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Whig Party was a name applied to political parties in England, Scotland, and America. Whig is a short form of the word whiggamore, a Scottish word once used to describe people from western Scotland who opposed King Charles I of England in 1648.
In the late 1600s, Scottish and English opponents of the growing power of royalty were called Whigs. The Whigs maintained a strong position in English politics until the 1850s, when the Whig progressives adopted the term Liberal. In the American colonies, the Whigs were those people who resented British control, favored independence from Britain, and supported the Revolutionary War. The term was first used in the colonies around 1768. The term Whig fell into disuse after the colonies won their independence.
However, political opponents of Democratic President Andrew Jackson revived the term in the 1830s. After Jackson soundly defeated a field of challengers representing an array of political parties in 1832, many of these challengers began coordinating their efforts under the Whig Party name. The Whig Party included former National Republicans, conservative factions of the Democratic-Republican Party, and some former members of the Anti-Masonic Party. By 1834 the Whigs were promoting their party as an alternative to the policies of "King Andrew" Jackson, whose administration they compared to the unpopular reigns of English Kings James II (1633–1701) and George III (1760–1820).
Often united by little more than their distaste for Jackson's administration and their desire to oust the Democratic Party from the White House, the Whigs struggled to define their platform. Whigs generally criticized the growth of executive power, a development they associated with Jackson's use of civil-service patronage, also known as the "spoils system," by which government officials were replaced solely on partisan grounds instead of merit. Many Whigs who came from an evangelical Protestant background encouraged a variety of moral reforms, condemning Jackson's sometimes brutal and Arbitrary treatment of Native American Tribes and militant quest for territorial expansion.
The Whig Party nominated four unsuccessful candidates for president in the election of 1836, William Henry Harrison from Ohio, Daniel Webster from Massachusetts, Hugh Lawson White from Tennessee, and Willie Person Mangum from North Carolina. Democrat Martin Van Buren won the election with 58 percent of the vote, while Harrison received 25 percent, White received 8.9 percent, Webster 4.7 percent, and Mangum 3.7 percent.
The Whigs simplified and consolidated their ticket in 1840, again offering Harrison for president and John Tyler for vice president. The Whigs triumphed, but Harrison died after one month in office, and Vice President Tyler, who had once been a Jacksonian Democrat, acceded to the presidency. Tyler embittered the Whigs by vetoing congressional bills that sought to restore the Bank of the United States, abolished by Jackson, and by opposing their plan to redistribute the proceeds from the sale of public lands. Most of Tyler's cabinet immediately resigned in protest, and his membership in the party was withdrawn.
In 1844 the Whig Party nominated Henry Clay from Kentucky for president. In the ensuing campaign Clay refused to take a definite stand on the Texas annexation issue. This choice provoked northern abolitionists, who opposed the admission of Texas to the Union as a slave state, to support the little-known Liberty Party candidates, James Gillespie and Thomas Morris. The Whig split ensured victory for the Democratic candidate, james k. polk.
Once the Mexican War (1846–1848) had been declared, controversy over allowing or forbidding slavery in the territories acquired during the war further splintered the party. Antislavery Whigs from Massachusetts, known as Conscience Whigs, opposed the so-called Cotton Whigs in the pro-slavery southern states.
Despite the division, the Whig Party, with the popular general Zachary Taylor as its candidate, was successful in the presidential election of 1848. The divisions resurfaced, however, when Taylor declared his opposition to Clay's proposal to end the deadlock over the admission of California to statehood. Before the stalemate could be resolved, Taylor died. His successor, Millard Fillmore, helped push Clay's compromise through Congress in 1850.
The Compromise of 1850 (a series of laws passed by Congress to settle the issues arising from the deepening section conflict over slavery) only served to intensify the divisions within the party. Southerners and conservative northerners who supported the compromise refused to cooperate with the northerners who opposed it. Consequently, the election of 1852 resulted in the overwhelming defeat of the Whig candidate, General Winfield Scott. Many supporters of the compromise subsequently began leaving the party.
Southern Whig support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (a law that created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and gave both territories the power to resolve the issue of slavery for themselves) convinced most northern Whigs to abandon the party, and by the end of that year the party had essentially disbanded. Many voters who abandoned the Whig Party initially joined the so-called Know-Nothing Party. Most northern Whigs, however, eventually joined the newly formed Republican Party. In the South, most of the Whigs were soon absorbed by the Democratic Party. In 1856, a small Whig convention backed Millard Fillmore, the unsuccessful Know-Nothing candidate for the presidency.
Holt, Michael F. 1999. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.