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The Whig Party was a political party of the United Statesmarker during the era of Jacksonian democracy. Considered integral to the Second Party System and operating from 1833 to 1856, the party was formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party. In particular, the Whigs supported the supremacy of Congress over the executive branch and favored a program of modernization and economic protectionism. This name was chosen to echo the American Whigs of 1776, who fought for independence, and because "Whig" was then a widely recognized label of choice for people who saw themselves as opposing autocratic rule. The Whig Party counted among its members such national political luminaries as Daniel Webster, William Henry Harrison, and their preeminent leader, Henry Clay of Kentuckymarker. In addition to Harrison, the Whig Party also counted four war heroes among its ranks, including Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Abraham Lincoln was a Whig leader in frontier Illinoismarker.

In its over two decades of existence, the Whig Party saw two of its candidates, Harrison and Taylor, elected president. Both, however, died in office. John Tyler became president after Harrison's death, but was expelled from the party. Millard Fillmore, who became president after Taylor's death, was the last Whig to hold the nation's highest office.

The party was ultimately destroyed by the question of whether to allow the expansion of slavery to the territories. With deep fissures in the party on this question, the anti-slavery faction successfully prevented the nomination of its own incumbent President Fillmore in the 1852 presidential election; instead, the party nominated General Winfield Scott, who was soundly defeated. Its leaders quit politics (as Lincoln did temporarily) or changed parties. The voter base defected to the Republican Party, various coalition parties in some states, and to the Democratic Party. By the 1856 presidential election, the party had lost its ability to maintain a national coalition of effective state parties and endorsed Millard Fillmore, now of the American Party, at its last national convention.

Handbill for Clay, 1844

Origins and policies

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The Whig Party was formed in the winter of 1833–1834 by former National Republicans such as Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, and by Southern supporters such as W. P. Mangum. Opponents of the party ridiculed it as a reconstitution of the old Federalist party. Many southerners, who hated Jackson's power grabs and stance during the nullification crisis, supported the new party, as did many Anti-Masons. In its early form, the Whig Party was united only by opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson, especially his removal of the deposits from the Bank of the United Statesmarker without the consent of Congress. The Whigs pledged themselves to Congressional supremacy, as opposed to "King Andrew's" executive actions. The Whigs saw President Andrew Jackson as a dangerous maverick on horseback with a reactionary opposition to the forces of social, economic, and moral modernization. As Jackson purged his opponents, vetoed internal improvements, and killed the Bank of the United States, alarmed local elites fought back. They argued that Congress, not the President, reflected the will of the people. During their control of the Senate, Jackson's enemies passed a censure motion denouncing Jackson's arrogant assumption of executive power in the face of the true will of the people as represented by Congress. (The censure was later expunged.) The central issue of the early 1830s was the Second Bank of the United Statesmarker. Backing various regional candidates in 1836 the opposition finally coalesced in 1840 behind a popular general, William Henry Harrison, who proved the national Whig Party could win.

The Whigs came to unite around economic policy, celebrating Clay's vision of the "American System" which favored government support for a more modern, industrial economy in which education and commerce would equal physical labor or land ownership as a means of productive wealth. Whigs sought to promote domestic manufacturing through protective tariffs (as had Alexander Hamilton 40 years prior), a growth-oriented monetary policy with a new Bank of the United States, and a vigorous program of "internal improvements"—especially to roads, canal systems, and railroads—funded by the proceeds of public land sales. The Whigs also promoted public schools, private colleges, charities, and cultural institutions.

By contrast, the Democrats hearkened to the Jeffersonian political philosophy ideal of an egalitarian agricultural society, advising that traditional farm life bred republican simplicity, while modernization threatened to create a politically powerful caste of rich aristocrat who threatened to subvert democracy. The Democrats wanted America to expand westward across the continent. Whigs had a very different vision: they wanted to deepen the socio-economic system by adding more and more layers of complexity, such as banks, factories, and railroads. In general, the Democrats were more successful at enacting their policies on the national level, while the Whigs were more successful in passing modernization projects, such as canals and railroads, at the state level, but not the federal (which had to wait until Abraham Lincoln's presidency to be fully realized).


The term Whig originated in Britain during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms when it was used to refer derisively to a radical faction of the Scottish Covenanters who called themselves the "Kirk Party" (see the Whiggamore Raid). It entered English political discourse during the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678–1681. The Whigs (or Petitioners) opposed the hereditary ascendance of the Catholic Duke of York, future James II, to the thrones of England, Irelandmarker, and Scotlandmarker (see Exclusion Crisis). The Tories (or Abhorrers) supported him. Both names were originally negative terms: whiggamore is a Scots word for a cattle or horse drover, while tory, derived from Tóraidhe, was originally used to refer to an Irish outlaw and later often applied to any Confederatemarker or Royalist in arms.

Party structure

The Whigs suffered greatly from factionalism throughout their existence, in contrast to the party loyalty that was the hallmark of a tight Democratic Party organization. One strength of the Whigs, however, was a superb network of newspapers that provided an internal information system; their leading editor was Horace Greeley of the powerful New York Tribune. In their heyday, in the 1840s, the Whigs had strong support in the manufacturing Northeast and the border states. However, the Democratic Party grew more quickly over this time, and the Whigs lost more and more marginal states and districts. After the closely contested 1844 elections, the Democratic advantage widened, and the Whigs were only able to win nationally by splitting the opposition. This was partly because of the increased political importance of the western states, which generally voted for Democrats, and Irish Catholic and German immigrants, who also tended to vote for Democrats.

The Whigs, also known as the "white heads", won votes in every socio-economic category, but appealed more to the professional and business classes: doctors, lawyers, merchants, ministers, bankers, storekeepers, factory owners, commercially-oriented farmers and large-scale planters. In general, commercial and manufacturing towns and cities voted Whig, save for strongly Democratic precincts in Irish Catholic and German immigrant communities; the Democrats often sharpened their appeal to the poor by ridiculing the Whigs' aristocratic pretensions. Protestant religious revivals also injected a moralistic element into the Whig ranks. Many called for public schools to teach moral values; others proposed prohibition to end the liquor problem.

The Early Years

In the 1836 elections, the party was not yet sufficiently organized to run one nationwide candidate; instead William Henry Harrison ran in the northern and border states, Hugh Lawson White ran in the South, and Daniel Webster ran in his home state of Massachusetts. It was hoped that the Whig candidates would amass enough Electoral College votes among them to deny a majority to Martin Van Buren, which under the United States Constitution would place the election under control of the House of Representatives, allowing the ascendant Whigs to select the most popular Whig candidate as President. The Whigs came only a few thousand votes short of victory in Pennsylvania, vindicating their strategy, but failed nonetheless.

In late 1839, the Whigs held their first national convention and nominated William Henry Harrison as their presidential candidate. In March 1840, Harrison pledged to serve only one term as President if elected, a pledge which reflected popular support for a Constitutional limit to Presidential terms among many in the Whig Party. Harrison went on to victory in 1840, defeating Van Buren's re-election bid largely as a result of the Panic of 1837 and subsequent depression. Harrison served only 31 days and became the first President to die in office. He was succeeded by John Tyler, a Virginian and states' rights absolutist. Tyler vetoed the Whig economic legislation and was expelled from the Whig party in 1841. The Whigs' internal disunity and the nation's increasing prosperity made the party's activist economic program seem less necessary, and led to a disastrous showing in the 1842 Congressional elections.

A Brief Golden Age

By 1844, the Whigs began their recovery by nominating Henry Clay, who lost to Democrat James K. Polk in a closely contested race, with Polk's policy of western expansion (particularly the annexation of Texasmarker) and free trade triumphing over Clay's protectionism and caution over the Texas question. The Whigs, both northern and southern, strongly opposed expansion into Texas, which they (including Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln) saw as an unprincipled land grab. In 1848, the Whigs, seeing no hope of success by nominating Clay, nominated General Zachary Taylor, a Mexican-American War hero. They stopped criticizing the war and adopted no platform at all. Taylor defeated Democratic candidate Lewis Cass and the anti-slavery Free Soil Party, who had nominated former President Martin Van Buren. Van Buren's candidacy split the Democratic vote in New York, throwing that state to the Whigs; at the same time, however, the Free Soilers probably cost the Whigs several Midwestern states.

Compromise of 1850

Taylor was firmly opposed to the Compromise of 1850 and committed to the admission of California as a free state, and had proclaimed that he would take military action to prevent secession. In July 1850, Taylor died; Vice President Millard Fillmore, a long-time Whig, became President and helped push the Compromise through Congress, in the hopes of ending the controversies over slavery. The Compromise of 1850 was first proposed by Henry Clay.

Death throes, 1852–1856

The year of 1852 was the beginning of the end for the Whigs. The deaths of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster that year severely weakened the party. The Compromise of 1850 fractured the Whigs along pro- and anti-slavery lines, with the anti-slavery faction having enough power to deny Fillmore the party's nomination in 1852. 1852's Whig Party convention in New York City saw the historic meeting between Alvan E. Bovay and The New York Tribune's Horace Greeley, a meeting which led to correspondence between the men as the early Republican Party meetings in 1854 began to take place. Attempting to repeat their earlier successes, the Whigs nominated popular General Winfield Scott, who lost decisively to the Democrats' Franklin Pierce. The Democrats won the election by a large margin: Pierce won 27 of the 31 states including Scott's home state of Virginiamarker. Whig Representative Lewis D. Campbell of Ohiomarker was particularly distraught by the defeat, exclaiming, "We are slain. The party is dead—dead—dead!" Increasingly politicians realized that the party was a loser. Abraham Lincoln, its Illinois leader, for example, ceased his Whig activities and attended to his law business.

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the new territories to slavery, was passed. Southern Whigs generally supported the Act while Northern Whigs remained strongly opposed. Most remaining Northern Whigs, like Lincoln, joined the new Republican Party and strongly attacked the Act, appealing to widespread northern outrage over the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Other Whigs joined the Know-Nothing Party, attracted by its nativist crusades against so-called "corrupt" Irish and German immigrants. In the South, the Whig party vanished, but as Thomas Alexander has shown, Whiggism as a modernizing policy orientation persisted for decades. Historians estimate that, in the South in 1856, Fillmore retained 86 percent of the 1852 Whig voters. He won only 13% of the northern vote, though that was just enough to tip Pennsylvania out of the Republican column. The future in the North, most observers thought at the time, was Republican. No one saw any prospects for the shrunken old party, and after 1856 there was virtually no Whig organization left anywhere. Some Whigs and others adopted the mantle of the "Opposition Party" for several years and had some success.

In 1860, many former Whigs who had not joined the Republicans regrouped as the Constitutional Union Party, which nominated only a national ticket; it had considerable strength in the border states, which feared the onset of civil war. John Bell finished third in the electoral college. During the latter part of the war and Reconstruction, some former Whigs tried to regroup in the South, calling themselves "Conservatives", and hoping to reconnect with ex-Whigs in the North. They were soon swallowed up by the Democratic Party in the South, but continued to promote modernization policies such as railroad building and public schools.

In today's discourse in American politics, the Whig Party is usually mentioned in the context of a political party losing its followers and reason for being, often exemplified by the phrase "going the way of the Whigs."

Presidents from the Whig Party

Presidents of the United States, dates in office
  1. William Henry Harrison (1841)
  2. John Tyler (1841-1845)
  3. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
  4. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Additionally, John Quincy Adams, elected President as a Democratic-Republican, later became a National Republican and then a Whig after he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1831.President Abraham Lincoln was a Whig before switching to the Republican Party, from which he was elected to office.


Contemporary use of the name

Modern Whig Party is the most prominent contemporary political organization to use the title of "Whig." The Modern Whig Party is the largest minor political party in the U.S. in terms of membership after the major third parties. The Modern Whig Party has been considered by various media outlets as a "comeback" to the historic Whig Party, and has 25,000–30,000 members, including about 6,500 members affiliated with the military. The Modern Whigs have recognized chapters in 25 states, including the Florida Whig Party which is registered with the state Division of Elections.

See also


  • Alexander, Thomas B. "Persistent Whiggery in the Confederate South, 1860-1877," Journal of Southern History, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Aug., 1961), pp. 305–329 online at JSTOR
  • Atkins, Jonathan M.; "The Whig Party versus the "spoilsmen" of Tennessee," The Historian, Vol. 57, 1994 online version
  • online version
  • Online through JSTOR
  • Online through JSTOR
  • Hammond, Bray. Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (1960), Pulitzer prize; the standard history. Pro-Bank
  • Online through JSTOR
  • Online through JSTOR
  • Online through JSTOR
  • Mueller, Henry R.; The Whig Party in Pennsylvania, (1922) online version
  • Nevins, Allan. The Ordeal of the Union (1947) vol 1: Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847-1852; vol 2. A House Dividing, 1852-1857. highly detailed narrative of national politics
  • Poage, George Rawlings. Henry Clay and the Whig Party (1936)
  • Schlesinger, Arthur Meier, Jr. ed. History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2000 (various multivolume editions, latest is 2001). For each election includes good scholarly history and selection of primary documents. Essays on the most important elections are reprinted in Schlesinger, The Coming to Power: Critical presidential elections in American history (1972)
  • Sharp, James Roger. The Jacksonians Versus the Banks: Politics in the States after the Panic of 1837 (1970)
  • Smith, Craig R. "Daniel Webster's Epideictic Speaking: A Study in Emerging Whig Virtues" online
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon G. Thurlow Weed, Wizard of the Lobby (1947)
  • Wilson, Major L. Space, Time, and Freedom: The Quest for Nationality and the Irrepressible Conflict, 1815-1861 (1974) intellectual history of Whigs and Democrats


  • Although Tyler was elected vice president as a Whig, his policies soon proved to be opposed to most of the Whig agenda, and he was officially expelled from the party in 1841, a few months after taking office.


  1. Holt (1999), p. 231.
  2. Holt (1999), pp. 27–30.
  4. It is not true they took their name from the British Whig Party. Instead the name echoed the American Whigs of 1776 who declared independence from King George III. Holt (1992) p. 27.
  5. Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition 1989) "1. a. In the 17th c., one of the dispossessed Irish, who became outlaws, subsisting by plundering and killing the English settlers and soldiers; a bog-trotter, a rapparee; later, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms often applied to any Irish Papist or Royalist in arms. Obs. exc. Hist."
  6. Alexander (1961).
  7. Holt pp. 979-80.

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