The Whig Party was a political party formed in 1834 by opponents of President Andrew Jackson and his Jacksonian Democrats. Led by Henry Clay, the name “Whigs” was derived from the English antimonarchist party and and was an attempt to portray Jackson as "King Andrew." The Whigs were one of the two major political parties in the United States from the late 1830s through the early 1850s. While Jacksonian Democrats painted Whigs as the party of the aristocracy, they managed to win support from diverse economic groups and included four presidents: William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler and Millard Fillmore.
What Was the Whig Party?
The Whigs were an opposition party formed to challenge Jacksonian Democrats, thereby launching the ‘second party system’ in America, but they were far from a single-issue party. Their ranks included members of the Anti-Masonic Party and Democrats who were disenchanted with the leadership of seventh President Andrew Jackson.
Their base combined unusual bedfellows: Evangelical Protestants interested in moral reform, abolitionists and those against the harsh treatment of Native Americans under Andrew Jackson in his rush to expand the country’s borders. In 1830, Jackson had signed the Indian Removal Act, but then ignored its tenets when he forced thousands of Choctaw to journey to Indian Territory on foot in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
Some Whig leaders used anti-party rhetoric, though they were very much a political party on par with the Democrats they opposed. Their diverse base meant the Whigs had to be many things to many voters—a delicate balancing act.
Whig Party Beliefs
Whigs were united in their support of the Second Bank of the United States (an institution Andrew Jackson deplored) and vocal opponents of Jackson’s propensity for ignoring Supreme Court decisions and challenging the Constitution. To limit these presidential excesses, they favored Congress and its legislative power over presidential decrees.
Whigs generally supported higher tariffs, distributing land revenues to states and passing relief legislation in response to the financial panics of 1837 and 1839.
They were not formally an anti-slavery party, but abolitionists had more in common with the Whigs than the pro-slavery Jacksonian Democrats (Jackson was a vocal proponent of slavery and personally owned as many as 161 enslaved people). As the country hurtled toward Westward expansion, it was the issue of slavery that would be the ultimate downfall of the Whigs.
Whig Party Leaders
Henry Clay of Kentucky, a former secretary of state, speaker of the house, and powerful voice in the senate known as the “Great Compromiser,” was the leader of the Whig Party. Other prominent Whigs include William Seward of New York, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and publisher Horace Greeley.
Did you know? Abraham Lincoln cast his first presidential vote for Henry Clay in 1832. Though they never met, Clay was Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman.”
While often stereotyped as the party of the rich by their Jacksonian Democrat opponents, Whigs were supported by an economically diverse group of voters, winning presidential elections and state legislative majorities because of this mass support.
Though they lost the election of 1836, when Jackson’s Democratic successor Martin Van Buren took the White House, the Whigs won the popular vote. After their first national convention in 1839, William Henry Harrison became the first Whig president when he won the 1840 election—but he also became the first president to die in office in 1841, just 31 days into his term.
Harrison was succeeded by his vice president John Tyler. Clay ran and narrowly lost to James K. Polk in 1844. The second Whig President to be voted into office, Zachary Taylor, won the 1848 election. He also became the second president to die in office, and was succeeded by Millard Fillmore.
Whig Party Downfall
By the mid-1850s, tensions were mounting within the party over the divisive issue of slavery as the country expanded into new territory. The last straw was the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which overturned the Missouri Compromise and allowed each territory to decide for itself whether it would be a slave state or free.
Alarmed, anti-slavery Whigs spun off to found the Republican Party in 1854, eroding the party’s base of power. Abraham Lincoln, a Republican president deeply inspired by Henry Clay, would win the presidency in 1860 and go on to lead the nation through Civil War.
READ MORE: Why the Whig Party Collapsed