1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Whig Party

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WHIG PARTY, in America, a political party prominent from about 1824 to 1854.[1] The first national party system of the United States came to an end during the second war with Great Britain. The destruction of the Federalist party (q.v.) through a series of suicidal acts which began with the Alien and Sedition laws of 1798, and closed with the Hartford Convention of 1814-1815, left the Jeffersonian Republican (Democratic) party in undisputed control. When, after Waterloo, Napoleon ceased to disturb the relations of the new world with the old, the American people, freed for the first time from all trace of political dependence on Europe, were at liberty to shape their public policy in their own way. During the period of rapid internal development which followed after 1815, the all-inclusive Republican party began gradually to disintegrate and a new party system was evolved, each member of which was the representative of such groups of ideas and interests, class and local, as required the support of a separate party. This work of disintegration and rebuilding proceeded so slowly that for more than a decade after the Peace of Ghent each new party, disguised during the early stages of organization as the personal following of a particular leader or group of leaders, kept on calling itself Republican. Even during the sharply contested election of 1824 the rival partisans were known as Jackson, Crawford and Calhoun, or as Clay and Adams Republicans. (See Democratic Party.) It was not until late in the administration of John Quincy Adams, 1825 to 1829, that the supporters of the president and Henry Clay, the secretary of state, were first recognized as a distinct party and began to be called by the accurately descriptive term National Republicans. But after the party had become consolidated, in the passionate campaign of 1828, and later in opposing the measures of President Jackson, it adopted in 1834 the name Whig, which, through memorable associations both British and American, served as a protest against executive encroachments, and thus facilitated union with other parties and factions, such as the Anti-Masonic party (q.v.), that had been alienated by the high-handed measures of President Jackson. The new name announced not the birth but the maturity of the party, and the definite establishment of its principles and general lines of policy. The ends for which the Whigs laboured were: first, to maintain the integrity of the Union; second, to make the Union thoroughly national; third, to maintain the republican character of the Union; fourth, while utilizing to the full the inheritance from and through Europe, to develop a distinctly American type of civilization; fifth, to propagate abroad by peaceful means American ideas and institutions. Among the policies or means which the Whigs used in order to realize their principles were the broad construction of those provisions of the Federal Constitution which confer powers on the national government; protective tariffs; comprehensive schemes of internal improvements under the direction and at the cost of the national government; support of the Bank of the United States; resistance to many acts of President Jackson as encroachments by the executive on the legislative branch of the government and therefore hostile to republicanism; coalition with other parties in order to promote national as opposed to partisan ends; resort to compromise in order to allay sectional irritation and compose sectional differences; and cordial and yet prudent expression of sympathy with the liberal movement in other lands.

The activity of the Whig party, reckoned from the election of 1824, when its organization began, to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, covers thirty years. In two respects, namely, the rise of the new radical democracy under Andrew Jackson, and the growth of sectionalism over the slavery issue, this period was highly critical. In view of these events the most difficult task of the Whigs, clearly discerned and heartily accepted by them, under the patriotic and conservative leadership of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, was to moderate and enlighten, rather than antagonize, the new democracy; and — what proved to be beyond their powers — to overcome the disrupting influence of the slavery issue.

The inaugural address and the messages to Congress of President J. Q. Adams set forth clearly the nationalizing, broad-construction programme of the new party. But his supporters in Congress, imperfectly organized and facing a powerful opposition, accomplished very little in the way of legislation. The election of 1828 gave to Andrew Jackson the presidency, and to the people, in a higher degree than ever before, the control of the government. The president's attack upon the Bank, the introduction of the modern “spoils system” into the Federal civil service, the unprecedented use of the veto power, Jackson's assumption of powers which his opponents deemed unconstitutional, and his personal hostility towards Clay, who had succeeded Adams in the leadership of the party, brought about, under Whig leadership, a coalition of opposition parties which influenced deeply and permanently the character, policy and fortunes of the Whig party. It became the champion of the Bank, of the right of Congress, and of the older and purer form of the civil service. Moreover, as a means of strengthening the bond with their new allies, the Whigs learned to practise a tolerance towards the opinions and even the principles of their associates which is exceptional in the history of American political parties. In strict accord with their own principles, however, the Whigs supported the president during the Nullification Controversy (see Nullification). The renown of Webster as the foremost expositor of the national theory of the Union rests largely on his speeches during this controversy, in particular on his celebrated reply to Senator R. Y. Hayne of South Carolina. Nevertheless, after vindicating the rights of the Union, most of the Whigs supported Clay in arranging the compromise tariff of 1832 which enabled the Nullifiers to retreat without acknowledging discomfiture. The majority of the Northern Whigs, with the entire Southern membership of the party, disapproved the propaganda of the Abolitionists on the ground of its tendency to endanger the Union, and many from a like motive voted for the “Gag Rules” of 1835-1844 (see Adams, J. Q.), which in spirit, if not in letter, violated the constitutional right of petition. In the election of 1832 Clay was the nominee of the party for the presidency, but in 1836 and 1840, purely on grounds of expediency, the Whig conventions nominated General W. H. Harrison. During the administration of Martin Van Buren the Whigs tried with success to make party capital out of the panic of 1837, which they ascribed to Jackson, and out of the long depression that followed, for which they held Van Buren responsible. The election of General Harrison in the “log cabin and hard cider” campaign of 1840 proved a fruitless victory: the early death of the president and the anti-Whig politics of his successor, John Tyler (q.v.), whom the Whigs had imprudently chosen as vice-president, shattered their legislative programme.

In 1844 Clay was again the Whig candidate, and the annexation of Texas, involving the risk of a war with Mexico, was the leading issue. The Whigs opposed annexation; and the prospect of success seemed bright, until Clay, in the effort to remove Southern misapprehensions, wrote that he “would be glad” at some future time to see Texas annexed if it could be done “without dishonour, without war, with the common consent of the Union, and upon just and fair terms.” It is widely held that this letter turned against Clay the anti-slavery element and lost him the presidency. The triumph of Polk in 1844 was followed by the annexation of Texas and by war with Mexico. The Whigs opposed the war, but on patriotic grounds voted supplies for its prosecution. The acquisition of Texas, and the assured prospect of a great territorial enlargement, at the cost of Mexico, brought to the front the question of slavery in the new domain. The agitation that followed continued through the presidential election of 1848 (in which the Whigs elected General Zachary Taylor), and did not subside until the passage of the “Compromise Measures of 1850” (q.v.). To its authors this compromise seemed essential to the preservation of the Union; but it led directly to the destruction of the Whig party. In the North, where the inhumane Fugitive Slave Law grew daily more odious, the adherence to the Compromise on which Clay and Webster insisted weakened the party fatally. The alternative, namely, a committal of the party to the repeal of the obnoxious law, would have driven the Southern Whigs into the camp of the Democrats, leaving the Northern Whigs a sectional party powerless to resist the disruption of the Union. The only weapons that the Whigs knew how to use in defence of the Fugitive Slave Law were appeals to patriotism and sectional bargaining, and these could be employed only so long as the party remained intact.

The National Whig Convention of 1852, the last that represented the party in its entirety, gave to the Northern Whigs the naming of the candidate — General Winfield Scott — who was defeated in the ensuing election, and to the Southern the framing of the platform with its “finality” plank, which, as revised by Webster, read as follows: “That the series of acts of the Thirty-second Congress, the act known as the Fugitive Slave Law included, are received and acquiesced in by the Whig party of the United States as a settlement in principle and substance of the dangerous and exciting questions which they embrace . . . and we will maintain this system as essential to the nationality of the Whig party and the integrity of the Union.”

Two years later the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise by the Kansas-Nebraska Act demonstrated that “this system” could not be maintained, and that in committing the Whig party to the policy of its maintenance the Convention of 1852 had signed the death-warrant of the party.

Among the services of the Whigs the first in importance are these: During the thirty critical years in which under the leadership of Clay and Webster they maintained the national view of the nature of the Union, the Whigs contributed more than all their rivals to impress this view upon the hearts and minds of the people. During this same extended period as peacemakers between the sections they kept North and South together until the North had become strong enough to uphold by force the integrity of the Union. And lastly they bequeathed to the Republican party the principles on which, and the leader, Abraham Lincoln, through whom the endangered Union was finally saved.

Bibliography. — See Alexander Johnston, American Political History, 1763-1876 (New York, 1905; edited by J. A. Woodburn); J. A. Woodburn, Political Parties and Party Problems in the United States (ibid., 1903); J. P. Gordy, History of Political Parties in the United States (ibid., 1900); J. W. Burgess, The Middle Period (ibid., 1897); Edward Stanwood, History of the Presidency (Boston, 1898); James Schouler, History of the United States (New York, 1899); H. E. von Holst, Constitutional and Political History of the United States (Chicago, 1899), especially the second volume; Niles' Register (Baltimore, 1811-1849); Henry Wilson, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (Boston, 1872-1877); Horace Greeley, The American Conflict (Hartford, 1864-1866); F. D. Hammond, History of Political Parties in the State of New York (Albany, 1842); G. W. Julian, Political Recollections, 1840-1872 (Chicago, 1884); H. A. Wise, Seven Decades of the Union (Philadelphia, 1872); The Works of Daniel Webster (Boston, 1851); The Works of Henry Clay (New York, 1898); and among many important biographies, Carl Schurz's Life of Henry Clay (Boston, 1887), H. C. Lodge's Daniel Webster (ibid., 1883), G. T. Curtis's Life of Daniel Webster (New York, 1870), H. E. von Hoist's John C. Calhoun (Boston, 1882), A. M. Coleman's Life of John J. Crittenden (Philadelphia, 1871), L. G. Tyler's Letters and Times of the Tylers (Williamsburg, Va., 1884-1896), The Autobiography of Thurlow Weed (Boston, 1883), and J. G. Nicolay and John Hay's Abraham Lincoln: A History (New York, 1890).

(A. D. Mo.)


  1. Immediately before the War of Independence and during the war those who favoured the colonial cause and independence were called “Whigs.”