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British Whig Party: Wikis


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Founded 1678
Dissolved 1868
Preceded by Country party
Succeeded by Liberal Party
Ideology Classical liberalism, Constitutional monarchism,
Rule of law
International affiliation None
Official colours Orange; Buff and Blue

The Whigs are often described as one of the two original political parties (the other being the Tories) in England and later the United Kingdom from the late 17th to the mid-19th centuries. The Whigs' origin lay in constitutional monarchism and opposition to absolute rule. 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.

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 the Tories supported the exiled Stuart royal family's claims for the throne (Jacobitism), 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 British Crown. The Whigs were originally also known as the "Country Party" (as opposed to the Tories, the "Court Party"). 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, significantly, expansion of the franchise (suffrage).



The term Whig originated during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms when it was used to refer derisively to a radical faction of the Scottish Covenanters who called themselves the "Kirk Party" (see the Whiggamore Raid). It entered English political discourse during the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678–1681. The Whigs (or Petitioners) opposed the hereditary ascendance of the Catholic Duke of York, future James II, to the thrones of England, Ireland, and Scotland. The Tories (or Abhorrers) supported him. Both names originally had negative connotations: whiggamor is a Scottish Gaelic word for a cattle or horse drover, while tory, derived from "Tóraidhe," was originally used to refer to an Irish outlaw and later often applied to any Confederate or Royalist in arms.[1] Indeed, the fervent Tory Samuel Johnson once said that "the first Whig was the Devil."[2]



Exclusion Crisis

The Whigs, under Lord Shaftesbury's leadership, wished to exclude the Duke of York from the throne due to his personal character, his Catholicism, his favouring of monarchical absolutism, his connections to France and the effects of the Popish Plot. 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, with Shaftesbury fleeing to the United Provinces and Algernon Sidney and Lord William Russell executed for treason.[4]

Glorious Revolution

Equestrian portrait of William III by Jan Wyck, commemorating the landing at Brixham, Torbay, 5 November 1688

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]

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.[6]

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.

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."[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

Two-party system

In A Block for the Wigs (1783), James Gillray caricatured Fox's return to power in a coalition with North. George III is the blockhead in the center.

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. 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.

Although 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, after 1806 the divisions finally began to harden into clear political parties. The followers of Pitt —- led, until 1809, by Fox's old colleague the Duke of Portland —- took up proudly the label of "Tories," while Fox's followers —- led since Fox's death in 1806 by Lord Grey —- retained the label of "Whig." After the fall of the Talents ministry in 1807, the 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 Whig companions.

It was only after the death of George IV, in 1830, that the Whigs returned to power. The Whig administration of Lord Grey, passed a number of important reform measures—most notably the parliamentary Reform Act 1832 and the abolition of slavery. However, the Whigs and the Tories of this time remained largely conservative, and generally opposed any further changes to the British governmental system. 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.

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. [11]

Robert Burns

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

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.

See also


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition 1989) "1. a. In the 17th c., one of the dispossessed Irish, who became outlaws, subsisting by plundering and killing the English settlers and soldiers; a bog-trotter, a rapparee; later, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms often applied to any Irish Papist or Royalist in arms. Obs. exc. Hist."
  2. ^ Neil Grant, Hamlyn Children's History of Britain: From the Stone Age to the Present Day, 2Rev Ed edition (Dean, 1992), p.162
  3. ^ J. R. Jones, The First Whigs. The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis. 1678–1683 (Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 4.
  4. ^ Jones, pp. 7-8.
  5. ^ Keith Feiling, A History of the Tory Party, 1640-1714, (1924)
  6. ^ Keith Feiling, A History of the Tory Party, 1640-1714, (1924)
  7. ^ Basil Williams and C. H. Stuart, The Whig Supremacy, 1714-1760 (1962)
  8. ^ See Warren M. Elofson, The Rockingham Connection and the Second Founding of the Whig Party 1768-1773 (1996)
  9. ^ Keith Feiling, The Second Tory Party, 1714-1832 (1938)
  10. ^ Daniel Walker Howe, The American Whigs: An Anthology (1973)
  11. ^|Telgmann|&spi=-&rp=1&vo=1 The British whig march

Further reading

  • John Carswell; The Old Cause: Three Biographical Studies in Whiggism. 1954 online edition
  • H. T. Dickinson; Walpole and the Whig Supremacy. (1973) online edition
  • Warren M. Elofson. The Rockingham Connection and the Second Founding of the Whig Party 1768-1773 1996
  • Keith Feiling; A History of the Tory Party, 1640-1714, 1924 online edition; The Second Tory Party, 1714-1832, 1938 online edition
  • William Anthony Hay (2005). The Whig Revival: 1808-1830 (Studies in Modern History). Palgreave Macmillan. ISBN 140391771X. 
  • J. R. Jones; The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis, 1678-1683, 1961 online edition
  • Jörn Leonhard. True English Guelphs and Gibelines: Zum historischen Bedeutungs- und Funktionswandel von "whig" und "tory" im englischen Politikdiskurs seit dem 17. Jahrhundert. Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 84 (2002), S. 175–213.(Full Text)
  • Ronald Buchanan McCallum; The Liberal Party from Earl Grey to Asquith (1963)
  • L. G. Mitchell. Charles James Fox and the Disintegration of the Whig Party, 1782-1794, (1971)
  • Loren Dudley Reid; Charles James Fox: a Man for the People, 1969 online edition
  • George Otto Trevelyan/ The Early History of Charles James Fox (1880) online edition
  • Basil Williams and C. H. Stuart; The Whig Supremacy, 1714-1760, 1962 online edition
  • E. L. Woodward; The Age of Reform, 1815-1870, 1938 online edition

External links

Simple English

The British Whig Party was an early British political party. Their rivals were the Tories, and the British prime minister was usually from one of the two parties.


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