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Whig (British political faction)

The Whigs (with the Tories) are often described as one of two political parties in England and later the United Kingdom from the late 17th to the mid-19th centuries. It is more accurate to describe the original two ideas as loose groupings, or more precisely, tendencies. While the Whigs' origin lay in constitutional monarchism and opposition to absolute rule, both might be termed conservative by modern parameters. Party politics did not begin to coalesce until at least 1784, with the ascension of Charles James Fox as the leader of a reconstituted "Whig" party ranged against the governing party of the new "Tories" under William Pitt the Younger.

The Whig party slowly evolved during the 18th century. In general terms, the Whig tendency supported the great aristocratic families and non-Anglicans (the "dissenters," such as Presbyterians), while the Tories supported the Church of England and the gentry. Later on, the Whigs drew support from the emerging industrial interests and wealthy merchants, while the Tories drew support from the landed interests and the British Crown. The Whigs were originally also known as the "Country Party" (as opposed to the Tories, the "Court Party"). By the first half of the 19th century, however, the Whig political programme came to encompass not only the supremacy of parliament over the monarch and support for free trade, but the abolition of slavery and, significantly, expansion of the franchise (suffrage). Eventually the Whigs would evolve into the Liberal Party (while the Tories became the Conservative Party).

Name

The term Whig originated during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms when it was used to refer derisively to a radical faction of the Scottish Covenanters who called themselves the "Kirk Party" (see the Whiggamore Raid). It entered English political discourse during the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678–1681. The Whigs (or Petitioners) opposed the hereditary ascendance of the Catholic Duke of York, future James II, to the thrones of England, Ireland, and Scotland (see Exclusion Crisis). The Tories (or Abhorrers) supported him. Both names were originally negative terms: whiggamor is a Scottish Gaelic word for a cattle or horse drover, while tory'," derived from Tóraidhe," was originally used to refer to an Irish outlaw and later often applied to any Confederate or Royalist in arms.

History

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Queen Mary II and King William III governed with both Whigs and Tories, despite the fact that many of the Tories still supported the deposed Roman Catholic James II. William saw that the Tories were generally friendlier to royal authority than the Whigs, and he employed both groups in his government. His early ministry was largely Tory, but gradually the government came to be dominated by the so-called Junto Whigs, a group of younger Whig politicians who led a tightly organised political grouping. The increasing dominance of the Junto led to a split among the Whigs, with the so-called "Country Whigs" seeing the Junto as betraying their principles for office. The Country Whigs, led by Robert Harley, gradually merged with the Tory opposition in the later 1690s.

Although William's successor Anne had considerable Tory sympathies and excluded the Junto Whigs from power, after a brief and unsuccessful experiment with an exclusively Tory government she generally continued William's policy of balancing the parties, supported by her moderate Tory ministers, the Duke of Marlborough and Lord Godolphin. However, as the War of the Spanish Succession went on and became less and less popular with the Tories, Marlborough and Godolphin were forced to rely more and more on the Junto Whigs, so that by 1708 they headed an administration dominated by the Junto. Anne herself grew increasingly uncomfortable with this dependence on the Whigs, especially as her personal relationship with the Duchess of Marlborough deteriorated. This situation also became increasingly uncomfortable to many of the non-Junto Whigs, led by the Duke of Somerset and the Duke of Shrewsbury, who began to intrigue with Robert Harley's Tories. In the spring of 1710, Anne dismissed Godolphin and the Junto ministers, replacing them with Tories.

The Whigs now moved into opposition, and particularly decried the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which they attempted to block through their majority in the House of Lords. Anne forced it through by creating new Tory peers.

With the succession in 1714 of Elector George Louis of Hanover as King George I, the Whigs returned to government. The Jacobite Uprising of 1715 discredited much of the Tory party as traitorous Jacobites, and Whig control of the levers of power (e.g., through the Septennial Act) ensured that the Whigs became the dominant party of government. During the long period between 1714 and 1760, the Tories practically died out as an active political force, although they always retained a considerable presence in the House of Commons. The governments of (Robert Walpole and the Pelhams, Henry Pelham and his older brother the Duke of Newcastle, between them ruled between 1721 and 1756 with only one brief break) and the leading opposition elements referred to themselves as "Whigs."

This arrangement changed during the reign of George III, who hoped to restore his own power by freeing himself from the great Whig magnates. Thus, George promoted his old tutor, Lord Bute to power and broke with the old Whig leadership surrounding the Duke of Newcastle. After a decade of factional chaos, with distinct "Grenvillite," "Bedfordite," "Rockinghamite," and "Chathamite," factions successively in power, and all referring to themselves as "Whigs," a new system emerged with two separate opposition groups. The Rockingham Whigs claimed the mantle of "Old Whigs," as the purported successors of the party of the Pelhams and the great Whig families. With such noted intellectuals as Edmund Burke behind them, the Rockingham Whigs laid out a philosophy which for the first time extolled the virtues of faction, or at least their faction. The other group were the followers of Lord Chatham, who, as the great political hero of the Seven Years' War, generally took a stance of opposition to party and faction.

The Whigs were opposed by the government of Lord North, which they accused of being a "Tory" administration, although it largely consisted of individuals previously associated with the Whigs--many old Pelhamites, as well as the Whig faction formerly led by the Duke of Bedford, and elements of that which had been led by George Grenville, although it also contained elements of the "Kings' Men," the group formerly associated with Lord Bute and which was generally seen as Tory-leaning. This association of Toryism with the North government was also influential in British North America, and writings of British political commentators known as the Radical Whigs did much to stimulate colonial republican sentiment. Early activists in the colonies called themselves "Whigs," seeing themselves as in alliance with the political opposition in Britain, until they turned to independence and started emphasising the label Patriots. Later, the United States Whig Party would be founded in 1833, focused on opposition to a strong presidency, just as the British Whigs had opposed a strong monarchy.

Two-party system

Following the American Revolution, the North administration fell from power in March 1782, and a coalition of the Rockingham Whigs and the former Chathamites, now led by the Earl of Shelburne, took its place. After Rockingham's unexpected death in July 1782, this uneasy coalition fell apart, with Charles James Fox, Rockingham's successor as faction leader, quarrelling with Shelburne and withdrawing his supporters from the government. The following Shelburne administration was short-lived, however, and in April 1783 Fox returned to power, this time in an unexpected coalition with his old enemy Lord North. Although this pairing seemed unnatural to many at the time, it was to last beyond the demise of the coalition in December 1783. The coalition's untimely fall was brought about by George III in league with the House of Lords, and the King now brought in Chatham's son, William Pitt the Younger, as his prime minister.

It was only now that a genuine two-party system can be seen to emerge, with Pitt and the government on the one side, and the ousted Fox-North coalition on the other. Although Pitt is often referred to as a "Tory" and Fox as a "Whig," Pitt always considered himself to be an independent Whig, and generally opposed the development of a strict partisan political system.

Fox's supporters, however, certainly saw themselves as legitimate heirs of the Whig tradition, and they strongly opposed Pitt in his early years in office, notably during the regency crisis revolving around the King's temporary insanity in 1788–1789, when Fox and his allies supported full powers for their ally, the Prince of Wales, as regent.

The opposition Whigs were split, however, by the onset of the French Revolution. While Fox and some younger members of the party such as Charles Grey and Richard Brinsley Sheridan were sympathetic to the French revolutionaries, others, led by Edmund Burke, were strongly opposed. Although Burke himself was largely alone in defecting to Pitt in 1791, much of the rest of the party, including the influential House of Lords leader the Duke of Portland, Rockingham's nephew Lord Fitzwilliam, and William Windham, were increasingly uncomfortable with the flirtations of Fox and his allies with radicalism and the French Revolution. They split in early 1793 with Fox over the question of support for the war with France, and by the end of the year they had openly broken with Fox. By the summer of the next year, large portions of the opposition had defected and joined Pitt's government.

Although many of the Whigs who had joined with Pitt would eventually return to the fold, joining again with Fox in the Ministry of All the Talents following Pitt's death in 1806, after 1806 the divisions finally began to harden into clear political parties. The followers of Pitt—-led, until 1809, by Fox's old colleague the Duke of Portland--took up proudly the label of "Tories," while Fox's followers—-led since Fox's death in 1806 by Lord Grey—-retained the label of "Whig." After the fall of the Talents ministry in 1807, the Whigs remained out of power for the better part of 25 years. The accession of Fox's old ally, the Prince of Wales, to the regency in 1811 did not change the situation, as the Prince had broken entirely with his old Whig companions.

It was only after the death of George IV, in 1830, that the Whigs returned to power. The Whig administration of Lord Grey, passed a number of important reform measures—-most notably the parliamentary Reform Act 1832 and the abolition of slavery. It should be emphasised, though, that the Whigs and the Tories of this time remained largely conservative, and generally opposed any further changes to the British governmental system. It was around this time that the great Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay began to promulgate what would later be coined the Whig view of history, in which all of English history was seen as leading up to the culminating moment of the passage of Lord Grey's reform bill. This view led to serious distortions in later portrayals of 17th-century and 18th-century history, as Macaulay and his followers attempted to fit the complex and changing factional politics of the Restoration into the neat categories of 19th-century political divisions.

Liberal Party

The Liberal Party (the term was first used officially in 1868 but had been used colloquially for decades beforehand) arose from a coalition of Whigs, free trade Tory followers of Robert Peel, and free trade Radicals, first created, tenuously under the Peelite Lord Aberdeen in 1852, and put together more permanently under the former Canningite Tory Lord Palmerston in 1859. Although the Whigs at first formed the most important part of the coalition, the Whiggish elements of the new party progressively lost influence during the long leadership of the Peelite William Ewart Gladstone, and many of the old Whig aristocrats broke from the party over the issue of Irish home rule in 1886 to help form the Liberal Unionist Party-—which itself would merge with the Conservative Party by 1912. The Unionist support for (trade) protection in the early twentieth century under Joseph Chamberlain (probably the least Whiggish character in the party) further alienated the more orthodox Whigs, however, and by the early twentieth century Whiggery was largely irrelevant and without a natural political home.

Robert Burns

The colours of the Whig party, in Robert Burns's day particularly associated with Charles James Fox, were given in "Here's a Health to them that's awa'." Burns wrote:

See also

Further reading

  • William Anthony Hay (2005). The Whig Revival: 1808-1830 (Studies in Modern History). Palgreave Macmillan.

References

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