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The Whigs Previous
Digital History ID 3548


Although it took a number of years for Jackson’s opponents to coalesce into an effective national political organization, by the mid-1830s the Whig party, as the opposition came to be known, was able to battle the Democratic party on almost equal terms throughout the country.

The Whig party was formed in 1834 as a coalition of National Republicans, Anti-Masons, and disgruntled Democrats, who were united by their hatred of “King Andrew” Jackson and his “usurpations” of congressional and judicial authority, came together in 1834 to form the Whig party. The party took its name from the seventeenth-century British Whig group that had defended English liberties against the usurpations of pro-Catholic Stuart Kings.

In 1836 the Whigs mounted their first presidential campaign, running three regional candidates against Martin Van Buren: Daniel Webster, the senator from Massachusetts who had substantial appeal in New England; Hugh Lawson White, who had appeal in the South; and William Henry Harrison, who fought an Indian alliance at the Battle of Tippecanoe and appealed to the West and to Anti-Masons in Pennsylvania and Vermont. The party strategy was to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where the Whigs would unite behind a single candidate. Van Buren easily defeated all his Whig opponents, winning 170 electoral votes to just 73 for his closest rival.

Following his strong showing in the election of 1836, William Henry Harrison received the united support of the Whig party in 1840. Benefiting from the Panic of 1837, Harrison easily defeated Van Buren by a vote of 234 to 60 in the electoral college.

Unfortunately, the 68-year-old Harrison caught cold while delivering a two-hour inaugural address in the freezing rain. Barely a month later he died of pneumonia, the first president to die in office. His successor, John Tyler of Virginia, was an ardent defender of slavery, a staunch advocate of states’ rights, and a former Democrat, whom the Whigs had nominated in order to attract Democratic support to the Whig ticket.

A firm believer in the principle that the federal government should exercise no powers other than those expressly enumerated in the Constitution, Tyler rejected the entire Whig legislative program, which called for reestablishment of a national bank, an increased tariff, and federally funded internal improvements.

The Whig party was furious. An angry mob gathered at the White House, threw rocks through the windows, and burned the president in effigy. To protest Tyler’s rejection of the Whig political agenda, all members of the cabinet but one resigned. Tyler became a president without a party. “His Accidency” vetoed nine bills during his four years in office, more than any previous one-term president, frustrating Whig plans to recharter the national bank and raise the tariff while simultaneously distributing proceeds of land sales to the states. In 1843 Whigs in the House of Representatives made Tyler the subject of the first serious impeachment attempt, but the resolutions failed by a vote of 127 to 83.

Like the Democrats, the Whigs were a coalition of sectional interests, class and economic interests, and ethnic and religious interests.

Democratic voters tended to be small farmers, residents of less-prosperous towns, and the Scots-Irish and Catholic Irish. Whigs tended to be educators and professionals; manufacturers; business-oriented farmers; British and German Protestant immigrants; upwardly aspiring manual laborers; free blacks; and active members of Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Congregational churches.

The Whig coalition included supporters of Henry Clay’s American System, states’ righters, religious groups alienated by Jackson’s Indian removal policies, and bankers and businesspeople frightened by the Democrats’ anti-monopoly and anti-bank rhetoric.

Whereas the Democrats stressed class conflict, Whigs emphasized the harmony of interests between labor and capital, the need for humanitarian reform, and leadership by men of talent. The Whigs also idealized the “self-made man,” who starts “from an humble origin, and from small beginnings rise[s] gradually in the world, as a result of merit and industry.” Finally, the Whigs viewed technology and factory enterprise as forces for increasing national wealth and improving living conditions.

In 1848 and 1852 the Whigs tried to repeat their successful 1840 presidential campaign by nominating military heroes for the presidency. The party won the 1848 election with General Zachary Taylor, an Indian fighter and hero of the Mexican War, who had boasted that he had never cast a vote in a presidential election. Like Harrison, Taylor confined his campaign speeches to uncontroversial platitudes. “Old Rough and Ready,” as he was known, died after just 1 year and 127 days in office. Then, in 1852, the Whigs nominated another Indian fighter and Mexican War hero, General Winfield Scott, who carried just four states for his dying party. “Old Fuss and Feathers,” as he was called, was the last Whig nominee to play an important role in a presidential election.



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