One of the two major political parties of the United States in the
second quarter of the 19th century.
As a party it did not exist before 1834, but its nucleus was
formed in 1824 when the adherents of John Quincy Adams and
Henry Clay joined forces against Andrew Jackson. This
coalition, which later called itself the National Republican party,
increased in strength after the election of Jackson in 1828 and
was joined in opposition to the President by other smaller
parties, the most notable being the Anti-Masonic party. By
1832, Jackson had also earned the enmity of such diverse
groups as states' rights advocates in the South, proponents of
internal improvements in the West, and businessmen and friends
of the Bank of the United States in the East. This opposition was
built up and correlated by Henry Clay in the election of 1832.
Two years later, in 1834, all the various groups were combined
in a loose alliance.
In the 1836 presidential election the Whigs were not unified or
strong enough to join behind a single presidential candidate;
instead several Whig candidates ran for office. The most
prominent were Daniel Webster in New England, William Henry
Harrison in the Northwest, and Hugh Lawson White in the
Southwest. The election went to the Democrat, Martin Van
Buren, but in opposition the Whigs grew steadily stronger.
The two great leaders of the party were Clay and Webster, but
neither was ever to head a victorious national ticket. This failure
was partly a result of the sectional variations in the party, which
had only one common aim, opposition to the Democrats, and
partly a result of the power held by intraparty forces opposed to
them, including the political bosses of New York, Thurlow
Weed and William Seward. The party went on to victory in
1840 with the rousing “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign,
which put William H. Harrison in the White House. Harrison
died after only one month in office and was succeeded by his
Vice President, John Tyler of Virginia.
A definite break now ensued between Tyler and the Whig
leaders in Congress—a break that illustrated the Whig
philosophy of government. The Whigs had originated in
objection to what they considered the excessive power of the
executive branch under Andrew Jackson. To them the legislative
branch of the government represented the wishes of the people,
and the task of the executive was to serve as the enforcing agent
of the legislative branch. When Tyler ignored the counsel of his
cabinet and vetoed bills that sought to reestablish the Bank of the
United States, about 50 Whig members of Congress met in
caucus and read Tyler out of the party. At the behest of Clay the
entire cabinet resigned; even Webster retired after completing
the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1843).
Clay became the standard-bearer in 1844 but was defeated by
James K. Polk. In 1848, Weed and his associates swung the
nomination from Webster and Clay to Zachary Taylor, who had
gained wide popularity as a commander in the Mexican War.
This move temporarily prevented a division of the party, and
although Taylor died while Clay was formulating the
Compromise of 1850 in Congress, Millard Fillmore, his Vice
President and presidential successor, kept the faith of the Whig
By the time Fillmore had succeeded to the presidency, the
disintegration of the party was already manifest; in 1848 several
important Whigs joined the new Free-Soil party, along with the
abolitionists. In New England a bitter struggle developed
between antislavery “Conscience Whigs” and proslavery
“Cotton Whigs,” in other places between “lower law” Whigs and
“higher law” Whigs (the term “higher law” had originated from a
famous speech by William H. Seward, who declared that there
was a higher law than the Constitution).
In the election of 1852, the party was torn wide open by
sectional interests. Both Clay and Webster died during the
campaign, and Winfield Scott, the Whig presidential candidate,
won only 42 electoral votes. This brought about a quick end to
the party, and its remnants gravitated toward other parties. The
newly formed (1854) Republican party and the sharply divided
Democratic party absorbed the largest segments. Other Whigs,
led by Fillmore, drifted into the Know-Nothing movement.