Whig Party

Written By William K. Bolt

The term Whig has had different uses throughout American history. During the American Revolution, patriots used it to symbolize their opposition to the tyrannies of the English crown.  After the Revolution, the term fell into disuse, and some even used the term in a pejorative manner.

The term was used mostly during the Second American Party System. This party system crystallized in the mid-1830s and lasted until the Civil War (1861-1865).  American Whigs borrowed the name from the British Whig party, which believed in the supremacy of the legislature over the King. Beginning in 1832, opponents of President Andrew Jackson coalesced into an opposition party. These early opponents of Jackson branded him “King Andrew” because of his apparent abuse of power. In an 1834 Senate speech, Henry Clay of Kentucky used the term “Whig” to identify his opposition to Jackson, and it was quickly adopted.  If the people failed to stop Jackson, Clay warned, then King Andrew might establish a military despotism and threaten the liberties secured during the Revolution.

Because a distrust of Andrew Jackson initially unified Whigs, a diverse combination of Americans comprised the Whig party.  Whigs were free traders and protectionists, states’ righters and nationalists, and paper currency and hard money supporters.

The Whig party attracted Northerners and Southerners, too.  Some of the more recognizable names of the Whig coalition–John Quincy Adams, Lyman Beecher, Horace Greeley, Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward, and Daniel Webster–hailed from the North.  Yet Southerners were also key figures in the Whig party.  Southern Whigs were commercially minded lawyers and entrepreneurs.  Southern communities and states that sought government economic aid and investment usually supported the Whig party.

The Whig party had “conservative” and “liberal” principles. Whigs portrayed themselves as being the party of order and stability. They sought to protect property, uphold the status quo, and maintain America’s culture. These conservative elements were offset by a progressive streak in Whiggish thought.  Whigs wanted a dynamic cosmopolitan society, and they believed commercial expansion represented the denouement of the American Revolution.

American Whigs were the vanguard of many nineteenth-century reform movements.  By reforming prisons, discouraging alcohol consumption, and prohibiting the delivery of mail on the Sabbath, Whig reformers sought to bring societal order.  Both the reform impulse and the Whig economic philosophy known as the “American System” were to produce this ordered society. The rise of Jacksonian Democracy and the decline of established churches weakened the elite’s public influence.  The disentitled upper class found a home among Whigs and resumed influencing society and politics.

In North Carolina, Whigs came from the western region and the undeveloped parts of the northeast near Albemarle Sound.  Believing tidewater planters thwarted economic development, North Carolina Whigs called for a new state constitution in 1835. The new document gave western North Carolina more power and seats in the state legislature. It also allowed for the election of the governor by a popular vote. In 1836, Edward B. Dudley became the first Whig Governor of North Carolina. Whigs controlled the governorship from that moment until 1850.  In the state legislature, Whigs appropriated funds for the construction of turnpikes and railroads and supported state chartered banks to provide the necessary capital.  Their goals came to fruition in the 1850s, when Democrats supported state-funded and created internal improvements.

George Badger, William A. Graham, and William P. Mangum were the leaders of North Carolina Whigs.  Badger and Graham supported an active federal government while Mangum led the states’ rights wing of the Whig party. All three associated with Henry Clay and before long, all three, even Mangum, publicly supported the Kentuckian. Other key North Carolina Whigs included Thomas Clingman, Edward Stanly, and Kenneth Rayner.

The Whig party in North Carolina established dozens of newspapers across the state to spread their message of order and economic progress. Among the most influential were the Asheville Messenger, the Charlotte Journal, Fayetteville Observer, Newbern Spectator, North State Whig (Washington), Raleigh Register, and Wilmington Chronicle. Most of the editors were Northerners, who migrated to North Carolina. The Northern influence allowed North Carolina Whigs to advocate policies similar to the national party’s.

In 1835, North Carolina Whigs won seven of thirteen seats in the federal House of Representatives. This demonstrated that a viable alternative to the Democratic party had come to the Old North state. North Carolina Whig seats in Congress dropped to six, and then to four, before climbing back to seven in 1841. The state lost four seats because of the census of 1840 and the Whigs held four out of the nine Congressional seats until they broke through in 1847 with six wins. They continued to hold those six seats until the state lost yet another seat due to the 1850 census. In the 1853 elections, the Whigs won only two of eight House races, and the party thereafter did not offer candidates for Congressional elections. The Whigs sent three of their members to the U.S. Senate, however: William P. Mangum, William A. Graham, and George E. Badger.

Just like Democrats, North Carolina Whigs held public rallies, hosted barbecues, and participated in political debates.  No doubt, good pork and a public presence contributed to an increase in the number of Tar Heel voters; after only 32 percent of North Carolinians voted in the 1832 presidential election, almost 85 percent voted eight years later.

Whigs obtained as many victories in North Carolina as they did in other states. The Whig party survived longer in North Carolina than any where else. As late as 1860, a Whig ran for governor in the state. Whigs controlled the North Carolina House of Commons from 1838 through 1842. After a two year role as the minority party, Whigs retook the lower House in 1844 and held it until 1848. In the state Senate, Whigs did just as well. They controlled that body beginning in 1836 and lost control in 1842. In 1846 they regained control only to lose it two years later. From 1836 until 1848, every time the two North Carolina houses held joint ballots, the Whigs had a majority (except in 1842).

The Whig party fielded three presidential candidates in the election of 1836. By doing this, they hoped to prevent any candidate from obtaining a majority of the electoral vote and force the House of Representatives, which the Whigs controlled, to choose the next president. Democrats jeered that this ploy would deprive the people of choosing their leaders.  Outgoing president Jackson commanded fellow Democrats to support vice president, Martin Van Buren. When some Democrats balked, Jackson retorted that refusing to support Van Buren equaled treason. Because of Jackson’s authoritarian leadership style, some Democrats, including many North Carolinians, bolted from the party to wave the Whig banner.  Van Buren, however, still received a majority of electoral votes and became the nation’s eighth president. By over three thousand votes, he also carried the popular vote of North Carolina.  During this election, one of North Carolina’s favorite sons, William Persons Mangum, though not a candidate, received South Carolina’s eleven electoral votes.

After Jackson left office, the Whigs developed an economic program. Their centerpiece became the chartering of a third national bank. This bank would handle the government’s finances and control the banks that the states had chartered. The Whigs also called for a protective tariff. A high tariff would help the infant American manufacturers compete against established British manufacturers. Whigs also supported federally sponsored internal improvements. Turnpikes, canals, and railroads should be built with federal dollars, Whigs believed, for they would unite the disparate sections of the Union and allow farmers to distribute crops quicker and cheaper to distant markets. Finally, Whigs supported a distribution of the surplus federal revenue back to the states. Each state could then appropriate their share of the surplus for internal improvements, education, or slave colonization.  The Whigs crafted their economic program to cater to a “harmony of interests.”  Though people entrusted elites with authority, Whigs hoped that the benefits would trickle down to farmers, artisans, and workers; all parts of society benefited from the industrialization of America and the rise of capitalism, Whigs believed.

In the presidential election of 1840, the Whigs nominated William Henry Harrison as their candidate. Because of the crushing Panic of 1837 and Harrison’s appeals to “hard cider,” the Whigs won impressively.  Although Whigs carried North Carolina by over twelve thousand votes, the victory was short lived. After giving a lengthy inaugural address on a cold March day, Harrison became ill and died a month later, making his presidency the shortest in American history.

John Tyler became the first vice president to assume the presidency after the death of a president. Tyler had been placed on the Whig ballot to help balance the ticket. As a strict constructionist who joined the Whigs out of a distrust of Jackson, the Virginian as president infuriated Whigs by vetoing bills for the creation of a third national bank. After his cabinet resigned in protest, Tyler filled some of the vacant seats with Democrats. Tyler appeased Whigs by approving the tariff of 1842.  He ended his administration as chief executive without a party, yet in one of his last official acts, he signed a joint resolution that annexed Texas.

In 1844, the Whigs turned to their most famous member, Henry Clay, to oppose James K. Polk. In a close election, Polk defeated Clay by only 40,000 popular votes. Clay carried Polk’s birth state of North Carolina and his home state of Tennessee. Unlike previous elections, this election hinged not on economic questions but on the question of expansion. While Clay equivocated, Polk strongly supported territorial expansion.  Four years later, the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor. For the Whigs, it did not matter that Taylor, a hero during the Mexican War, had never voted. This election campaign hinged on the question of whether slavery would be permitted in the areas acquired as a result of winning the Mexican War. Taylor, an owner of over 200 slaves, said little, but his opponent, Lewis Cass, claimed loudly that the people of each territory should decide slavery’s fate. North Carolina Whigs created “Rough and Ready Clubs” to promote Taylor as a friend of slavery who respected limitations placed on presidential power.  Accordingly, Whigs argued that the “people and not the president” should rule the country. Like Clay four years before, Taylor carried the Old North state–this time, by over eight thousand votes.  But like Harrison before him, Taylor died while in office.  During his sixteen months as president, Taylor nearly precipitated a civil war by threatening to veto compromise proposals.  His death elevated Millard Fillmore to the presidency and Fillmore approved a series of bills that came to be known as the Compromise of 1850.

Fillmore was the last Whig president. In 1852, on the 53rd ballot, the Whigs nominated Winfield Scott. The Whig nominee then lost in a landslide to Democrat Franklin Pierce. Scott carried only four states but lost North Carolina by only 745 votes. Scott’s strong showing in North Carolina can be attributed to the fact that North Carolina’s William A. Graham was on the ticket as Scott’s running mate.

Whig accomplishments and the economic prosperity of the early 1850s ironically undermined the importance of the party.  The growing slavery crisis divided party members, who ceased to field candidates for the presidency after the Kansas Nebraska act of 1854. Some Whigs joined nativist parties, such as the American or Know Nothing party. Most Northern Whigs joined the Republican party, which had a platform that called for an end to the extension of slavery into the new territories. Southern Whigs, such as Thomas Clingman, joined the Democratic party, for it supported a citizens’ right to take slaves into the territories. During the secession crisis of 1860-61, the remaining Southern Whigs joined the Constitutional Union movement.

North Carolina Whigs disliked the antislavery policies of the new Republican party. They hoped to form a new party of Southern Whigs and conservative Northern Republicans. These efforts never came to fruition. Governor John W. Ellis called for secession, and fellow Whigs in North Carolina supported the calling of the secession convention of December 1860.  This convention, they hoped, would be composed of moderate and conservative men. But on the last day of February, North Carolina voters rejected the calling of a convention. After the Confederate States of America fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, Whigs and Democrats in North Carolina came to the grim conclusion that Civil War had come. On May 20, 1861, a convention of North Carolinians decided unanimously that North Carolina should secede and help other southern states defend against impending invasion.

It is highly likely that Whigs defeated Democratic opponents because they beat them at their own game.  The Democrats used military heroes to win elections, and Whigs mimicked this successful approach.  Whig presidential candidates William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor also won the presidency because of their military records. For a party built on the opposition to a military chieftain, the choices of Harrison, Taylor, and Scott seemed contradictory, for Whigs criticized what they labeled vulgar democracy.  But Whigs employed the same campaign tactics that they criticized Democrats for using. The Whig party in North Carolina was among the most successful branches of the national Whig party. Were it not for the slavery issue, it might have continued to win Tar Heel’s support.