failure of indolent individuals to seize opportunity. And reform isn’t a matter of redressing imbalances in power through politics. No, it’s the heart or “the culture” that has to be reformed. Hard work has to be made “cool again,” as Ramaswamy says.


In framing things this way, Ramaswamy stands in an old tradition. Whig ideology was the response mounted by America’s market elites to the Jacksonian uprising. For decades since the Founding, America’s market system had chugged along, industrializing the economy, proletarianizing its once-independent working men, and imposing enormous new stresses on the yeomanry. But it wasn’t until the crash of 1819 that the frustrations of the many, and their sense of vulnerability relative to the few, congealed into what then–Secretary of War John C. Calhoun described memorably as a “general mass of disaffection.”

Not unlike Donald Trump in 2015-16, Andrew Jackson was the unlikely outsider who gave voice to the disaffected. His 1824 presidential bid began as a ruse by local oligarchs against their enemies in his native Tennessee but soon resonated nationally. Old Hickory, who had been left in debt by his own failed stint as a land speculator, blamed paper money and banks for the people’s suffering. Blocked by the “corrupt bargain” between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay in 1824, Jackson clinched the presidency four years later. His anger soon found a more specific target in the imperious Second Bank of the United States. The BUS was a private, profiteering institution that was chartered and partially funded by Congress but that strenuously resisted democratic control. This, although it effectively acted as a central bank and disciplined the flow of credit by buying and holding—or selling and demanding specie for—the paper notes of much weaker state banks.

Jackson’s anti-Bank message resonated with broad ranks of American society (although the exact share of the population that supported Jackson’s Bank War has long been contested by historians). Western and Southern smallholders, urban workers in the North, and smaller capitalists everywhere who felt excluded by the establishment rallied to the Jacksonian cause, as did reformist intellectuals like Orestes Brownson, George Bancroft, William Leggett, Frances “Fanny” Wright, William Cullen Bryant, and so on.

Jackson’s “solution” to the tyranny of the BUS was small government: Another old pattern in American history is the libertarian conviction that often goes hand-in-hand with populist sentiment. Jackson, while in some respects an expansive nationalist, was in others a Jeffersonian strict constructionist. He had long believed that “the congress has no constitutional power to grant a charter...of paper issues,” as he told his Democratic senatorial ally (and one-time duel opponent) Thomas Hart Benton. So he vetoed the Bank’s charter when it came up for renewal, and then proceeded to remove federal taxpayer funds from its coffers, placing them instead in select state banks, the so-called pets.

For our purposes, the substance of Jackson’s reforms in the Bank War matters less than the reaction they elicited from market elites jittery about the rise of democracy, both political and economic. Save for a few pseudo-aristocratic strongholds like Rhode Island and South Carolina, the franchise had in this period expanded to include many formerly excluded ranks of white men. A people grown accustomed to having a more direct say in political matters also increasingly demanded popular control over market institutions: not just banking and the currency, but also the workplace became a site of political contestation through the rise of the labor movement.


It was against this backdrop that Whig ideology began to take hold among the wealthy and upper middle classes. An earlier generation of old-school Federalists—men like Chancellor James Kent, Noah Webster, and, yes, Alexander Hamilton—could simply insist that the rabble have no business shaping policy. As Noah Webster wrote, if distinctions between rich and poor were to endure, and they always would, then why not recognize them in the structure of the state? For “the man who has half a million of dollars in property...has a much higher interest in government, than the man who has little or no property.” The one deserves a much greater say than the other.

Yet by the 1830s, Jackson and the Jacksonians had made it impossible to speak this way. One sign of the change came in 1834, when Roger Brooke Taney, among the most militant Jacksonians in Old Hickory’s Parlor (as opposed to “Kitchen”) Cabinet, returned to his home in Baltimore, having helped the general slay the banking “monster” as his Treasury secretary. The local pro-Bank organ, the Chronicle, mocked the working classes who turned up to greet Taney. Their horses, the paper noted, bore collar marks on their necks—meaning, these were poor people with humble livestock.

Democratic papers naturally took advantage of the misstep and, as usual, counterpunched twice as hard. If the Chronicle’s reporter had examined the hands of the men riding the work-worn animals, bellowed the Jacksonian Republican, he would have noticed the same “striking indications of work as were witnessed on the necks of the horses.” It added: “We had reason to believe that our neighbor had but little regard for ‘working men,’ but did not suppose the antipathy went so far as to ridicule a procession on account of the employment in it of working horses.” The Chronicle’s class arrogance was downright ridiculous in this new age.

Yet the elites would soon master a different political vernacular, and this was the Whig ideology. Partly, it had to do with how Whig politicians presented themselves. Going forward, even politicians representing market elites would have to pitch themselves as men of humble origins, solicitous, above all, for the happiness and prosperity of other Americans from such backgrounds. The Whigs would master this transfiguration by 1840, embracing their nominee William Henry Harrison’s dubious image as a downhome man of the people. What Jackson dismissed privately as the Whigs’ “Logg cabin hard cider and Coon humbuggery” would prove thoroughly winsome at the ballot box, to Old Hickory’s chagrin and that of his Democratic successor, Martin Van Buren, who was swept out of office that year.

But beyond campaign imagery, there was a deeper ideological effort afoot. Gone was the old-school Federalist idea that those with property should have greater say in the affairs of state. Instead, the Whigs promoted the idea that we shouldn’t think of class differences at all, since “the interests of the classes [were] identical,” as Schlesinger noted. A prominent Philadelphia Whig, for example, wrote that “however selfish may be the disposition of the wealthy, they cannot benefit themselves without serving the labourer.” Thus, “if the labouring classes are desirous of having the prosperity of the country restored”—this was in the aftermath of the Bank War—“they must sanction all measures tending to reinstate our commercial credit, without which the wealthy will be impoverished.”

A step further was the idea that America simply has no social classes at all. Wrote one Whig critic of the labor movement: “These phrases, higher orders, and lower orders, are of European origin, and have no place in our Yankee dialect”—seeming to forget his own ideological forebears’ insistence that there are, in fact, rich and poor, and that the former must be allowed to rule unchallenged.

Still another variation was to suggest that social classes in America are so fluid and mobile as to be politically meaningless. Today’s worker is tomorrow’s capitalist, who hires a hand, and this third will tomorrow own his own shop and hire still other workers. And so on. “The wheel of fortune is in constant operation,” wrote the Whig Sen. Edward Everett, “and the poor in one generation furnish the rich of the next.” The Whig minister Calvin Colton agreed: “Every American laborer can stand up proudly, and say, I AM THE AMERICAN CAPITALIST, which is not a metaphor but literal truth.” Abraham Lincoln, too, promoted this idea — which I have elsewhere called the cycle-of-classes theory of political economy — in his famous Speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society.

Yet the most powerful element of Whig ideology was the primacy of internal, spiritual, or cultural uplift over governmental policy or material reforms. The worker will rise, wrote the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, not by “struggling for another rank,” nor through “political power,” but by “Elevation of Soul.” Instead of seeking worldly reforms, Channing advised, workers should grow in “intelligence” and “self-respect.” Another Whig reformer declared: “Legislation can do nothing; combinations among working classes”—that is, labor unions—“could probably effect no permanent remedy.” But if workers bettered themselves interiorly, they would find the peace that no external policy solution could bring.

“Making hard work cool again” harks back to these old Whig themes. For it suggests that a significant share of American workers simply decided to stop participating in the labor market or grew tired of making productivity gains. The problem, in this telling, aren’t things like the loss of U.S. manufacturing thanks to neoliberal trade policies and the rise of a low-wage and precarious services-based economy. Nor is the financial industry’s erosion of the real economy to blame. No, American workers just decided, en masse, that work is un-cool, and it’s up to the Whiggish politician to tell them that work is pretty cool, actually.

Nearly 200 years ago, Orestes Brownson, the Massachusetts preacher, journalist, and Jacksonian reformer, who certainly wasn’t one to pooh-pooh spiritual uplift, answered Whig ideology once and for all. “This position,” he countered, 

is not tenable. If it were, it would be fatal to all progress, and be most heartily pleasing to all tyrants. The plain English of it is, perfect the individual before you undertake to perfect society make your men perfect, before you seek to make your institutions perfect. This is plausible, but we dislike it, because it makes perfection of institutions the end, and that of  individuals merely the means. Perfect all your men, and no doubt, you could then perfect easily and safely your institutions. But when all your men are perfect, what need of perfecting your institutions? And wherein are those institutions, under which all individuals may attain to the full perfection admitted by human nature, imperfect?