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BOOK REVIEWS Parties and Political Conscience: American Dilemmas 1840-1850. By William R. Brock. (Millwood, New York. KTO Press, 1979. Pp. xvi,367. $20.95.) Not so long ago a prominent school of progressive political scientists placed their hopes for reform of United States politics in what they called "responsible party government." This meant generally that political parties not only would develop platforms and promises with which to appeal to the electorate but also once in office would carry through and enact coherent programs based on an underlying philosophy of government. Disguised as a political history of the 1840s, Partiesand Political Conscience, by Professor William R. Brock, is at its most ambitious an explanation of why responsible party government— something akin to a parliamentary system—failed to develop in the United States. The most original part of this book can be found in its early chapters, particularly in Chapter 3, "Party Government—Experiment and Failure," which deals with the frustration of the national Whig party's attempts to enact its major policies in 1841-1842. Among the casualties of the Whigs' failure, says Brock, "was the belief that a party which had won an election could control national policy through its majority in Congress. Success would have meant a significant step toward party government, as distinct from party as an organization for local power and a quadrennial alliance to elect a president" (p. 72). While one might object that the belief that Congressional majorities should control policy was more resilient than this, and that a full explanation of the stunted growth of party government in the United States would require consideration of more than one decade, one can appreciate that Brock has made a significant observation, and that the decade in question was indeed among the more pertinent to such an explanation. Brock covers much familiar ground in several chapters on the election of 1844, Texas annexation, the launching of the Mexican War, the introduction of die Wilmot Proviso, and die debates over slavery extension in Congress that led to the sectionalization of the country and "the paralysis of government" in 1849-1850. He concludes with a critical examination of the Compromise of 1850, and a final chapter on "Political Conscience and the End of a Party System." There is a Nevinsesque quality about this book, not least in the author's discursive style and also BOOK REVIEWS83 in a frequent emphasis on die failure of political leaders to create "statesmanlike" solutions to "basic questions about national purpose and character" (p. 340). Brock has done more, however, than restate an earlier interpretation. This book is a synthesis of old and new points of view, of the secondary literature and of Brock's own selective reading in primary sources. If one stays with it, there are many fresh insights to be encountered along die way. Brock locates the eventual breakup of the Whig-Democratic party system in the original source of its vitality: "political conscience,"which he defines at its most general as people supporting a party "because they believe it has better policies, a better grasp of the long-term interests of the country, and more correct attitudes toward public responsibility" (pp. ix-x). Unfortunately, Brock does not always adhere to this definition. At times "political conscience" seems to mean a manifestation of a moral approach to politics and specifically an antislavery tendency. Brock's insistence on taking seriously the relation between party policy and constituency loyalty is well taken, but his explanation of die "roots of party loyalty" is really only part of the picture. To say that "people support a party because they believe it has better policies, etc." is to ignore the rather crucial matter of why they believe what they believe, and why particular groups throughout our history have shown a radier striking preference for certain beliefs. But Brock is certainly free to emphasize, as he has chosen here, the area of manifest and professed policy. More limiting is Brock's insufficient attention to recent studies of party loyalty in Congress, of the institutional development of Congress, and of the national government generally. Given this thesis, an explicit consideration of levels of party institutionalization within the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 82-83
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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