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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.
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- Guttridge G H 1979 English Whiggism and the American Revolution. AMS Press, New York
- 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
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- Southgate D 1993 The Passing of the Whigs. Gregg Revivals, Aldershot, UK