Whig Party (United States)

Whig Party (United States)
Whig Party
Founded 1833
Dissolved 1856
Preceded by National Republican Party, Anti-Masonic Party, and unofficially the Federalist Party
Succeeded by Republican Party
Know-Nothing Party
Ideology Modernization
Classical Liberalism
Congressional, rather than presidential, dominance
Official colors Blue and buff
Politics of United States
Political parties

The Whig Party was a political party of the United States during the era of Jacksonian democracy. Considered integral to the Second Party System and operating from the early 1830s to the mid-1850s,[1] the party was formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party. In particular, the Whigs supported the supremacy of Congress over the presidency 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 identified as opposing tyranny.[2] The Whig Party counted among its members such national political luminaries as Daniel Webster, William Henry Harrison, and their preeminent leader, Henry Clay of Kentucky. In addition to Harrison, the Whig Party also nominated war heroes generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Abraham Lincoln was the chief Whig leader in frontier Illinois.

In its two decades of existence, the Whig Party had two of its candidates, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, elected president. Both died in office. John Tyler succeeded to the presidency after Harrison's death but was expelled from the party. Millard Fillmore, who succeeded to the presidency 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 prevented the renomination of its own incumbent President Fillmore in the 1852 presidential election; instead, the party nominated General Winfield Scott. Most Whig party leaders thereupon quit politics (as Lincoln did temporarily) or changed parties. The northern voter base mostly joined the new Republican Party. By the 1856 presidential election, the party was virtually defunct. In the South, the party vanished, but as Thomas Alexander has shown, Whiggery as a policy orientation persisted for decades and played a major role in shaping the modernizing policies of the state governments during Reconstruction after 1865.[3]

Ballot for Clay, 1844



The American Whigs were modernizers who saw President Andrew Jackson as "a dangerous man on horseback" with a "reactionary opposition" to the forces of social, economic and moral modernization. Most of the founders of the Whig party had supported Jeffersonian democracy and the Democratic-Republican Party. The Republicans who formed the Whig party, led by Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, drew on a Jeffersonian tradition of compromise and balance in government, national unity, territorial expansion, and support for a national transportation network and domestic manufacturing. Jacksonians looked to Jefferson for opposition to the National Bank and internal improvements and support of egalitarian democracy and state power. Despite the apparent unity of Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans from 1800 to 1824, ultimately the American people preferred partisan opposition to popular political agreement.[4]

As Jackson purged his opponents, vetoed internal improvements and killed the Second Bank of the United States, alarmed local elites fought back. In 1831 Henry Clay re-entered the Senate and started planning a new party. He defended national rather than sectional interests. Clay's plan for distributing among the states the proceeds from the sale of lands in the public domain was intended to serve the nation by providing the states with funds for building roads and canals, which would stimulate growth and knit the sections together. His Jacksonian opponents, however, distrusted the federal government and opposed all federal aid for internal improvements and they again frustrated Clay's plan. The "Tariff of Abominations" of 1828 had outraged Southern feelings; the South's leaders held that the high duties on foreign imports gave an advantage to the North (where the factories were located). Clay's own high tariff schedule of 1832 further disturbed them, as did his stubborn defense of high duties as necessary to his "American System". Clay however moved to pass the Compromise of 1833, which met Southern complaints by a gradual reduction of the rates on imports to a maximum of twenty percent. Controlling the Senate for a while, Whigs 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.

Clay ran as a Whig in 1832 against Jackson but carried only 49 electoral votes against Jackson's 219. Clay and his Whig allies failed in repeated attempts to continue the Second Bank of the United States, which Jackson denounced as a monopoly and from which he abruptly removed all government deposits. Clay was the unquestioned leader of the Whig party nationwide and in Washington, but he was vulnerable to Jacksonian allegations that he associated with the upper class at a time when white males without property had the right to vote and wanted someone more like themselves. The Whigs nominated a war hero in 1840—and emphasized William Henry Harrison had given up the high life to live in a log cabin on the frontier. Harrison won.

Party structure

The Whigs suffered greatly from factionalism throughout their existence, as well as weak party loyalty that stood in contrast to the strong party discipline that was the hallmark of a tight Democratic Party organization.[5] 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 the 1840s Whigs won 49 percent of gubernatorial elections, with strong bases in the manufacturing Northeast and in the border states. The trend over time, however, was for the Democratic vote to grow faster and for the Whigs to lose more and more marginal states and districts. After the close 1844 contest, the Democratic advantage widened and the Whigs could win the White House only if the Democrats split. 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 voted heavily for the Democrats.

The Whigs appealed to voters in every socio-economic category but proved especially attractive 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.[6]

Whig issues

The Whigs celebrated Clay's vision of the "American System" that promoted rapid economic and industrial growth in the United States. Whigs demanded government support for a more modern, market-oriented economy, in which skill, expertise and bank credit would count for more than physical strength or land ownership. Whigs sought to promote faster industrialization through high tariffs, a business-oriented money supply based on a national bank and a vigorous program of government funded "internal improvements," especially expansion of the road and canal systems. To modernize the inner America, the Whigs helped create public schools, private colleges, charities, and cultural institutions. Many were pietistic Protestant reformers who called for public schools to teach moral values and proposed prohibition to end the liquor problem.

The Democrats harkened to the Jeffersonian 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 aristocrats who threatened to subvert democracy. In general the Democrats enacted their policies at the national level, while the Whigs succeeded in passing modernization projects in most states.


Arguing that universal public education was the best way to turn the nation's unruly children into disciplined, judicious republican citizens, Horace Mann (1796–1859) won widespread approval from modernizers, especially among fellow Whigs, for building public schools. Indeed, most states adopted one version or another of the system he established in Massachusetts, especially the program for "normal schools" to train professional teachers.[7]


In the 1836 elections, the party was not yet sufficiently organized to run one nationwide candidate; instead William Henry Harrison was its candidate in the northern and border states, Hugh Lawson White ran in the South, and Daniel Webster ran in his home state of Massachusetts. Whigs hoped that their three candidates would amass enough Electoral College votes among them to deny a majority to Martin Van Buren. That would move the election to the House of Representatives, allowing the ascendant Whigs to select their most popular man 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

"An Available Candidate: The One Qualification for a Whig President". Political cartoon about the 1848 presidential election which refers to Zachary Taylor or Winfield Scott, the two leading contenders for the Whig Party nomination in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. Published by Nathaniel Currier in 1848, digitally restored.
Horace Greeley's New York Tribune — the leading Whig paper — endorsed Clay for President and Fillmore for Governor, 1844

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 Texas) 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 the President, and he helped push the Compromise through Congress in the hopes of ending the controversies over slavery. The Compromise of 1850 had been first proposed by the Whig Henry Clay of Kentucky.

The Whigs were unable to deal with the slavery issue after 1850. Their southern leaders nearly all owned slaves. The northeastern Whigs, led by Daniel Webster, represented businessmen who loved national unity and a national market but cared little about slavery one way or another. However many Whig voters in the North thought that slavery was incompatible with a free-labor, free-market economy and supported the Wilmot Proviso that did not pass Congress but would have stopped the expansion of slavery. No one discovered a compromise that would keep the party united. Furthermore the burgeoning economy made full-time careers in business or law much more attractive than politics for ambitious young Whigs. Thus the Whig Party leader in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, simply abandoned politics after 1849.

Death throes, 1852–1856

Millard Fillmore, the last Whig president

When new issues of nativism, prohibition and anti-slavery burst on the scene in the mid 1850s, no one looked to the quickly disintegrating Whig party for answers. In the north most ex-Whigs joined the new Republican party, and in the South, they flocked to a new short-lived "American" party.

The election of 1852 marked 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. The Whig Party's 1852 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 Virginia. Whig Representative Lewis D. Campbell of Ohio 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.[3] 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.[8] 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 Lincoln Administration (1861–65), ex-Whigs dominated the Republican Party and enacted much of the so-called "American System". (There are other American Systems, such as in manufacturing, and in hotel accommodations.) Later their Southern colleagues dominated the White response to Reconstruction. In the long run, America adopted Whiggish economic policies coupled with a Democratic strong presidency.

In the South during the latter part of the War Between the States and during the Reconstruction Era, many former Whigs tried to regroup in the South, calling themselves "Conservatives" and hoping to reconnect with the ex-Whigs in the North. These were merged into the Democratic Party in the South, but they continued to promote modernization policies such as large-scale railroad construction and the founding of public schools.[3]

In today's discourse in American politics, the Whig Party is often cited as an example of a political party that lost its followers and its reason for being, as by the expression "going the way of the Whigs."[9]

The True Whig Party - named in direct emulation of the American Whig party - was the dominant force in the politics of Liberia for more than a century.

Presidents from the Whig Party

Presidents of the United States, dates in office

  1. William Henry Harrison (1841)
  2. John Tylera (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. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford Hayes were Whigs before switching to the Republican Party, from which they were elected to office.


Election year Result Nominees
President Vice President
1836 Lost Senator Daniel Webster Congressman Francis Granger
Lost Former Senator William Henry Harrison
Lost Senator John Tyler
Lost Senator Willie Person Manguma[›]
Lost Senator Hugh Lawson White
1840 Won Former Senator William Henry Harrisonb[›]
1844 Lost Former Senator Henry Clay Former Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen
1848 Won General Zachary Taylor b[›] New York State Comptroller Millard Fillmore
1852 Lost General Winfield Scott Navy Secretary William Alexander Graham
1856 Lost Former President Millard Fillmorec[›] Former Ambassador Andrew Jackson Donelsonc[›]
1860 Lost Former Senator John Belld[›] Former Senator Edward Everettd[›]
  • ^ a: Although Mangum himself was a Whig, his electoral votes came from Nullificationists in South Carolina.
  • ^ b: Died in office.
  • ^ c: Fillmore and Donelson were also candidates on the American Party ticket.
  • ^ d: Bell and Everett were also candidates on the Constitutional Union ticket.

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
  • Beveridge, Albert J. (1928). Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1858, vol. 1, ch. 4–8. http://www.questia.com/library/book/abraham-lincoln-1809-1858-vol-1-by-albert-j-beveridge.jsp. 
  • Brown, Thomas (1985). Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party. ISBN 0231056028. http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=35907993. 
  • Cole, Arthur Charles (1913). The Whig Party in the South.  online version
  • Foner, Eric (1970). Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. ISBN 0195013522. http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=90104191. 
  • Formisano, Ronald P. (Winter 1969). "Political Character, Antipartyism, and the Second Party System". American Quarterly (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 21 (4): 683–709. doi:10.2307/2711603. JSTOR 2711603.  Online through JSTOR
  • Formisano, Ronald P. (June 1974). "Deferential-Participant Politics: The Early Republic's Political Culture, 1789–1840". American Political Science Review (American Political Science Association) 68 (2): 473–87. doi:10.2307/1959497. JSTOR 1959497.  Online through JSTOR
  • Formisano, Ronald P. (1983). The Transformation of Political Culture: Massachusetts Parties, 1790s–1840s. ISBN 0195031245. 
  • Hammond, Bray. Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (1960), Pulitzer prize; the standard history. Pro-Bank
  • Holt, Michael F. (1992). Political Parties and American Political Development: From the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln. ISBN 0807126098. 
  • Holt, Michael F. (1999). The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505544-6. http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=99173945. 
  • Howe, Daniel Walker (1973). The American Whigs: An Anthology. 
  • Howe, Daniel Walker (1979). The Political Culture of the American Whigs. ISBN 0226354784. 
  • Howe, Daniel Walker (March 1991). "The Evangelical Movement and Political Culture during the Second Party System". Journal of American History (Organization of American Historians) 77 (4): 1216–39. doi:10.2307/2078260. JSTOR 2078260.  Online through JSTOR
  • Howe, Daniel Walker (2007). What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. ISBN 1433260190. 
  • Kruman, Marc W. (Winter 1992). "The Second Party System and the Transformation of Revolutionary Republicanism". Journal of the Early Republic (Society for Historians of the Early American Republic) 12 (4): 509–37. doi:10.2307/3123876. JSTOR 3123876.  Online through JSTOR
  • Marshall, Lynn. (January 1967). "The Strange Stillbirth of the Whig Party". American Historical Review (American Historical Association) 72 (2): 445–68. doi:10.2307/1859236. JSTOR 1859236.  Online through JSTOR
  • McCormick, Richard P. (1966). The Second American Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era. ISBN 0393006808. 
  • 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)
  • Remini, Robert V. (1991). Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31088-4. 
  • Remini, Robert V. (1997). Daniel Webster. ISBN 0393045528. 
  • Riddle, Donald W. (1948). Lincoln Runs for Congress. 
  • 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)
  • Schurz, Carl (1899). Life of Henry Clay: American Statesmen. vol. 2. 
  • Shade, William G. (1983). "The Second Party System". In Paul Kleppner, et al. (contributors). Evolution of American Electoral Systems. 
  • Sharp, James Roger. The Jacksonians Versus the Banks: Politics in the States after the Panic of 1837 (1970)
  • Silbey, Joel H. (1991). The American Political Nation, 1838–1893. ISBN 0804718784. 
  • Smith, Craig R. "Daniel Webster's Epideictic Speaking: A Study in Emerging Whig Virtues" online
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon G. (1953). Horace Greeley, Nineteenth-Century Crusader. 
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon (1973). "The Whig Party". In Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (ed.). History of U.S. Political Parties. Chelsea House Publications. pp. 1:331–63. ISBN 0-7910-5731-3. 
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon G. Thurlow Weed, Wizard of the Lobby (1947)
  • Wilentz, Sean (2005). The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. ISBN 0393058204. 
  • Wilson, Major L. Space, Time, and Freedom: The Quest for Nationality and the Irrepressible Conflict, 1815-1861 (1974) intellectual history of Whigs and Democrats


  • ^a 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. ^ The name was not directly related to the Whig party in England. Holt (1999), pp. 27–30.
  3. ^ a b c Alexander (1961).
  4. ^ David Brown, "Jeffersonian Ideology and the Second Party System." Historian 1999 62(1): 17-30.
  5. ^ Lynn Marshall. "The Strange Stillbirth of the Whig Party," American Historical Review, (1967) v. 72 pp. 445-68
  6. ^ Holt (1999) p. 83
  7. ^ Mark Groen, "The Whig Party and the Rise of Common Schools, 1837-1854," American Educational History Journal Spring/Summer 2008, Vol. 35 Issue 1/2, pp 251-260
  8. ^ Holt pp. 979-80.
  9. ^ Donald T. Critchlow, The conservative ascendancy: how the GOP right made political history (2007) p. 103. Additional examples are of online.

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