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United States Whig Party
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United States Whig Party

The United States Whig Party was a political party of the United States. The party was created in order to oppose the policies of Andrew Jackson and called itself the Whig Party by analogy with the English Whigss, who had opposed the power of the King in Restoration England.

Table of contents
1 Creation
2 Victory and catastrophe
3 A house divided
4 Dissolution
5 Presidents from the Whig Party
6 Further reading

Creation

The party was initially formed in 1833-1834 as an alliance between the Northern and border state National Republican Parties, led by men like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. It was a nationalistic party devoted to Clay's American System, with Southern states-rights opponents of Jackson, united only by their dislike of Jackson. Since Jackson was a Freemason, the Whig movement also became attractive to some Anti-Masons.

In 1836 the party was not yet sufficiently organised to run one nationwide candidate. Instead William Henry Harrison ran in the northern and border states, Hugh L. White ran in the South, and Daniel Webster ran in his home state of Massachusetts. It was hoped that between them they would win enough U.S. Electoral College votes to deny Martin Van Buren a majority and so throw the election into the House of Representatives and there select the most popular Whig candidate as President. This tactic failed and they were soundly defeated.

Victory and catastrophe

In the years that followed, the Whigs began to develop a more comprehensive platform, favoring a protective tariff, the creation of a new Bank of the U.S., and use of the proceeds of public land sales to aid the states in internal improvements. In 1839, the Whigs held their first national convention, giving the nod to Harrison, who was elected president next year, largely as a result of the terrible state of the economy.

Harrison, after contracting pneumonia as the result of a two-hour inauguration speech, served only 31 days and became the first President to die in office. He was succeeded by John Tyler, a Virginian and states rights absolutist, who vetoed most of his own party's legislation and was expelled from the Whigs in 1841.

However, the Whigs' internal disunity, and the increasing economic prosperity, which made the Whigs' activist economic program seem less necessary, led to a disastrous showing by the Whigs in the 1842 congressional elections, in which they lost control of the House.

A house divided

By 1844 the Whigs were beginning to recover from their disaster of two years earlier and nominated Henry Clay, who lost to Democrat James K. Polk in a closely contested race, with Polk's policy of western expansion (particularly the annexation of Texas) and free trade triumphing over Clay's protectionism and caution over the Texas question. The Whigs, both northern and southern, strongly opposed the war with Mexico, which many (including Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln) saw as an unprincipled land grab, but they were split, as were the Democrats, by the anti-slavery Wilmot Proviso of 1846. In 1848 the Whigs, seeing no hope of succeeding by nominating Clay and pushing for their traditional economic policies, selected Zachary Taylor, a Mexican-American War hero, and adopted no platform at all. Taylor triumphed over the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, and the anti-slavery Free Soil Party, who had nominated former President Martin Van Buren and thus split the Democratic vote in New York, throwing that state to the Whigs (at the same time, however, the Free Soilers probably cost the Whigs several Midwestern states).

Had he lived, Taylor might have triggered the Civil War ten years earlier: He was firmly opposed to the Compromise of 1850, and was prepared to take military action to prevent secession. But on July 4, 1850, Taylor contracted acute indigestion (probably the result of typhus or cholera) and five days later became the second president to die in office. Vice President Millard Fillmore assumed the Presidency and supported the Compromise, thus averting crisis.

Dissolution

The Compromise of 1850 fractured the Whigs along pro- and anti-slavery lines, with the anti-slavery faction having enough power to deny Fillmore the party's nomination in 1852. Attempting to repeat their earlier successes, the Whigs nominated popular General Winfield Scott, but they lost to the Democrats' Franklin Pierce.

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act divided the Whigs even further, and the rise of the anti-slavery Republican Party in 1856 put an end to the Whig coalition. The Whigs' lukewarm position on slavery, supporting the Compromise for the sake of holding the Union together, appealed to neither side of the increasingly polarized debate: Anti-slavery Northern Whigs deserted the party for the Republicans, while pro-slavery Southern Whigs defected to the Democrats.

In 1856 the remaining Whigs threw their support behind Fillmore, who by then had switched to the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party (and lost to Democrat James Buchanan), and in 1860 Whig diehards regrouped as the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell. Bell was defeated by ex-Whig Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party, triggering the American Civil War and bringing an end to the Whigs.

Presidents from the Whig Party

Presidents of the United States, dates in office
  1. William Henry Harrison (1841)
  2. John Tyler (see note) (1841-1845)
  3. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
  4. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Note: Although Tyler was elected vice president as a Whig, his policies soon proved to be opposed to most of the Whig agenda, and he was officially expelled from the party in 1841, a few months after taking office.

See also: List of political parties in the United States

Further reading