the politics of opposition
power, reform, and dissolution
The Whigs were one of the two main opposing political parties in Great Britain in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The term originally referred to the opposition to James II in the decade before the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Whigs led Parliament from 1715 to 1760 before losing the confidence of the Crown and electorate. In December 1783 King George III selected William Pitt the Younger to lead a new Tory government. The Whigs would remain out of power until 1830, save for Charles James Fox's participation in 1806 in the "ministry of all the talents" under the conservative Lord Grenville.
During the reign of George III (1760–1820) the Whigs constituted less of a party per se than a network of aristocratic families operating in Parliament through patronage and influence. Unity relied on personal loyalty, shared ideology, or the simple desire for power. Modern party alignments emerged after 1784, when new political crises, including the controversy over the American Revolution, roused public opinion. The most prominent Whig faction, headed by the second Marquis of Rockingham, advocated freedom for the American colonists and counted the Irish-born philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke among its ranks.
The Whigs cherished fundamentally aristocratic attitudes and regarded themselves as the natural protectors of English liberties and civil institutions against the influences of the Crown. They looked upon society as a hierarchical set of interdependent relationships and looked down upon the authoritarian uses of state coercion. Their vision was of a consensual and cooperative civil society bound together by deferential citizens with reciprocal rights and responsibilities, led by a socially responsible and benevolent governing class. Government powers were to be bounded by law, custom, and humane principles. Whigs stood firmly against monopolies in commerce, religion, and politics.
Fox led the Whig opposition for many of these years, representing the interests of religious dissenters, provincial industrialists, and a rising middle class. His support for the French Revolution of 1789 and his opposition to the war against France pushed some moderate Whigs to support Pitt and isolated Foxites from growing conservative sentiment. Between 1803 and 1806 the party rebuilt itself, as Fox and Lord Grenville drew in Whigs who had left over the French Revolution. A Foxite core, the more conservative Grenvillites, and Samuel Whitbread's radical "Mountain" (named in ironic reference to Maximilien Robespierre's allies in the National Convention) comprised the spectrum of Whig opposition until the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. Though diverse in their principles, all factions supported Catholic emancipation and the general expansion of civil liberties.
Between 1808 and 1830 the Whigs established themselves as an effective opposition. Henry Brougham, a Scottish barrister and leading Whig parliamentarian, advanced his party's fortunes by extending party activity beyond Westminster to the nation as a whole, appealing to provincial merchants and manufacturers frustrated at their exclusion from influence. He opened up county and borough politics through contested parliamentary elections and played to public opinion and the press to keep Tory governments on the defensive.
The Whigs benefited from Tory Prime Minister Liverpool's stroke in 1827 and the government's split over Catholic Emancipation in 1829. In 1830 William IV (r. 1830–1837) turned to the Whigs under the leadership of Earl Grey to form a government. Grey and his successor, Lord Melbourne, pursued a general program of measured reform over the next decade.
The government's bold Reform Act of 1832 replaced notoriously "rotten" boroughs, which had few voters, with representatives for the previously unrepresented manufacturing districts and cities. It also increased the size of the electorate in England and Wales by over two hundred thousand persons, or almost 50 percent. The basis of voting, however, remained a property qualification. Some working-class voters lost the right to vote as a result of the abolition of old franchise rights.
The 1832 Reform Act initiated a political realignment that favored the Whigs and would fuel the emerging Liberal Party well into the 1880s. The Whig leadership had connected high politics with middle-class provincial interests and public opinion, forming the bedrock of Victorian liberalism.
Returned with a huge majority at the general election of December 1832, the Whigs carried out a number of other important reforms. A statute in 1833 ended slavery in the British colonies, while another charter reduced the East India Company from a monopolistic trading power to a purely administrative organ.
In 1834 the new Poor Law was passed. The law grouped parishes into unions and placed them under the control of elected boards of guardians, with a national Poor Law Board in London. Its basic principle—that outdoor poor relief should cease and that conditions in workhouses should be "less eligible" than the worst conditions in the labor market outside—was bitterly resented by workers and many writers throughout the country and led to outbreaks of violence. As the Whigs provoked working-class hostility, they saw the spread of Chartist campaigns, which attacked the Reform Act as a sellout to the upper classes and opposed the new Poor Law.
Lord Grey's successor, Lord Melbourne, successfully passed the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, which replaced old oligarchies in local government with elected councils. Many unincorporated industrial communities received their first governmental powers. Melbourne failed, however, to find effective answers to the pressing financial, economic, and social questions of the day. These questions grew after 1836, when a financial crisis unleashed an economic depression accompanied by a series of bad harvests.
Once the Whigs began to live with the reforms they had enacted in the early 1830s, they lost their radical vitality and fell into decline. By 1840, they had alienated many of the groups that had originally cooperated with their reforming legislation, such as the Dissenters, Evangelicals, and Benthamites. The Whigs also lost radical members disillusioned with the limited nature of factory reform and the failure to end squalor in the towns, and they acquired a reputation for the occasional endorsement of repressive measures, as in the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs of 1834.
The Tories under Robert Peel won the 1841 election. During the 1840s the Whig label lost its political meaning as reformers gathered under the Liberal banner.
Hay, William Anthony. The Whig Revival, 1808–1830. New York, 2005.
Jenkins, T. A. Gladstone, Whiggery, and the Liberal Party, 1874–1886. Oxford, U.K., 1988.
Mitchell, Leslie. The Whig World. London, 2005.
Parry, Jonathan. The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain. New Haven, Conn., 1993.
Smith, E. A. Whig Principles and Party Politics: Earl Fitz-william and the Whig Party, 1748–1833. Manchester, U.K., 1975.
Wasson, Ellis Archer. Whig Renaissance: Lord Althorp and the Whig Party, 1782–1845. New York, 1987.
By the mid-1750s the ruling ‘old corps’ Whigs under Pelhamite direction were losing their party motivation under the vicissitudes of factionalism, and George III's antipathy to party resulted in many being removed from office. By the 1760s all politicians regarded themselves loosely as Whigs, but the term was consciously appropriated by the remnants of the old corps who had regrouped as an aristocratic country party led by Rockingham. Their consciousness as a ‘party’ was promoted by Burke in the 1770s and 1780s, with economical reform and the reduction of the power of the crown essential to their evolving ideology. The political crisis at the end of the American war brought them briefly to office until Rockingham's sudden death in July 1782. In 1783 they were the driving force behind the Fox–North coalition, but the king's long-standing hatred of Fox hastened their dismissal, enabling him to appoint the younger Pitt to head a government of essentially non-party Whigs. The Rockingham Whigs, now led by the duke of Portland and Charles James Fox, split in 1794 over their reaction to the French Revolution, with ‘conservative’ Whigs under Portland joining Pitt's administration, and the Foxites remaining in opposition. The latter kept alive the name of Whig, associating it with political, religious, and social reform, thereby contributing to the ideological context of the Reform Act of 1832. The mid-19th cent. saw Whiggery largely subsumed into liberalism, though some, like Devonshire, alienated by Gladstone's concession of Irish Home Rule in 1886, finished up in the Conservative Party.