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Whig (British political faction)

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Title: Whig (British political faction)  
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Subject: Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, Gun politics, Magna Carta, Puritan, Tory, Whig Party (United States), 1701, 1698, 1694, Robert Peel
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Whig (British political faction)

Founded 1678
Dissolved 1868
Preceded by Country party
Succeeded by

Liberal Party

Ideology Whiggism,
Constitutional monarchism,
Classical liberalism,
Rule of law,
International affiliation None
Colours orange; buff and blue

The Whigs were initially a political faction, and later a political party, of the Parliament of England, the Parliament of Scotland, Parliament of Great Britain, and Parliament of the United Kingdom, who contested power with the rival Tories from the 1680s to the 1850s. The Whigs' origin lay in constitutional monarchism and opposition to absolute rule. The Whigs played a central role in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and were the standing enemies of the Stuart kings and pretenders, who were Roman Catholic. The Whigs took full control of the government in 1715, and remained totally dominant until King George III, coming to the throne in 1760, allowed Tories back in. The "Whig Supremacy" (1715–60) was enabled by the Hanoverian succession of George I in 1714 and the failed Jacobite rising of 1715 by Tory rebels. The Whigs thoroughly purged the Tories from all major positions in government, the army, the Church of England, the legal profession and local officials. The leader of the Whigs was Robert Walpole, who maintained control of the government in the period 1721–1742; his protégé was Henry Pelham (1743–54).

Both parties began as loose groupings or tendencies, but became quite formal by 1784, with the ascension of Charles James Fox as the leader of a reconstituted "Whig" party ranged against the governing party of the new "Tories" under William Pitt the Younger. Both parties were founded on rich politicians, more than on popular votes; there were elections to the House of Commons, but a small number of men controlled most of the voters.

The Whig party slowly evolved during the 18th century. The Whig tendency supported the great aristocratic families, the Protestant Hanoverian succession, and toleration for nonconformist Protestants (the "dissenters," such as Presbyterians), while some Tories supported the exiled Stuart royal family's claim to the throne (Jacobitism), and virtually all Tories supported the established Church of England and the gentry. Later on, the Whigs drew support from the emerging industrial interests and wealthy merchants, while the Tories drew support from the landed interests and the royal family. By the first half of the 19th century, however, the Whig political programme came to encompass not only the supremacy of parliament over the monarch and support for free trade, but Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery and expansion of the franchise (suffrage).


The term Whig was originally short for 'whiggamor', a term meaning "cattle driver" used to describe western Scots who came to Leith for corn. In the reign of Charles I the term was used during Wars of the Three Kingdoms to refer derisively to a radical faction of the Scottish Covenanters who called themselves the "Kirk Party" (see the Whiggamore Raid). It was then applied to Scottish Presbyterian rebels who were against the King's Episcopalian order in Scotland.[1] The term 'Whig' entered English political discourse during the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678–1681 when there was controversy about whether or not King Charles II's brother, James, should be allowed to succeed to the throne on Charles's death. 'Whig' was a term of abuse applied to those who wanted to exclude James on the grounds that he was a Roman Catholic. The fervent Tory Samuel Johnson often cracked that "the first Whig was the Devil."[2]


Exclusion Crisis

The Whigs, under Lord Shaftesbury's leadership, wished to exclude the Duke of York (who later became King James II) from the throne due to his Catholicism, his favouring of monarchical absolutism and his connections to France. They believed the Duke, if allowed to inherit the throne, would endanger the Protestant religion, liberty, and property.[3] The first Exclusion Bill was voted by a substantial majority in its second reading in May 1679. In response, King Charles prorogued Parliament and then dissolved it but the subsequent elections in August and September saw the Whigs' strength increase. This new parliament did not meet for thirteen months because Charles wanted to give the passions a chance to die down. However when it met in October 1680 an Exclusion Bill was introduced and passed without major resistance in the Commons but was rejected in the Lords. Charles dissolved Parliament in January 1681 but the Whigs did not suffer serious losses. This parliament first met in March in Oxford but Charles dissolved it only after a few days when he made an appeal to the country against the Whigs and intended to rule without Parliament. In February Charles had made a deal with the French King Louis XIV, who promised to support him against the Whigs. Without Parliament, the Whigs gradually crumbled mainly due to the Rye House Plot. The Earl of Melville, The Earl of Leven, Lord Shaftesbury and Charles II's illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth being implicated escaped to the United Provinces. Algernon Sidney, Sir Thomas Armstrong and William Russell, Lord Russell were executed for treason. The Earl of Essex committed suicide in the Tower of London over his arrest for treason, whilst Lord Grey of Werke escaped from the Tower.[4]

Glorious Revolution

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Queen Mary II and King William III governed with both Whigs and Tories, despite the fact that many of the Tories still supported the deposed Roman Catholic James II. William saw that the Tories were generally friendlier to royal authority than the Whigs, and he employed both groups in his government. His early ministry was largely Tory, but gradually the government came to be dominated by the so-called Junto Whigs, a group of younger Whig politicians who led a tightly organised political grouping. The increasing dominance of the Junto led to a split among the Whigs, with the so-called "Country Whigs" seeing the Junto as betraying their principles for office. The Country Whigs, led by Robert Harley, gradually merged with the Tory opposition in the later 1690s.[5]

18th century

Although William's successor Anne had considerable Tory sympathies and excluded the Junto Whigs from power, after a brief and unsuccessful experiment with an exclusively Tory government she generally continued William's policy of balancing the parties, supported by her moderate Tory ministers, the Duke of Marlborough and Lord Godolphin. However, as the War of the Spanish Succession went on and became less and less popular with the Tories, Marlborough and Godolphin were forced to rely more and more on the Junto Whigs, so that by 1708 they headed an administration dominated by the Junto. Anne herself grew increasingly uncomfortable with this dependence on the Whigs, especially as her personal relationship with the Duchess of Marlborough deteriorated. This situation also became increasingly uncomfortable to many of the non-Junto Whigs, led by the Duke of Somerset and the Duke of Shrewsbury, who began to intrigue with Robert Harley's Tories. In the spring of 1710, Anne dismissed Godolphin and the Junto ministers, replacing them with Tories.[5]

The Whigs now moved into opposition and particularly decried the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which they attempted to block through their majority in the House of Lords. Anne forced it through by creating new Tory peers.

Liberal ideals

The Whigs primarily advocated the supremacy of Parliament, while calling for the toleration for Protestant dissenters. They adamantly opposed a Catholic as king.[6] They opposed the Catholic Church because they saw it as a threat to liberty, or as the elder Pitt stated, "The errors of Rome are rank idolatry, a subversion of all civil as well as religious liberty, and the utter disgrace of reason and of human nature."[7]

Ashcraft and Goldsmith (1983) have traced in detail in the period 1689 to 1710 the major influence of the liberal political ideas of John Locke on Whig political values, as expressed in widely cited manifestos such as "Political Aphorisms: or, the True Maxims of Government Displayed," an anonymous pamphlet that appeared in 1690 and was widely cited by Whigs.[8] The 18th-century Whigs borrowed the concepts and language of universal rights employed by political theorists Locke and Algernon Sidney (1622–82).[9] By the 1770s the ideas of Adam Smith, a founder of classical liberalism became important. As Wilson and Reill (2004) note, "Adam Smith's theory melded nicely with the liberal political stance of the Whig Party and its middle-class constituents."[10]

Chapin (1990) argues that Samuel Johnson (1709–84), a leading London intellectual, repeatedly denigrated the Whigs and praised the Tories. In his great Dictionary (1755) Johnson defined a Tory as "one who adheres to the ancient Constitution of the state and the apostolical hierarchy of the Church of England, opposed to a Whig." He linked 18th-century Whiggism with 17th-century revolutionary Puritanism, arguing that the Whigs of his day were similarly inimical to the established order of church and state. Johnson recommended that strict uniformity in religious externals was the best antidote to the negative religious traits that he linked to Whiggism.[11]

Whig supremacy

With the succession in 1714 of Elector George Louis of Hanover as King George I, the Whigs returned to government. The Jacobite Uprising of 1715 discredited much of the Tory party as traitorous Jacobites, and Whig control of the levers of power (e.g., through the Septennial Act) ensured that the Whigs became the dominant party of government. During the long period between 1714 and 1760, the Tories practically died out as an active political force, although they always retained a considerable presence in the House of Commons. The governments of Robert Walpole and the Pelhams, Henry Pelham and his older brother the Duke of Newcastle, between them ruled between 1721 and 1756 with only one brief break and the leading elements referred to themselves as "Whigs".[12]

George III's accession

This arrangement changed during the reign of George III, who hoped to restore his own power by freeing himself from the great Whig magnates. Thus, George promoted his old tutor, Lord Bute, to power and broke with the old Whig leadership surrounding the Duke of Newcastle. After a decade of factional chaos, with distinct "Grenvillite", "Bedfordite", "Rockinghamite", and "Chathamite" factions successively in power, and all referring to themselves as "Whigs", a new system emerged with two separate opposition groups. The Rockingham Whigs claimed the mantle of "Old Whigs", as the purported successors of the party of the Pelhams and the great Whig families. With such noted intellectuals as Edmund Burke behind them, the Rockingham Whigs laid out a philosophy which for the first time extolled the virtues of faction, or at least their faction. The other group were the followers of Lord Chatham, who, as the great political hero of the Seven Years' War, generally took a stance of opposition to party and faction.[13]

The Whigs were opposed by the government of Lord North, which they accused of being a "Tory" administration, although it largely consisted of individuals previously associated with the Whigs—many old Pelhamites, as well as the Whig faction formerly led by the Duke of Bedford, and elements of that which had been led by George Grenville, although it also contained elements of the "Kings' Men", the group formerly associated with Lord Bute and which was generally seen as Tory-leaning.[14]

American impact

The association of Toryism with the Lord North's government was also influential in British North America, and writings of British political commentators known as the Radical Whigs did much to stimulate colonial republican sentiment. Early activists in the colonies called themselves "Whigs", seeing themselves as in alliance with the political opposition in Britain, until they turned to independence and started emphasising the label Patriots. Later, the United States Whig Party was founded in 1833, focused on opposition to a strong presidency, just as the British Whigs had opposed a strong monarchy.[15]

Two-party system

The North administration left power in March 1782 following the American Revolution, and a coalition of the Rockingham Whigs and the former Chathamites, now led by the Earl of Shelburne, took its place. After Rockingham's unexpected death in July 1782, this uneasy coalition fell apart, with Charles James Fox, Rockingham's successor as faction leader, quarrelling with Shelburne and withdrawing his supporters from the government. The following Shelburne administration was short-lived, however, and in April 1783 Fox returned to power, this time in an unexpected coalition with his old enemy Lord North. Although this pairing seemed unnatural to many at the time, it was to last beyond the demise of the coalition in December 1783. The coalition's untimely fall was brought about by George III in league with the House of Lords, and the King now brought in Chatham's son, William Pitt the Younger, as his prime minister.

It was only now that a genuine two-party system can be seen to emerge, with Pitt and the government on the one side, and the ousted Fox-North coalition on the other. On 17 December 1783, Fox stated in the House of Commons that "If…a change must take place, and a new ministry is to be formed and supported, not by the confidence of this House or the public, but the sole authority of the Crown, I, for one, shall not envy that hon. gentleman his situation. From that moment I put in my claim for a monopoly of Whig principles."[16] Although Pitt is often referred to as a "Tory" and Fox as a "Whig", Pitt always considered himself to be an independent Whig, and generally opposed the development of a strict partisan political system.

Fox's supporters, however, certainly saw themselves as legitimate heirs of the Whig tradition, and they strongly opposed Pitt in his early years in office, notably during the regency crisis revolving around the King's temporary insanity in 1788–1789, when Fox and his allies supported full powers for their ally, the Prince of Wales, as regent.

The opposition Whigs were split, however, by the onset of the French Revolution. While Fox and some younger members of the party such as Charles Grey and Richard Brinsley Sheridan were sympathetic to the French revolutionaries, others, led by Edmund Burke, were strongly opposed. Although Burke himself was largely alone in defecting to Pitt in 1791, much of the rest of the party, including the influential House of Lords leader the Duke of Portland, Rockingham's nephew Lord Fitzwilliam, and William Windham, were increasingly uncomfortable with the flirtations of Fox and his allies with radicalism and the French Revolution. They split in early 1793 with Fox over the question of support for the war with France, and by the end of the year they had openly broken with Fox. By the summer of the next year, large portions of the opposition had defected and joined Pitt's government.

19th century

Many of the Whigs who had joined with Pitt would eventually return to the fold, joining again with Fox in the Ministry of All the Talents following Pitt's death in 1806. The followers of Pitt—led, until 1809, by Fox's old colleague the Duke of Portland—rejected the label of "Tories" and preferred to call themselves "The Friends of Mr Pitt". After the fall of the Talents ministry in 1807, the Foxite Whigs remained out of power for the better part of 25 years. The accession of Fox's old ally, the Prince of Wales, to the regency in 1811 did not change the situation, as the Prince had broken entirely with his old Foxite Whig companions. The members of the government of Lord Liverpool from 1812 to 1827 called themselves Whigs.[17]

Structure and appeal

By 1815 the Whigs were still far from being a 'party' in the modern sense. They had no definite programme or policy and were by no means even united. Generally, they stood for reducing crown patronage, sympathy towards Nonconformists, support for the interests of merchants and bankers and a leaning towards the idea of a limited reform of the voting system. Most Whig leaders, such as Lord Grey, Lord Grenville, Lord Althorp, William Lamb (later Lord Melbourne) and Lord John Russell, were still rich landowners. The most prominent exception was Henry Brougham, the talented lawyer, who had a relatively modest background.[18]

Hay (2000) argues that in the two decades after the defeat of Napoleon (in 1815), Whig leaders welcomed the increasing political participation of the English middle classes. The fresh support strengthened their position in Parliament. Whigs rejected the Tory appeals to governmental authority and social discipline, and extended political discussion beyond Parliament. Whigs used a national network of newspapers and magazines, as well as local clubs, to deliver their message. The press organised petitions and debates and reported to the public on government policy, while leaders such as Henry Brougham (1778–1868) built alliances with men who lacked direct representation. This new approach to the grass roots helped to define Whiggism and opened the way for later success. Whigs thereby forced the government to recognise the role of public opinion in parliamentary debate and influenced views of representation and reform throughout the 19th century.[19]

Return to power

Whigs restored their unity by supporting moral reforms, especially the abolition of slavery and emancipation of the Catholics. They triumphed in 1830 as champions of Parliamentary reform. They made Lord Grey prime minister 1830–1834, and the Reform Act 1832 became their signature measure. It broadened the franchise and ended the system of "rotten boroughs" and "pocket boroughs" (where elections were controlled by powerful families), and instead redistributed power on the basis of population. It added 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales. Only the upper and middle classes voted, so this shifted power away from the landed aristocracy to the urban middle classes. In 1832 the party abolished slavery in the Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. It purchased and freed the slaves, especially those in the Caribbean sugar islands. After parliamentary investigations demonstrated the horrors of child labour, limited reforms were passed in 1833. Catholic emancipation was secured in the Catholic Relief Act 1829, which removed the most substantial restrictions on Roman Catholics in Britain. The Whigs also passed the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 that reformed the administration of relief to the poor.[20]

It was around this time that the great Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay began to promulgate what would later be coined the Whig view of history, in which all of English history was seen as leading up to the culminating moment of the passage of Lord Grey's reform bill. This view led to serious distortions in later portrayals of 17th-century and 18th-century history, as Macaulay and his followers attempted to fit the complex and changing factional politics of the Restoration into the neat categories of 19th-century political divisions.

Transition to Liberal Party

The Liberal Party (the term was first used officially in 1868 but had been used colloquially for decades beforehand) arose from a coalition of Whigs, free trade Tory followers of Robert Peel, and free trade Radicals, first created, tenuously under the Peelite Lord Aberdeen in 1852, and put together more permanently under the former Canningite Tory Lord Palmerston in 1859. Although the Whigs at first formed the most important part of the coalition, the Whiggish elements of the new party progressively lost influence during the long leadership of the Peelite William Ewart Gladstone, and many of the old Whig aristocrats broke from the party over the issue of Irish home rule in 1886 to help form the Liberal Unionist Party—which itself would merge with the Conservative Party by 1912. The Unionist support for trade protection in the early twentieth century under Joseph Chamberlain (probably the least Whiggish character in the party) further alienated the more orthodox Whigs, however, and by the early twentieth century Whiggery was largely irrelevant and without a natural political home.

Popular culture

The British whig march for piano was written by Oscar Telgmann in Kingston, Ontario circa 1900.[21]

The colours of the Whig party were particularly associated with Charles James Fox. Poet Robert Burns in "Here's a Health to them that's awa'" wrote:[22]

It's guid to support Caledonia's cause

And bide by the Buff and the Blue.

Buff is a yellow-brown colour, named after buff leather.

Steampunk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing have a song named Doing It For The Whigs

See also


Further reading

  • Black, Jeremy. Walpole in Power (2001)
  • Carswell; John. The Old Cause: Three Biographical Studies in Whiggism. 1954 online edition
  • online edition
  • Elofson, Warren M. The Rockingham Connection and the Second Founding of the Whig Party 1768–1773 1996
  • Feiling, Keith; A History of the Tory Party, 1640–1714, 1924 online edition
  • Feiling, Keith; The Second Tory Party, 1714–1832, 1938 online edition
  • Jones; J. R. The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis, 1678–1683, 1961 online edition
  • McCallum; Ronald Buchanan. The Liberal Party from Earl Grey to Asquith (1963)
  • Mitchell,L. G. Charles James Fox and the Disintegration of the Whig Party, 1782–1794, (1971)
  • Austin Mitchell. The Whigs in Opposition, 1815–1830 (Oxford U. Press, 1967). T
  • Plumb, J.H. Growth of Political Stability in England 1675–1725 (2001)
  • Reid; Loren Dudley. Charles James Fox: A Man for the People, 1969 online edition
  • Trevelyan, George Otto. The Early History of Charles James Fox (1880) online edition
  • Williams, Basil, and C. H. Stuart; The Whig Supremacy, 1714–1760, 1962 online edition
  • Woodward; E. L. The Age of Reform, 1815–1870, 1938 online edition

External links

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  • Karl Marx on the Tories and the Whigs (1852)

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