History In The Headlines

Afghanistan and Iraq War Vets Help Revive Whig Party

By Elizabeth Nix
Are the Whigs--the U.S. political party that during its short existence in the 1800s put four men in the White House--making a comeback? On November 5, Robert Bucholz became the first Whig to win elected office in Philadelphia, and possibly all of America, in more than 150 years. Buchholz, a 39-year-old software engineer, won the job of judge of elections for the 5th Division in the City of Brotherly Love’s 56th Ward, capturing 36 votes to his Democratic opponent’s 24 votes. The centrist-oriented Modern Whig Party, to which Buchholz belongs, was organized in late 2007 by a group of U.S. military veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and were frustrated by gridlock in Washington, D.C. Find out more about the Modern Whigs, and learn what caused the dissolution of America’s original Whig Party, which counted a young Abe Lincoln among its members.
1848 Whig Party campaign banner, featuring Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. (Credit: Getty Images)

1848 Whig Party campaign banner, featuring Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. (Credit: Getty Images)

America’s Whig Party was formed in the early 1830s by political opponents of President Andrew Jackson and his recently established Democratic Party. Early Whig leaders such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster viewed the president as an autocrat (the Whig name dates back to a British political organization formed in the late 17th century in opposition to the monarchy) and clashed with him over his economic policies, particularly his objection to the Bank of the United States.

In 1834, Abraham Lincoln won election as a Whig to the Illinois House of Representatives, where he served until 1842. He went on to represent the Prairie State as a Whig in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849. The first Whig to serve in the White House was William Henry Harrison, who was elected in 1840. However, in April 1841, just a month after being sworn in as the nation’s ninth president, Harrison died from pneumonia. His time in office is the shortest of any U.S. president, and he was succeeded by his vice president, John Tyler.

In 1844, Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay was edged out by dark horse Democratic rival James Polk. Four years later, the Whigs once again captured the White House, when Zachary Taylor was elected. However, once again, good health was not on the Whigs’ side and Taylor served just 16 months, until July 1850, when he died of illness. His vice president, Millard Fillmore, served out the remainder of Taylor’s term but when it came to the presidential election of 1852, the Whigs opted to nominate Gen. Winfield Scott instead of Fillmore, who was unpopular with the antislavery wing of the party. Scott was defeated by Democrat Franklin Pierce. By the 1856 presidential election, the Whigs had disbanded following a major rift over the issue of slavery. A number of members from the party’s Northern wing, including Lincoln, fled for the Republican Party, which had been established in 1854 by antislavery activists. (In 1860, Lincoln became the first Republican to win the presidency.)

The Modern Whig Party, which claims around 30,000 members nationwide, considers itself a successor to America’s first Whig Party. With an emphasis on pragmatism over ideology, the current organization has a logo featuring an owl and held its first national leadership council meeting in 2009. In 2010, the party ran two candidates for U.S. Congress in Virginia and one for state representative in Massachusetts, but all three were defeated. Could Bucholz’s recent victory as an election judge in Philadelphia signal the start of a turnaround for the Whigs? Only time will tell.

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Categories: Elections, Whig Party