Whig Party

views updated Jun 27 2018


The Whig party emerged as a coalition of politicians opposed to andrew jackson and Jacksonian Democracy. Some prominent Whigs, like daniel webster, traced their political roots to the old federalist party, while others, like henry clay, had been Jeffersonian Democrats. Most had also been National Republicans and, as such, supported the presidencies of james monroe and john quincy adams. When the Anti-Masonic party collapsed, most of its members became Whigs. Some extreme states ' rights southerners briefly affiliated with the Whigs in reaction to Jackson's heavy-handed response to South Carolina in the nullification controversy. A few Democrats joined the Whigs because they disagreed with Jackson over the bank of the united states or because they were disillusioned with Old Hickory's successor, martin van buren. In the 1850s the Whig party collapsed. Most northern Whigs joined the republican party, while southern Whigs became Know-Nothings or Democrats.

Whigs favored high tariffs, federally funded internal improvements, a national banking system, a relatively weak presidency, and deference to Supreme Court rulings on constitutional questions. In 1832 the Young Men's National Republican Convention, which nominated Henry Clay for President, resolved "that the Supreme Court of the United States is the only tribunal recognized by the constitution for deciding, in the last resort, all questions arising under the constitution and laws of the United States, and that, upon the preservation of the authority and jurisdiction of that court inviolate, depends the existence of the Union."

The Whig party avoided taking any position on slavery, seeking northern compromise on the issue in return for southern support for northern economic interests. Northern Whigs, like Daniel Webster, abraham lincoln, and william h. seward, opposed slavery with differing degrees of passion. In the 1830s some Whig congressmen, led by John Quincy Adams and Joshua Giddings, fought for the right to petition Congress on slavery. Adams viewed this as a constitutional right guaranteed by the petition clause of the first amendment. However, when Whigs controlled Congress and the White House in the early 1840s, they, too, adopted gag rules to prevent the reading of abolitionist petitions. Southern Whigs supported slavery, but they never supported southern extremists. Indeed, southern Whigs opposed states' rights, southern nationalism, and secession; however, in 1861 southern ex-Whigs, like alexander stephens, robert toombs, and Judah P. Benjamin, became confederate leaders.

Whigs from both sections opposed the annexation of texas, the Mexican War, and other aggressions of Manifest Destiny. During the Mexican War they argued that President james k. polk had exceeded his constitutional authority by sending troops into southern Texas and Mexico to provoke war.

The Whigs won only two presidential elections. General William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, died a month after taking office and was succeeded by john tyler, a former states' rights Democrat who had little sympathy for many Whig positions. Under Tyler the Whigs passed a major but short-lived bankruptcy law and a higher tariff. President Tyler vetoed two Whig-sponsored bills to reestablish a national banking system.

In 1848 the Whigs captured the White House with another war hero, General zachary taylor, by avoiding taking a stand on any major issues. Whigs generally supported the compromise of 1850, which was passed as individual pieces of legislation and signed into law by the deceased Taylor's vice-president, millard fillmore, a moderate Whig from New York. By 1852, however, the party was deeply divided over the compromise and slavery in general. After 1850 the Whig party collapsed in the South, as southerners abandoned the party that appeared to be dominated by staunch antislavery men such as Senator William Seward of New York. After 1854 most northern Whigs also abandoned the party, either for the nativist American (Know-Nothing) party or the Republican party.

Constitutionally the Whigs stood for a strong Union and federal intervention in the economy. Whigs argued for a broad reading of federal power under the commerce clause and an expansive judicial power. Although neither was appointed by a Whig President, Justices joseph story and john mclean came to symbolize Whig views of the Constitution. The greatest symbol of the party's constitutional position was not, however, a judge, but the attorney and politician Daniel Webster.

Even before the Whig party was formed, Webster presented "Whig-like" arguments in the dartmouth college v. woodward (1819) and gibbons v. ogden (1824), in which he argued for a strict interpretation of the contract clause and a reading of the Constitution that gave Congress exclusive jurisdiction over interstate commerce. He made similar arguments in groves v. slaughter (1841), the license cases (1847), and the passenger cases (1849). The bedrock of Whig constitutional nationalism was best stated by Webster's 1830 reply to Senator robert young hayne's argument in favor of nullification and Webster's speech supporting the Compromise of 1850. In answering Hayne, Webster declared, "I go for the Constitution as it is, and for the Union as it is." Webster argued, "It is, sir, the people's Constitution, the people's government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people." He concluded with the ringing plea for "Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable." In his March 7, 1850, speech Webster supported the compromise measures, declaring, "I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States." He told his colleagues, "I speak today for the preservation of the Union." These measures, introduced by the Whig Clay and supported by Webster, symbolize the constitutional principles of the Whigs—support for the Union and compromise above all else—and the reason for their collapse. By the mid-1850s, compromise based on blind fidelity to the Union was no longer possible in a nation torn by sectional strife and about to go to war over slavery. Significantly, perhaps, the last Whig President, Millard Fillmore, opposed secession but also opposed all of Lincoln's policies to stop secession. By this time, however, the supporters of Whig nationalism and constitutionalism had followed such Whigs as Seward and Lincoln into the Republican party.

Paul Finkelman


Bartlett, Irving H. 1978 Daniel Webster. New York: Norton.

Mc Cormick, Richard P. 1966 The Second American Party System. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Van Deusen, Glyndon G. 1973 The Whig Party. In Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of U.S. Political Parties. Vol. 1, pages 332–493. New York: Chelsea House.

Whig Party

views updated Jun 11 2018


Whig Party was a name applied to political parties in England, Scotland, and America. Whig is a short form of the word whiggamore, a Scottish word once used to describe people from western Scotland who opposed King Charles I of England in 1648.

In the late 1600s, Scottish and English opponents of the growing power of royalty were called Whigs. The Whigs maintained a strong position in English politics until the 1850s,

when the Whig progressives adopted the term Liberal. In the American colonies, the Whigs were those people who resented British control, favored independence from Britain, and supported the Revolutionary War. The term was first used in the colonies around 1768. The term Whig fell into disuse after the colonies won their independence.

However, political opponents of Democratic President andrew jackson revived the term in the 1830s. After Jackson soundly defeated a field of challengers representing an array of political parties in 1832, many of these challengers began coordinating their efforts under the Whig Party name. The Whig Party included former National Republicans, conservative factions of the democratic-republican party, and some former members of the Anti-Masonic Party. By 1834 the Whigs were promoting their party as an alternative to the policies of "King Andrew" Jackson, whose administration they compared to the unpopular reigns of English Kings James II (1633–1701) and George III (1760–1820).

Often united by little more than their distaste for Jackson's administration and their desire to oust the democratic party from the White House, the Whigs struggled to define their platform. Whigs generally criticized the growth of executive power, a development they associated with Jackson's use of civil-service patronage, also known as the "spoils system," by which government officials were replaced solely on partisan grounds instead of merit. Many Whigs who came from an evangelical Protestant background encouraged a variety of moral reforms, condemning Jackson's sometimes brutal and arbitrary treatment of Native American Tribes and militant quest for territorial expansion.

The Whig Party nominated four unsuccessful candidates for president in the election of 1836, william henry harrison from Ohio, daniel webster from Massachusetts, Hugh Lawson White from Tennessee, and Willie Person Mangum from North Carolina. Democrat martin van buren won the election with 58 percent of the vote, while Harrison received 25 percent, White received 8.9 percent, Webster 4.7 percent, and Mangum 3.7 percent.

The Whigs simplified and consolidated their ticket in 1840, again offering Harrison for president and john tyler for vice president. The Whigs triumphed, but Harrison died after one month in office, and Vice President Tyler, who had once been a Jacksonian Democrat, acceded to the presidency. Tyler embittered the Whigs by vetoing congressional bills that sought to restore the bank of the united states, abolished by Jackson, and by opposing their plan to redistribute the proceeds from the sale of public lands. Most of Tyler's cabinet immediately resigned in protest, and his membership in the party was withdrawn.

In 1844 the Whig Party nominated henry clay from Kentucky for president. In the ensuing campaign Clay refused to take a definite stand on the Texas annexation issue. This choice provoked northern abolitionists, who opposed the admission of Texas to the Union as a slave state, to support the little-known Liberty Party candidates, James Gillespie and Thomas Morris. The Whig split ensured victory for the Democratic candidate, james k. polk.

Once the Mexican War (1846–1848) had been declared, controversy over allowing or forbidding slavery in the territories acquired during the war further splintered the party. Antislavery Whigs from Massachusetts, known as Conscience Whigs, opposed the so-called Cotton Whigs in the pro-slavery southern states.

Despite the division, the Whig Party, with the popular general zachary taylor as its candidate, was successful in the presidential election of 1848. The divisions resurfaced, however, when Taylor declared his opposition to Clay's proposal to end the deadlock over the admission of California to statehood. Before the stalemate could be resolved, Taylor died. His successor, millard fillmore, helped push Clay's compromise through Congress in 1850.

The compromise of 1850 (a series of laws passed by Congress to settle the issues arising from the deepening section conflict over slavery) only served to intensify the divisions within the party. Southerners and conservative northerners who supported the compromise refused to cooperate with the northerners who opposed it. Consequently, the election of 1852 resulted in the overwhelming defeat of the Whig candidate, General Winfield Scott. Many supporters of the compromise subsequently began leaving the party.

Southern Whig support for the kansas-nebraska act of 1854 (a law that created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and gave both territories the power to resolve the issue of slavery for themselves) convinced most northern Whigs to abandon the party, and by the end of that year the party had essentially disbanded. Many voters who abandoned the Whig Party initially joined the so-called know-nothing party. Most northern Whigs, however, eventually joined the newly formed republican party. In the South, most of the Whigs were soon absorbed by the Democratic Party. In 1856, a small Whig convention backed Millard Fillmore, the unsuccessful Know-Nothing candidate for the presidency.

further readings

Holt, Michael F. 1999. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Whig Party

views updated May 29 2018


WHIG PARTY represented the main national opposition to the Democratic Party from the mid-1830s until the early 1850s. Ostensibly, the party came together and took its name in hostility to the aggrandizement of executive power by President Andrew Jackson during his assault on the Bank of the United States in 1833–1834. In the 1836 presidential election, the northern and southern wings stood apart, offering different sectional candidates, but by 1839 they had come together behind a single candidate and a common set of policies. They elected two presidents, William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1848, both of whom soon died in office. Each won popular majorities in both the North and the South, while Whig congressmen throughout showed a high level of voting cohesion on most national issues, thus demonstrating that the party represented a nationwide coalition based on agreement on a nonsectional program.

In the North, especially in New England-settled areas, the party attracted Jackson's old antagonists, the National Republicans and the Antimasons. The former were somewhat conservative socially but liberal in religious matters, while the latter expressed the moral-reformist sentiments stemming from the evangelical revival, an influence that became more important as ethnocultural issues intensified in the 1840s. In the South, where the Jacksonians had been predominant, a new opposition appeared in the mid-1830s that drew its earliest support from those who objected to Jackson's assertive response to the nullification crisis and then exploited fears of northern abolitionist interference to arouse popular support. But at least as important for the southern party as for the northern party were widespread objections in more commercialized areas to the Jacksonians' assaults on the banking system and their resistance to state improvement programs. The panic of 1837 and the Democrats' refusal to countenance government help in the subsequent depression gave a common bond to Whigs all over the country, who thereafter acted together to promote positive government policies for economic advancement.

Those policies were not implemented after the 1840 victory, because John Tyler, the states' rights vice president who succeeded Harrison in 1841, obstructed passage of the party program. The Whigs never again enjoyed command of all branches of the federal government. However, they recovered control of the House of Representatives after 1846, when they had to take responsibility for financing a war against Mexico they had voted against. Thereafter, the Whigs were irredeemably divided by the problem of slavery expansion. Believing in positive national government, they needed a solution, whereas the localistic Democrats could evade the central issue. Moreover, some northern Whigs who represented strong antislavery strongholds made speeches in opposition to the Compromise of 1850 that undermined the efforts of southern Whigs to reassure their constituents that the party could still be trusted on slavery. Consequently, Whig support in the South fell decisively by 1852. Meanwhile, the northern Whigs faced large-scale Catholic immigration into seaboard cities, and their leaders' attempts to win immigrant votes condemned the party in some states to collapse amid the mass nativist movements of 1854. By 1856, many northern Whigs had stopped voting or turned to the Democrats as the party of national unity, but many more subsequently turned to the new Republican Party as the expression of northern views on the sectional issues of the day.


Cooper, William J., Jr. The South and the Politics of Slavery, 1828– 1856. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political Culture of the American Whigs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Sellers, Charles. "Who Were the Southern Whigs?" American Historical Review 59 (1954): 335–346.

Donald J.Ratcliffe

See alsoBank of the United States ; Compromise of 1850 ; Jacksonian Democracy ; National Republican Party ; Sectionalism .

Whig Party

views updated May 23 2018

Whig Party

The Whig Party organized in the 1830s in opposition to the Democratic Party . It formed mainly in reaction to the policies of President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37), especially his attack on the Second Bank of the United States. Members of the Whig Party united against the Jacksonians by merging together the Anti-Masonic Party and the National Republican Party , which had split from the Democratic Party around 1828.

The party's name was borrowed from the English Whigs, who resisted the English parliament and monarchy in the 1600s. Opponents of Andrew Jackson disliked the way he arrogantly handled the power of being president. They dubbed him “King Andrew I.” Calling their party the Whig Party was a political criticism of Jackson, whom the Whigs considered to be a monarchical tyrant.

A pro-business platform

The Whig platform was attractive mostly to those who had ties to commerce. They believed in a strong, active federal government for regulating banks and imposing protective tariffs, or taxes on imports. Believing commercial expansion would create prosperity for Americans, Whigs sought internal improvements of canals, roads, and railroads in existing states. They resisted the territorial expansion of the United States into the undeveloped west, where the lack of internal development would make commerce difficult. Whigs also tended to support a variety of reform movements that encouraged moral behavior.

The Whig Party provided opposition to the Democrats for twenty years. They managed to capture the White House twice, the House of Representatives from 1846 to 1848, and majorities in numerous important state legislatures, including New York , Pennsylvania , and Virginia , between 1838 and 1852.

Split over slavery

In the 1850s, debates over slavery began to dominate national politics. The main issue concerned the rights of new territories and states to allow or outlaw slavery. Abolitionists opposed slavery as immoral, but the ruling politicians did not often concern themselves with this question in their debates. Disagreement over slavery threatened the stability of both the Democrats and the Whigs.

By 1852, sectional allegiances had become so strong that the Whig Party began to disintegrate. After one last effort to run a candidate for president in 1856, the party dissolved. The newly formed Republican Party, established in 1854, absorbed many former members of the Whig Party. The Republican Party united against the expansion of slavery into new territories, a position that led to the American Civil War in 1861.

Whig Party

views updated Jun 11 2018

Whig Party One of the two major US political parties from 1834 to 1854. It was a coalition party, garnering the support of eastern capitalists, western farmers, and southern plantation owners. The party elected two presidents: William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1848. The issue of slavery split the Whigs, however, and the Republican Party emerged from its disintegration in 1854.