Key Facts & Summary
- The Whig Party was one of the main political parties active between the late XVII and mid-XIX centuries in England.
- Because of its social and religious tolerance, it is considered antithetical to the Tory Party (strongly monarchical and contrary to any religion other than Anglicanism).
- The formal name of the Whig Party was originally ‘Country Party’ (whereas the Tory was the Court Party).
- The party slowly took shape during the XVIII century. In general, the Whig supported great aristocratic families and the non-Anglicans (dissenters, like the Presbyterians), whereas the Tories gave their support to the Anglican Church and to the small nobility. Later the Whigs met the interest of the emerging industrial class and wealthier merchants. The Tories, on the other hand, gathered the consensus of landowners and members of the British Crown.
- There was no cohesive party policy at least until 1784, the year of the rise of Charles James Fox as president of the reconstituted Whig party.
- During the XIX century, the political party also supported the abolition of slavery and the extension of suffrage. In 1859, the Whig formed the Liberal Party under the leadership of Lord Aberdeen and William Gladstone.
The Glorious Revolution
After the glorious revolution of 1688, Queen Mary II and King William III, ruled with the support of both the Whigs and the Tories (despite the fact that many of the latter supported the deposed Catholic King James II). Throughout his regency, William employed members of both the Tory and the Whig parties. At first, the king chose Tory prime ministers, but gradually, the government began to be more influenced by the Whig Junto, a group of young Whig politicians. This generated a rift within the Whigs with the separation of the so-called Country Whigs, who accused the opposite faction of betrayal of their ideals in favour of access to administrative positions. The Country Whig, directed by Robert Harley gradually, joined the opposition organised by the Tory towards the end of the XVII century.
In 1702, Anne succeeded William III. The new queen sympathised for the Tories and aspired to exclude the Junto Whig from the administration, but after a brief and unsuccessful experimental government, the Tory Party continued King William’s policy by using both parties. The Tories were guided by the Duke of Marlborough and Lord Godolphin.
While the Spanish war of succession continued and became less and less important for the Tory Party, Marlborough and Godolphin had to rely more and more on the Junto Whig until in 1708. Anne found herself forced to accept this uncomfortable dependence on the Whigs, especially after the deterioration of her relationship with the Duchess of Marlborough. Many of the members of the Whig Party that did not belong to the Junto group, headed by the Duke of Somerset and the Duke of Shrewsbury, began to relate more closely to Robert Harley’s Tories.
In the spring of 1710, Anne dismissed Godolphin and the Junto ministers, replacing them with Tories. The Whigs were opposed to the Treaty of Utrecht, which they tried to block thanks to their majority in the House of Lords, but their manoeuvre did not go through: Anne appointed another twelve men to form a majority that was in favour of the treaty.
The Whig Party’s Supremacy
With the accession to the throne in 1714 of the elector George Ludwig of Hanover with the title of King George I, the Whig returned to rule. During the long period between 1721 and 1760, the Whig asserted themselves as the undisputed power, so much that the majority of both chambers and the title of Prime Minister remained uninterruptedly in the hands of the Whig Party (in particular, it remained in the hands of Robert Walpole and of the Pelham brothers, Henry Pelham and his elder brother, the Duke of Newcastle).
George III ascends to the throne
All this changed during the reign of George III, who hoped to gain more power by freeing himself from the control of the Whig. He decided to promote Lord Bute to the position of prime minister, thus ending the Whig’s supremacy, and forcing the Duke of Newcastle to resign. After ten years of chaos between the various factions of the Whig party, a new system emerged with two distinct opposition groups. The Whig of Rockingham, who claimed the title of Old Whig (as successors of the doctrine imparted by the Pelham brothers and the noble Whig families), included intellectuals such as Edmund Burke behind their political thinking. The other group was characterised by the Whig supporters of Lord Chatham, who was the great political hero of the Seven Years’ War and was contrary to the development of different factions within the party.
The Whig strongly opposed the government of Lord North, who was accused of running a Tory administration, despite being largely composed of people previously associated with the same Whig Party (such as the Pelhamites, members led by the Duke of Bedford, members led by George Grenville, and some of the king’s men). Overall, their ideology was considered in line with the Tories’ thought. The idea of a possible relation between the Lord North and the Tories had a wide influence also in British America, and the writings of many British political commentators known as the Radical Whig did much to stimulate republican sentiment in the colonies. The first activist settlers considered themselves Whig. However following the independence, they began to label themselves as Patriots. In 1833, the US Whig Party was founded.
The Two-Party System
After the events of the American Revolution, the government of Lord North fell in March 1782, and a coalition formed by the Rockingham Whigs and the old Chathamites, led by William Petty, took its place. With the unexpected death of Rockingham in July 1782, this coalition collapsed: Charles James Fox, Rockingham’s successor as head of the faction, distanced himself from William Petty and withdrew his supporters. Petty’s government was short-lived, and in April 1783, Fox returned to power in a coalition with North as his ally (his former enemy). This alliance seemed unlikely for many politicians of the time. Soon, George III ended the coalition and favoured Chatham’s son, William Pitt the Younger, as Prime Minister.
This led to the formation of a pure bipartisan system with Pitt and its government on one side, and the Fox-North coalition on the other. Although Pitt has often been called a Tory, and Fox a Whig, Pitt always considered himself an independent Whig, generally opposing the development of a partisan political system. Supporters of Fox, on the other hand, considered themselves the legitimate heirs of the Whig tradition, strongly opposing Pitt’s first years of government, becoming more and more prominent between 1788 and 1789, when the king was diagnosed with mental problems. Fox and his family then gave full support to their ally, Prince of Wales and future King George IV.
The opposition split during the French revolution and although Fox and some younger Whig such as Charles Gray and Richard Brinsley Sheridan were close to the positions of the French revolutionaries, others (led by Edmund Burke) strongly opposed this position. While Burke himself defected to Pitt in 1791, much of the rest of the party (including the most influential leaders in the House of Lords such as the Duke of Portland, Rockingham’s nephew Lord Fitzwilliam, and William Windham) found themselves increasingly uncomfortable with the support that Fox and his allies were giving to the French revolution. They split at the beginning of 1793, when Fox asked the party to support France at war. By the end of that year, the Whig ended it’s relations relations with Fox. By the summer of 1794, much of the opposition joined the Pitt government.
Many of the Whigs who had joined the Pitt faction, later retraced their steps, and supported Fox as the leader of the new Ministry of All the Talents, formed after Pitt’s death in 1806. After this date, the divisions began to manifest themselves clearly: the supporters of Pitt, led until 1809 by Fox’s old comrade – the Duke of Portland, labeled themselves Tory; whereas Fox’s supporters, led by Lord Gray after Fox’s death in 1806, proudly called themselves Whig. After the fall of the Ministry of All the Talents in 1807, the Whigs remained in opposition for twenty-five years. The accession to the throne of the old ally of Fox, the Prince of Wales, did not change the situation, and the prince effectively cut off all relations with the Whig comrades.
Only when George IV died in 1830, the Whig returned to rule. The government of Lord Gray passed very important reforms, such as the Reform Act of 1832 and the abolition of slavery. It should however be noted that both the Whigs and the Tories of this period remained remarkably conservative, generally opposing any possible reform in the British governmental system. Around this time, the Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, began promulgating what would later be called the Whig perspective of history. This perspective led to serious distortions in future portraits of XVII and XVIII century history.
[1.] Elofson, W.M. (1996). The Rockingham Connection and the Second Founding of the Whig Party 1768-1773.
[2.] Feiling, K. (1938). The Second Tory Party, 1714-1832. Available from: https://www.questia.com/read/58567794/the-second-tory-party-1714-1832
[3.] Mitchell, A. (1967). The Whigs in Opposition, 1815-1830. Oxford: Clarendon Press.