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, the party was formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party.The name was chosen to echo the American Whigs of 1776, who fought for independence against Tory loyalists to the British crown, and because "Whig" was then a widely recognized label of choice for people who identified as opposing tyranny. Four Whigs were elected into the presidential office before the party disbanded: William Henry Harrison (1841), John Tyler (1841–1845), Zachary Taylor (1849–1850), and Millard Fillmore (1850–1853), though the Whigs found John Tyler's policies opposed to most of their agenda and officially expelled him from their party a few months after he took office.
The Rise of the Whig PartyEdit
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 Democratic-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. 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.
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. One strength of the Whigs, however, was a superb network of newspapers; 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.
Transformation of The Whig Party into The Republican PartyEdit
Millard Fillmore was 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 theMissouri 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.
- The Whig Party supported the supremacy of Congress over the presidency.
- Whigs favored a program of economic protectionism, urbanization, and industrialization.
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 Whigs were pietistic Protestant reformers who called for public schools to teach moral values and proposed prohibition to end the liquor problem. Horace Mann (1796–1859), arguing that universal public education was the best way to turn the nation's unruly children into disciplined, judicious republican citizens, won widespread approval from fellow modernizing especially among fellow Whigs, for building public schools.Most states adopted one version or another of the system he established in Massachusetts, especially the program for "normal schools" to train professional teachers.
- The Jacksonian Democrats harkened back to the Jeffersonian ideal of an egalitarian agricultural society, advising that traditional farm life bred republican simplicity, seeing the modernization of the Whigs as threatening to create a politically powerful caste of rich aristocrats who would threatened to subvert democracy. Ironically, the Whigs succeeded in passing modernization projects in most states, whereas the Democrats generally enacted their policies at the national level.