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Whiggism Is Still Wrong

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

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.”