Government and Politics

The American Party System

Who were the Whigs?

They were members of political parties in Scotland, England, and the United States. The name is derived from whiggamor (meaning “cattle driver”), which was a derogatory term used in the seventeenth century to refer to Scottish Presbyterians who opposed King Charles I of England (1600–1649). Charles, who ruled from 1625 to 1649, was deposed in a civil war and subsequently tried in court, convicted of treason, and beheaded. The British Whigs, who were mostly merchants and landed gentry, supported a strong Parliament. They were opposed by the aristocratic Tories who upheld the power of the king. For a short period during the eighteenth century, the Whigs dominated political life in England. After 1832 they became part of the Liberal Party.

At about the same time, the Whig Party in the United States emerged as one of the two major American political parties. The other was the Democratic Party that Americans still know today, which supported President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) for re-election in 1832. Though Jackson’s first term of office had proved to be somewhat controversial, the Whigs were unable to elect their candidate (Henry Clay, 1777–1852, of the so-called Southern “Cotton” Whigs), and Jackson, called “Old Hickory,” went on to a second term. In the election of 1840 the Whigs, whose leadership had succeeded in uniting the party, were finally successful in putting their candidate in the White House. But William Henry Harrison (1773–1841) died after only 32 days in office, and his successor, John Tyler (1790–1862), alienated the Whig leaders in Congress, and they ousted him from the party. In 1848 the Whigs put Zachary Taylor (nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready,” 1784–1850) in the White House, but two years later he, too, died in office. His successor, Millard Fillmore (1800–1874), remained loyal to the Whigs, but there were problems within the party. The last Whig presidential candidate was General Winfield Scott (“Old Fuss and Feathers,” 1786–1866) in 1852, but he was defeated by Franklin Pierce (1804–1869). Shortly thereafter the Whig party broke up over the slavery issue; most of the Northern Whigs joined the Republican Party, while most of the Southern “Cotton” Whigs joined the Democratic Party.


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