Who Were the Whigs?

Millard Fillmore, the Last Big Whig

As president of the United States, Andrew Jackson bitterly attacked the Bank of the United States; eventually he succeeded in destroying it.  Jackson also opposed paper money, preferring gold or silver — hard money.  He would probably not be amused had he lived to see his likeness on the twenty-dollar bill, a piece of paper that says “Federal Reserve Note” on it.

Back in the 1820s and 30s Jackson was beloved by many but despised by many others, and it was his polarizing views that gave birth to a political party called the Whigs.  Led by Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky and Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, disparate groups found common ground in their opposition to Andrew Jackson.  Whigs were eastern bankers, western farmers, southern planters — in general, they considered themselves men of property and character which, they were certain, Jacksonian Democrats were not.

They disparaged Jackson by calling him “King Andrew the First” and borrowed the name Whigs from British politics.  In England, the Whigs (whose opponents were the Tories) stood for limiting the power of the king.  The name has origins in Scottish Gaelic; according to Encyclopædia Britannica, “it was a term applied to horse thieves and, later, to Scottish Presbyterians.”  There are other theories, but the gist of most is that the word “whig” seems to have started as a term of derision.

Anyway, the Whig party in the United States had goals that included a well-regulated national currency, government help for economic expansion, and a relatively weak president.  They managed to elect two weak presidents, William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1848.  Both had been military heroes, but neither man lasted long in office.

Harrison caught pneumonia at his inauguration and died a month later.  He was succeeded by his vice president John Tyler, who so offended the members of his own party that they denounced him as a traitor and booted him out of the Whigs while he was still president.

Zachary Taylor served 16 months before he, too, died in office.  Even in that short time he had managed to annoy members of his party who felt he was not pressing their agenda faithfully; you might say his approach was more “wing it” than Whig it.

Taylor was succeeded by Vice President Millard Fillmore, who thus became the last Whig president.  Fillmore has been characterized by some historians as “a handsome, dignified man of no great abilities.”  In his defense, he held the office during a period when his party was disintegrating over the issue of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln and other Whigs found their way to the new Republican party; others joined something called the American Party, which was referred to by its detractors as “The Know-Nothing Party”.  (It was sort of a secret organization; when members were asked to define their platform, they were instructed to say “I know nothing.”)

In 1856 Fillmore ran as the Know-Nothing candidate for president and got stomped by Democrat James Buchanan.  The Whigs didn’t even field a candidate in that election, or ever again.  In a little over 20 years the Whigs had emerged out of nowhere and then flamed out.

Looking back on this period of history — “King Andrew the First”, “Tyler the Traitor”, “The Know-Nothings” — serves to remind us of an essential fact of American politics:  the names change, but the name-calling doesn’t.

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