Whigs Research Paper

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Originally  a term  of abuse,  ‘Whig’ is a term  used to describe a diverse, yet identifiable,  party  or grouping which  was  historically   important in  Great   Britain from  the  late  seventeenth  century  to  the  mid-nineteenth  century.  Although now extinct,  its ideas and sympathies  left important legacies to nineteenth  century political life and culture. It is also used to refer to a  party,  also  now  extinct,  which  flourished   in  the United  States in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Although the Whigs in both countries shared a  set  of  attitudes and  dispositions  rather  than  any coherent   political   doctrines   or  ideology,  the  term ‘Whig’ may  still  be  used  in  contemporary  political discourse.

1.    The British Whigs

The Whigs were the dominant force in parliamentary politics in the eighteenth  century  and  they remained important in the first part  of the nineteenth  century. Founded in opposition to Charles  II, they embraced the principles of the ‘Glorious’ English revolution  of 1688 and were supportive  of the Hanoverian succession of 1714. The Whigs rejected royal absolutism and by extension any claims by the monarch to exercise personal  authority. The Whigs’ central  ideas emphasised the virtues of limited government, the importance of a  balanced  or  mixed  constitution based  on  parliamentary  power and representation based on property not individual rights. Whig thought was especially influenced by the writings of John Locke (1632–1704) and the classical republicanism  of James Harrington (1611–77). Whig  ideology  thus  stood  in contrast  to Tory views about  the prerogative  rights of the Crown on the one hand and radical populism and democratic individualism on the other. Under Sir Robert  Walpole (1676–1745) the Whigs’ loyalty  to these ideas introduced  a new and  relatively coherent  party  character into  parliamentary politics,  although the  ties which bound  the Whig Party were likely to be personal  and familial rather than doctrinal. Given that formal party organization  was  not   a  feature   of  parliamentary politics  until  the  mid-nineteenth century,  social  ties were especially important in binding  the  Whigs  together. Whigs were largely, but not exclusively, drawn from  the  aristocratic and  landed  interest  which  to some extent explained their conviction that there was a natural link between a strong property-owning class and the protection of liberty.

The Whig Party,  although a recognizable  entity in British politics, was never wholly united.  In addition to personal rivalries and generational differences, there were  severe splits  over  the  American  revolution   of 1776  and  the  French   revolution   in  the  eighteenth century  and  parliamentary reform  in the  nineteenth century.  The French  revolution  saw the Whigs split into two antagonistic groups in 1794: those who opposed  the violence inherent  in the revolution  and who supported war with France and those who looked more  favorably  on  the  revolution  and  could  see no cause for war with France. The criticism of the French revolution  was led by Edmund Burke (1729–97) who in his Reflections  on the Revolution in France (1790) and his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791) provided  a defence of gradual  constitutional change which influenced later conservative thought. The pro-French  party was associated  with Charles James Fox (1749–1806).

The  new political  agenda  created  by industrialization  and  democratization in the nineteenth  century further  weakened the Whigs. As the expansion  of the franchise  created  new pressures  to  organize  outside parliament as well as within it, the Whigs found their ideas and their politics eclipsed by radicals and liberal reformers  who stressed the rights  of individuals  and looked to the state to effect social, economic, and political  reform.  With  the  formation of the  Liberal Party  in  the  1850s, the  distinctive  character   of  the Whigs was eroded. In the party realignments  over the Irish issue in 1885–6 the Whigs finally lost their identity and the word largely went out of political currency.

2.    The American Whigs

The theorists of the American revolution shared much of the  intellectual  heritage  of the  English  Whigs  in their emphasis on constitutionalism, balanced government  and  liberty,  and  their  admiration for  classical republicanism. American whiggery also parallelled the aristocratic and landed character  of English whiggism in its appeal especially to the plantation owners of the south. And whiggism had a strongly Protestant appeal in the United  States as in England.

A  separate   and  distinctive  Whig  Party   did  not however arise in the United  States until 1834 when a loose  coalition   of  opponents of  President   Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) and his policies emerged around the leadership  of Henry  Clay. The name ‘Whig’ was deliberately taken to signal the new party’s opposition to  Jackson’s   assertive   view  of  presidential   power (which  evoked  memories  of  monarchical rule)  and support   for   national   development   in  contrast   to Jackson’s agrarian  populism.

The coalition which formed the Whig Party included the National Republican Party,  supporters of Henry Clay’s American System, the anti-Masonic party, and anti-Jackson Democrats. Although the Whigs could not agree on a presidential  candidate in 1836, in 1840 they  united   around  William  Henry   Harrison  who defeated Martin  van Buren. When Harrison died after only a month  in office, John Tyler, a strong supporter of states rights, succeeded as President.  Tyler became increasingly  distanced  from  the  Whig  Party’s  more nationalistic senior figures Clay and Daniel Webster. The Whig Party won the presidency again in 1848 with Zachary Taylor. The Whigs were the majority party in the Senate between 1841 and 1844 and controlled  the House of Representatives between 1841–2 and 1847–8. Millard  Fillmore,  Taylor’s vice-president  who succeeded to the presidency  on Taylor’s  death  in 1850, was  the  last  Whig  president.   Regional   and  policy divisions, especially over free soil and slavery, weakened the Whigs in the 1850s and the Party ran its last presidential candidate, Winfield Scott, who lost against Franklin Pierce  in  1852. Factions of  the  old  Whig Party were subsequently absorbed into the Democratic Party  and the Republican Party  which in 1860 nominated   a  former   Whig,   Abraham  Lincoln,   as  its presidential  candidate.

3.    Contemporary Usage

Although rarely used in contemporary political debate the term ‘whig’ is occasionally used to refer to liberals who   are   suspicious   of  democratic   populism   and abstract political theories,  believing instead  that  political liberty is best promoted by the preservation of property and reforms rooted in the specific institutions of a society. It is also still used to refer to a school of historical writing which sees historical development as a benign, purposive, and progressive process. Although this so-called ‘whig view of history’ is most commonly associated with nineteenth century writers such as Thomas  Babington  Macaulay  (1800–1859), it may be used  more   broadly   to   refer  to   any   evolutionary historical  theory.


  1. Elofson W M 1996 The Rockingham Connection and the Second Founding of the Whig Party 1768–1773. McGill Queens University Press, Montreal
  2. Guttridge G H   1979  English  Whiggism   and  the  American Revolution. AMS Press, New York
  3. Holt M F 1999 The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian  Politics and the Onset  of the Civil War.  Oxford University  Press, New York
  4. Howe D W 1979 The Political Culture of the American Whigs. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  5. Jones J R 1970 The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusions
  6. Crisis 1678–1683. Oxford University Press, London
  7. Mitchell L G 1971 Charles James Fox and the Disintegration of the Whig Party. Oxford University Press, Oxford,  UK
  8. Poage G R 1936 Henry Clay and the Whig Party. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
  9. Southgate D 1993 The Passing of the Whigs.  Gregg  Revivals, Aldershot,  UK
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