United States Political Parties: The Whig Party (1834-56)

Figure 1.--The Democrats since 1800 had been the dominant political party in America, although thanks largely to John Masrshal, the Federalists dominated the judiciary. The Ehigs eventually formed out of what was left of the Federalist Party and wion many new adherets. Using the Jacksonian approch, they nominated war hero Willian Henry Harrison in 1840 and won the election. Pictured here is a campaign rally in Philadelphia during 1840. Unfortunately for the Whigs,Harrison died shortly after his inaguratin abd Vice President John Tyler becamne president, the first veep to replace a president. Tyler was amer Democrt and actually still had more in common with the Democrats than the Whigs. Drawing by an unknown American illustrator.

The Whigs are the political ancestors of the modern Republican Party, although the ideological line has in manys ways reversed. The Party was directed by men like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. They promoted a platform of nation building and internal improvements at a time when America was just beginning to overcome distance and settle an emense frontier. Abolitionists received a more favorable treatment in the Whig than theDemoicratic Party and this increased over time. Its adherents included both Westerners hungry for development and the new urban populaion. The Whigs never, however, managed to develop a meaningful following in the South and this became an incrasing power as abolitioinist sentiment grew in the north. The Whigs managed to control the Congress at times, but only gained the presidency by running military heros of limited connection with the Party and both died early in office. The Party like the Democratic Party emerged during the Jacksonian Era. The image of the Party was perhaps tained from the beginning because of the emense popularity of President Jackson. A young Abraham Lincoln grew up in the Whig Party and led the formation of the Republican Party. The Whigs were not the dominant party in the first half of the 19th century. The issues the fought for, however, were the issues of America's future. The Party finally was destroyed over the issue of slavery, giving birth to Republican Party and Civil War.

The Federalists

President Washington disaproved of political parties, but without mdaning to lunched gthe Federalist Party. The Whigs inherited the political tradition of the early Federalists. In the first half of the 19th century, as the Federalist influence disappeared, except in the judiciuary where Chiegf Judtice Jonhn Marshal wielded enornous influence for nearly four decades, including many iof the most importabnt decesions issued by the Court and establishing the Court's power to rule on the constitutionlity of laws. Political contests were won by the Democrats for four decades. The Democratic dominance included the 'era of good feelings'.


At the time farming and Western interests wanted nothing more than being left along by Government. Beginning with Jeffrson in 1800, this is just what the Democrats provided. The Whigs stood for an expanded governmental role. In particular they wanted the Federal Government to finnce internal imprrovements, including roads, canals, railroads, dreging, and building roads and bridges. The lure of better connection with markets through internal improvements was especially popular in the West. A young Abraham Lincoln who had to market goods by rafting doiwn the Mississippi was an early Whig supporter.

Party Name

The name of the part was derived from British politics. The Whigs were the party that often opposed royal policies. They were named after the radical Presbyterian group in Scotland, the Whigamores, which had opposed the divine right doctrine and the Stuart kings in the 17th century. The royalist faction came to be called the Tories after bands of Irish Catholics who had supported James II. British loyalists came to be called Tories during the American Revolution. Many Americans during the Revolution identified with the English Whigs which believed that Parlianment had a responsibility of limiting the king's power. The similarity with the British Whigs opposing royal power caused the National Republicans to be called Whigs, even though Jackson and the Democrats wanted a smaller, more limited national government than the Whigs..

Jackson and Political Parties

It was during the Jacksonian Era that modern, well organized political parties emerged. After Jackson lost the 1824 election in the House of Representatives, Senator Martin Van Buren joined with the Jacksonians and played a major role in organizing a new Democratic Party to ensure Jackson's election in 1828. Thus the modern political party system in America developed during the Jacksonian era and the masermind was Van Buren, know as the "Little Macgican".

Congress and the Presidency

Congress had been the dominant force in American Government. Jackson's popularity supported by Van Buren's Democratic Party threatened to overshadow Congress. Jackson took issue with Congress on important issues and began to vero bills. Until the Jackson there had been few presidetial vetos. Important Congressmen felt that Jackson was unilaterallt changing the Constitution. Earlier presidents had used the veto mostly when they thought a bill unconstitutionsal. Jackson used it in policy disagreements. His volitile temoper and aggressive militarism also scared many Congressmen. Jackson in part because of the Eaton Affair took total control of the Cabinent. Many had seen the Cabinent in the British sence as answering to the Congress, Jckson had his first cabinent resign. This looked to many as "fall of the government", but Jackson exerted his perogatives to appoint and fire the Caninent.

National Republicans

These conflicts and Jackson's exertion of presidential power resulted in Congressmen calling him King Andrew I. Henry Clay and others Congressional leaders began calling themselves National Republicans. This reflected their few of America as a national republic and not a confederation of autonomous states. The National Republicans wanted internal improvements. Jackson and the Democrats resisted their demands.

The South

Some southern Democrats like John C. Calhoun joined the National Republicans (noting to do with the Republicans that appeared in the 1850s). Calhoun had been Jackson's first vice president, but broke with him. While the Southern Democrats were not interested in a strong national government, they did share a concern over Jackson's view of presidential power.

Electoral Success

The Whigs were the major opposition to the Democratic Party during the Jacksonian era and the pre-Civil War ante-Bellum period. They won control of the Congress in several elections. They won few presidential only winning in 1840 and 1848 when they ran military leaders (William Henry Harrison and Zacary Taylor). The 1840 victory was not only due to the popularity of Harrison ('Tippicanoe'), but because of the Panic of 1837, actually a very serious depression, blamed on the Democrats for good reason. The best known Whig, Henry Clay, never achieved his goal of becoming president. Unfortunately for the Whigs, the two men they elected were not really politicans supporting Whig poicies and both died soon after winning the electioin and were succeded by vice presidents that were more Democrats than Whigs.

Regional Strength

The Whig party was strongest in the North and East where internal improvements had considerable support. There was less support in the South for a strong Federal Government finncing internal improvements. Gradually slavery became an increasingly important national issue. Northern Whigs became increasingly critical od slavery. Whig candidates, however, equivocated on slavery so they could compete in the South. This brought them little southern support and alienated many Whig voters. The Whigs were not the dominant party in the first half of the 19th century. The issues the fought for, however, were the issues of America's future, but the vission varied beteen North and South.


The Democratic Party thanks to Jefferson and Jackson dominated American politics during the first half of the 19th century. While not electirally successful during most if the period, the Whigs represented as one historian describes it the party that pointed the way to America's future. "As economic modernizers, as supporters of strong national goverbment, and as humanitarians more receptive than their (Democratic) rivals to talent regardless of race or gender, the Whigs deserve to be remembered. They facilitated the transformation of the United States from a collection of parochial agriculturalcommunities into a cosmopolitan nation integrated by commerce, industry, information, and voluntary association as well as political ties. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we see that the Whigs , though not the dominant party of their own time, were the party of America's future." [Howe, What Hath]

The Republicans

Equivocation on slavery allowed a new party, the Republicans to win over northern Whigs. The last year the Whigs nominated a presidential candidate was in 1856 and he was out-polled by the Republican candidate. The Republicans were esentially anti-slavery Whigs. While not aboliionits, they were steadfastly opposed to the extention of slavery into the Western territiries which of course is exactly what Southern pooliticans were determined to do. A young Abraham Lincoln grew up in the Whig Party and led the formation of the Republican Party. Many Whigs made the sme transition that Lincoln did.

Know Nothing Party

The Whigs Party were also weakened by the short-lived Native American or Know-Nothing party. This was primarily an anti-immigrant (especially anti-Irish) and anti-Catholic. This party developed considerable appeal in urban areas where the Whigs were strongest.


Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of Ameruica, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press, 2007), 904p.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political Culture of the American Whigs (1979). Howe argues that the period being called the Age of Jackson obscures the contribution of the Whigs.


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Created: 9:13 PM 12/23/2007
Last updated: 5:18 PM 9/22/2018