The Whigs: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Whig Party came to fruition as a direct response to Jacksonian Democracy in the 1830s. Learn about the ideology, make-up and rise and fall of the Whigs.


The Whig Party, founded in 1834, was concocted of National Republicans and Anti-Masonics. The party rose to prominence following the capitulation of the National Republican Party. The Whigs focused on the notion of nationalism. They supported a centralized bank, national internal improvements, protective tariffs and the expansion of federal oversight. The Whig Party lasted throughout the 1830s and 1840s, yet fizzled out by 1860 following the outcome of the Compromise of 1850 and the rejuvenation of the Republican Party. Some of the party's notable numbers included Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and future Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.

Birth of the Whigs

The Democrats under the leadership of President Andrew Jackson dominated politics from 1828 until 1836. Jacksonian Democracy had a significant following, yet Jackson's attack on the Second Bank of the United States caused a rift to develop throughout the nation. The Bank War, as it came to be known, caused many opponents of Jackson to rise to national prominence as they attacked him for systematically destroying the financial institution. Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster all banded together to attack Jacksonian Democracy. The assimilation of these individuals yielded the beginning of the Whig Party in 1834.

Party Composition and Ideology

The Whig Party was composed of a cornucopia of backgrounds: wealthy southerners, northern manufacturers, rising western farmers and coastal merchants. Generally, these individuals represented the upper-middle to upper class and were once a part of either the National Republicans or Anti-Masonics. Additionally, the driving religion was largely that of Evangelical Protestantism.

For the most part, the ideology of the Whig Party was one of uniformity. The ultimate goal was to rid the nation of Jacksonian Democracy. Yet, more importantly, the party favored corporations and industry, centralized banking (Second Bank of the United States), internal improvements (turnpikes, bridges, canals, etc.) and tariffs that protected manufacturing in the United States. The Whigs supported the idea of nationalism and the notion of creating a powerful United States.

Conversely, the Whigs frowned upon the idea of limited government. They cautiously approached expansionism (shunned war with Mexico), rejected the excessive use of executive power and opposed states' rights. The Whigs believed that a strong federal government was the only way to ensure an efficient and dominant United States. The only setback to the Whig Party was their inability to cope with slavery. This issue would be the demise of the party as we will see.

Whig Candidates and Presidents

In its limited existence, the Whig Party managed to contend in a number of presidential elections while successfully winning the White House twice. The first presidential contest for the Whigs, in 1836, was an unmitigated disaster as the party could not chose a single candidate. Instead, the Whigs ran three candidates in the hope of defeating Martin Van Buren. The party's numerous candidates lost overwhelmingly.

Fortunately, for the Whigs, the financial panic under the Van Buren Administration opened an avenue for the party to secure the presidency. In the Presidential Election of 1840, the Whig Party dominated the polls with William Henry Harrison becoming president by a dominate majority. President Harrison, however, didn't last past a year, he died in office. Whig Vice President John Tyler then took over at the helm.

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