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The True Whig Ascendancy

Sidetracked by the Roye debacle, the True Whig Party reemerged in 1877 as the dominant political party, sweeping the elections that year that put its candidate, Anthony William Gardiner, in the presidency. The True Whigs carried every The True Whig Ascendancy subsequent national election, usually without serious opposition, and would dominate Liberian political life for more than 100 years. Although there was no legal prohibition, against other parties, Liberia became in effect a one?party state.

The True Whig Party was organized at the national, county, and local levels. At each level it was controlled centrally by an executive committee composed of an inner core of party and government officials?men referred to as the "Honorables" or, more colloquially, the "big shots"?who set the party's and,, therefore, the government's agenda. The choice of the presidential candidate the True Whigs' "standard?bearer" nominated at the party's national convention?was determined previously in bar gaining sessions conducted by leading personalities and factions represented on an executive committee. Parallel county conven tions chose candidates for the legislature who were virtually as sured election at the polls. In contrast to the unanimity de monstrated at the national convention, some of these contests could be prolonged and bitter, pitting rival families and factions against one another. The resemblance of the True Whig Party to organized American politics was, as far as it went, intentional. The party, for example, was also known as the "Grand Old Party," and its symbol was the elephant.

Electoral campaigns were active despite the lack of a real op position. A token challenge might be offered by a faction within the party at odds with the current party leadership. Officeholders who were asked to step down to make way for another candidate might be placated by the offer of a government appointment or dissidents persuaded to withdraw from a race by the promise of a place on the ticket in a subsequent election. Criticism of the True Whig Party was seen as a threat to the solidarity of the AmericoLiberian community; although freedom of speech was guaranteed by the constitution, restrictions were placed on dissent, and opposition candidates were subjected to official harassment. Between elections there was little, if any, organized opposition to True Whig governments.

The leadership of the True Whig Party paralleled that of the Masonic Order, and it was as inconceivable for anyone to aspire to a political career who was not a lodge member as it was for someone who was not a member of the party. The lodges enforced social control on potential dissenters and provided the setting in which political bargains could be struck among fellow members. Government and party officials were also likely to be prominent members of one of the Protestant churches. A number of ordained clergymen were also politically active, and appointment to lay positions in the church, such as that of vestryman, was often contingent on political affiliation.

Political power was concentrated in a small number of prominent families who led factions and formed alliances within the party. A political career could be enhanced by a wise marriage. Established politicians took promising young men in "wardship," preparing the way for their advancement. If a patron fell from grace within the party oligarchy, the ward either sought out a new patron or lost his preferment. Patronage pervaded all administrative practices. Because government jobs and appointments were owed to a party connection, a portion of the salary of each civil servant and officeholder was diverted to party funds.

Under the True Whigs, personal wealth became the byproduct of involvement in politics rather than entrepreneurship (see The Social Order, ch. 2). Those outside the True Whig oligarchy or not beholden to it were prevented from acquiring an independent source of economic influence. Large business firms were almost all foreign owned and, therefore, depoliticized, although they were expected to make "contributions" to the party and provide jobs for politically well?connected Liberians. Liberian owned businesses were of two kinds: either small businesses run by those without political stature o? larger enterprises owned but not operated by government and party officials that profited from government preferment. The brightest and most ambitious young Liberians were consequently attracted to the study of law, which was a preparation for politics and administration and conferred social status. The political system that produced lawyers in numbers disproportionate to the need stifled incentives for entering business as a career and also diverted talent from fields such as medicine, education, and engineering. On the one hand, the undeveloped Liberian economy offered little opportunity for technically trained graduates and entrepreneurs, but, on the other hand, the lack of them contributed to Liberia's underdevelopment.

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