Whig Party (United States)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

(Redirected from United States Whig Party)
Jump to: navigation, search
Whig Party banner from 1848 with candidates Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.
Whig Party banner from 1848 with candidates Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.

The Whig Party was a political party of the United States from 1834 to 1860, formed to oppose the policies of President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, and in particular supporting the supremacy of Congress over the Executive Branch and favoring a program of modernization and economic development. Their name was chosen to echo the British Whig Party, opponents of Tories who favored a strong Monarch, and implied that supporters of Jackson's strong executive branch were effectively royalists.

In its 26-year existence, the Whig Party saw two of its candidates elected President of the United States, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor — and both of them die in office. Four months after succeeding Harrison, Whig President John Tyler was expelled from the Party, and Millard Fillmore, Taylor's Vice President, would prove to be the last Whig to hold the nation's highest office.

The Party, which counted among its members such national political luminaries as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Winfield Scott, was ultimately deeply divided by the question of whether to allow the expansion of slavery in the United States, leading to its choice to run Scott over its own incumbent President Fillmore in the U.S. Presidential election of 1852.

The Whig Party never elected another President, and saw its voter base supplanted by the nativist Know-Nothing Party (which unsuccessfully nominated Fillmore for President in 1856), the Constitutional Union Party (which with Whig support ran John Bell for President in 1860), and the anti-slavery United States Republican Party, whose candidate, a former Whig Congressman named Abraham Lincoln, was elected President in 1860, triggering the end of the Whig Party and the beginning of the American Civil War.


Origins and policies

The Whig Party was formed in the winter of 1833-1834 at Washington dinner parties by National Republicans such as Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, and by Southern States' Rights supporters such as W. P. Mangum. 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 States without the consent of Congress. The Whigs also attracted the support of Southerners such as John Tyler who were offended by Jackson's strong nationalistic stand against South Carolina during the nullification crisis. The Whigs pledged themselves to Congressional supremacy, as opposed to "King Andrew"'s executive actions, and took their name from the English Whig Party, which had opposed the power of the monarchy and supported Parliamentary control.

The Whigs came to unite around economic policy, celebrating Clay's vision of the "American System" which favored government support for a more modern, market-oriented economy in which education and commerce would count for more than physical labor or land ownership. Whigs sought to promote faster industrialization through protective tariffs, a business-oriented monetary policy with a new Bank of the United States, and a vigorous program of "internal improvements" — especially to roads and canal systems — 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 ideal of an equalitarian 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 were more successful at enacting their policies on the national level, while the Whigs were more successful in passing modernization projects at the state level.

Party structure

Rejecting the automatic party loyalty that was the hallmark of tight Democratic party organization, the Whigs suffered from factionalism throughout their existence. On the other hand, the Whigs had a superb network of newspapers that provided an internal information system, and in the 1840s Whigs won 49 percent of gubernatorial elections with strong bases of support in the manufacturing Northeast and the border states. The trend over time, however, was for the Democratic Party to grow more quickly, and for the Whigs to lose 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 won votes in every socio-economic category, but appealed more to the professional classes: Bankers, storekeepers, factory owners, commercially-oriented farmers and large-scale planters largely supported the Whigs. In general, commercial and manufacturing towns and areas voted Whig, save for Democratic wards in Irish Catholic and German immigrant communities; the Democrats often sharpened their appeals to the poor by ridiculing the Whigs' aristocratic pretensions. Protestant religious revivals also injected a moralistic element into the Whig ranks, which sent many targets of moralism (such as those affected by calls for prohibition) to seek refuge within the Democratic party.

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 U.S. 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 tactic failed to achieve its objective, although it did play a role in throwing that year's Vice-Presidential election into the Senate.

In 1839 the Whigs held their first national convention and nominated William Henry Harrison as their presidential candidate. Harrison went on to victory, defeating Van Buren's re-election bid largely as a result of the Panic of 1837 and subsequent depression.

After contracting pneumonia during his two-hour inauguration speech, 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, who vetoed his own party's economic legislation and was expelled from the Whigs 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 Texas) and free trade triumphing over Clay's protectionism and caution over the Texas question. The Whigs, both northern and southern, strongly opposed the war with Mexico, which many (including Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln) saw as an unprincipled land grab, but they were split (as were the Democrats) by the anti-slavery Wilmot Proviso of 1846. In 1848 the Whigs, seeing no hope of succeeding by nominating Clay and pushing their economic policies, selected Zachary Taylor, a Mexican-American War hero and adopted no platform at all. Taylor triumphed over 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.

Had he lived, Taylor might have triggered the Civil War ten years earlier: He was firmly opposed to the Compromise of 1850, committed to the admission of California as a free state, and had proclaimed that he would take military action to prevent secession. But on July 4, 1850, Taylor contracted acute indigestion (probably the result of typhus or cholera) and five days later became the second president to die in office. Vice President Millard Fillmore assumed the Presidency and supported the Compromise.

A party divided

Millard Fillmore, the last Whig president
Millard Fillmore, the last Whig president

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. 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 Campbell of Ohio was particularly distraught by the defeat, exclaiming, "We are slayed. The party is dead--dead--dead!"

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act divided the Whigs even further, as Southern Whigs generally supported the Act while Northern Whigs strongly opposed it. Northern Whigs ran against the Act, and appealed to widespread Northern outrage over the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The anti-immigration Know-Nothing Party, however, cut deeply into the Whig vote, overwhelming the Whigs in the mid-term elections, and the newly formed Republican Party won support from disaffected Democrats and Whigs.

In 1856 the remaining Whigs threw their support behind Fillmore, who by then had switched to the Know-Nothing Party (and who lost to Democrat James Buchanan), and in 1860 a few Whig diehards regrouped as the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell. Bell finished third to ex-Whig Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party and Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge in a four-way race (with Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas fourth), triggering the American Civil War and bringing an end to the Whigs.

Presidents from the Whig Party

Presidents of the United States, dates in office

  1. William Henry Harrison (1841)
  2. John Tyler (see note) (1841-1845)
  3. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
  4. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Note: 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. Additionally, John Quincy Adams, elected President as a Democratic Republican, later became a Whig when he was elected to the House of Representatives.


Election year Result Nominees
President Vice President
1836 lost Daniel Webster Francis Granger
lost William Henry Harrison
lost John Tyler
lost Willie Person Mangum
lost Hugh Lawson White
1840 won William Henry Harrison[1]
1844 lost Henry Clay Theodore Frelinghuysen
1848 won Zachary Taylor [1] Millard Fillmore
1852 lost Winfield Scott William Graham
1856 lost Millard Fillmore[2] Andrew Jackson Donelson[2]

[1]Died in office.
[2]Fillmore and Donelson were also candidates on the American Party ticket.

See also

Further reading

Personal tools