Whigs (British political party)

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The Whigs were a political faction and then a political party in the parliaments of England, Scotland, Great Britain, Ireland and the United Kingdom. It was originally formed by opponents of absolute monarchy and the accession of James II to the throne, and after the Glorious Revolution became one of the two major political parties of Great Britain alongside the Tories. It followed classical liberal political and economic principles, favoring constitutional monarchy, parliamentary supremacy, expanded franchise, and free trade. It eventually merged with Peelites and Radicals to form the Liberal Party in the 1850s, which remained a major political party until World War I and the rise of the left-wing Labour Party. The Liberal Party itself later merged with the Social Democratic Party to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988.


  • [T]here are...powerful Motives to make the Whigs open their Arms to embrace all Strangers: One to strengthen their Party. For I scarce ever knew a Foreigner settled in England, whether of Dutch, German, French, Italian or Turkish Growth, but became a Whig in a little time after mixing with us: An Argument that all the World know our Constitution better than we; or that as Strangers have less Concern for us, they strike in with those who are the least affected to England.
  • A body of men connected with high rank and property, bound together by hereditary feelings, party ties, as well as higher motives, who in bad times keep alive the sacred flame of freedom, and when the people are roused stand between the constitution and revolution and go with the people, but not to extremities.
    • Sir Francis Baring, letter (15 February 1855), quoted in Robin James Moore, Sir Charles Wood's Indian Policy, 1853–66 (1966), p. 19
  • You may observe yourself...what a difference there is between the true strength of this nation and the fictitious one of the Whigs. How much time, how many lucky incidents, how many strains of power, how much money must go to create a majority of the latter; on the other hand, take but off the opinion that the Crown is another way inclined, the church interest rises with redoubled force, and by its natural genuine strength.
    • Lord Bolingbroke to Mr. Drummond (10 November 1710), quoted in Gilbert Parke, Letters and Correspondence, Public and Private, of The Right Honourable Henry St. John, Lord Visc. Bolingbroke; during the Time he was Secretary of State to Queen Anne; with State Papers, Explanatory Notes, and a Translation of the Foreign Letters, &c.: Vol. I (1798), pp. 16–17
  • The party with which I acted had, by the malevolent and unthinking been reproached, and by the wise and good always esteemd and confided in—as an aristocratick Party. Such I always understood it to be in the true Sense of the word. I understood it to be a Party, in its composition and in its principles, connected with the solid, permanent long possessed property of the Country; a party, which, by a Temper derived from that Species of Property, and affording a security to it, was attached to the antient tried usages of the Kingdom, a party therefore essentially constructed upon a Ground plot of stability and independence; a party therefore equally removed from servile court compliances, and from popular levity, presumption, and precipitation.
    • Edmund Burke, letter to William Weddell (31 January 1792), quoted in P. J. Marshall and John A. Woods (eds.), The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, Volume VII: January 1792–August 1794 (1968), pp. 52-53
  • Locke was not typical of Whig argument: most Whigs argued not from natural law, as he did, but from historic legal precedent that the Crown in Parliament had often regulated the succession in the past, and might do so again. Even this legal argument could end in the same extreme conclusion that ultimate sovereignty lay with the people, who chose governments by contract. Tories tried to press Whig doctrine to this conclusion; Whigs resisted. Basic to the Whigs' popular appeal was a widespread, visceral, unthinking English anti-Catholicism, plus a better-informed, if paranoid, concern about the growth of "arbitrary power".
    • J. C. D. Clark, From Restoration to Reform: The British Isles 1660–1832 (2014), p. 144
  • I look upon the Whigs as an anti-national party... Believing that the policy of the party was such as must destroy the honour of the kingdom abroad and the happiness of the people at home, I considered it my duty to oppose the Whigs, to ensure their discomfiture, and, if possible, their destruction.
    • Benjamin Disraeli, speech in Taunton (28 April 1835), quoted in William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Vol. I, 1804–1859 (1929), p. 286
  • [A]s a rule a man not born a Liberal, may become a Liberal; but to be a Whig, he must be a born Whig.
  • The ‘old Presbyterians. This was the oldest section of the party in two senses: it derived from the minority which had opposed the Clarendon code in the 1660's, and its members were veterans, survivors from an earlier age. They were to be distinguished from the majority of the Whigs by a genuine and positive zeal for religious reform and Protestant unity. All Whigs constantly talked of this, but most meant it largely in a negative sense, as much political as religious, meaning hostility to Popery and to those stigmatised as crypto-Papists. But this section, sincerely sympathetic to the dissenters although few of its members personally attended conventicles, tried to effect toleration and a wide measure of comprehension as real objectives and not merely a tactical or vote-catching moves.
    • J. R. Jones, The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis, 1678–1683 (1961), p. 10
  • The ‘country Opposition’. A majority of the Whigs can be placed in this category, which again became an important factor in politics during the regroupings which followed the fall of the Cabal, under the leadership of Shaftesbury and Buckingham. Its title, "country", implied the claim that it represented the nation at large against a small, corrupt faction—the Court and its creatures. Like the title, its principles were traditional, those which had been evolved during the reigns of James I and Charles I: they can be summarised as honest administration and ministerial respect for the law, no favourites, the consultation of Parliament and the prompt redress of grievances, financial retrenchment and the furtherance of trade, insularity, and the defence of the Protestant religion.
    • J. R. Jones, The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis, 1678–1683 (1961), p. 11
  • Apart from the crooks and opportunists the Whigs were fundamentally anti-French... Although they were for the moment concerned exclusively with the succession, they hated France and Louis, partly for reasons of religion, because of her increasing rivalry as a commercial, colonial, and naval power, and as the most highly developed and influential of absolute monarchies.
    • J. R. Jones, The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis, 1678–1683 (1961), p. 150
  • To the Whigs of the seventeenth century we owe it that we have a House of Commons. To the Whigs of the nineteenth century we owe it that the House of Commons has been purified. The abolition of the slave-trade, the abolition of colonial slavery, the extension of popular education, the mitigation of the rigour of the penal code, all, all were effected by that party; and of that party, I repeat, I am a member. I look with pride on all that the Whigs have done for the cause of human freedom and of human happiness. I see them now hard pressed, struggling with difficulties, but still fighting the good fight. At their head I see men who have inherited the spirit and the virtues, as well as the blood, of old champions and martyrs of freedom... While one shred of the old banner is flying, by that banner will I at least be found.
    • Thomas Macaulay, speech in Edinburgh (29 May 1839), quoted in Speeches of The Right Honorable T. B. Macaulay, M.P., Vol. I (1853), pp. 219-220
  • The British Whig, in the natural history of politics, forms a species which, like all those of the amphibious class, exists very easily, but is difficult to describe. Shall we call them, with their opponents, Tories out of office? or, as continental writers love it, take them for the representatives of certain popular principles? In the latter case we should get embarrassed in the same difficulty as the historian of the Whigs, Mr. Cooke, who, with great naïvété confesses in his “History of Parties” that it is indeed a certain number of “liberal, moral and enlightened principles” which constitutes the Whig party, but that it was greatly to be regretted that during the more than a century and a half that the Whigs have existed, they have been, when in office, always prevented from carrying out these principles. So that in reality, according to the confession of their own historian, the Whigs represent something quite different from their professed-liberal and enlightened principles.” Thus they are in the same position as the drunkard brought up before the Lord Mayor who declared that he represented the Temperance principle but from some accident or other always got drunk on Sundays.
  • The Whigs are the aristocratic representatives of the bourgeoisie, of the industrial and commercial middle class. Under the condition that the Bourgeoisie should abandon to them, to an oligarchy of aristocratic families, the monopoly of government and the exclusive possession of office, they make to the middle class, and assist it in conquering, all those concessions, which in — the course of social and political development — have shown themselves to have become unavoidable and undelayable. Neither more nor less. And as often as such an unavoidable measure has been passed, they declare loudly that herewith the end of historical progress has been obtained; that the whole social movement has carried its ultimate purpose, and then they “cling to finality.” They can support more easily than ‘the Tories, a decrease of their rental revenues, because they consider themselves as the heaven-born farmers of the revenues of the British Empire. They can renounce the monopoly of the Corn Laws, as long as — they maintain the monopoly of government as their family property. Ever since the “glorious revolution” of 1688 the Whigs, with short intervals, caused principally by the first French Revolution and the consequent reaction, have found themselves in the enjoyment of the public offices. Whoever recalls to his mind this period of English history, will find no other distinctive mark of Whigdom but the maintenance of their family oligarchy. The interests and principles which they represent besides, from time to time, do not belong to the Whigs; they are forced upon them. by the development of the industrial and commercial class, the Bourgeoisie.
  • With the Bourgeoisie it has in common the hatred against aristocrats. In the Whigs it hates the one and the other, aristocrats and Bourgeois, the landlord who oppresses, and the money lord who exploits it. In the Whig it hates the oligarchy which has ruled over England for more than a century, and by which the People is excluded from the direction of its own affairs.
  • Preserving the "Balance of Europe" was vital to the Whigs because if France mastered Europe it would soon master England, crushing the revolution settlement and the constitution, which, as they thought, had brought England out of the miasma of arbitrary government.
    • James O. Richards, Party Propaganda Under Queen Anne: The General Elections of 1702–1713 (1972), pp. 43-44
  • The Whig ideological position, instigated to a high degree by the Junto again, reflected intensified Whig concerns for the Continental land war to contain French aggression and for the revolution settlement, both of which were threatened by a resurgent Toryism. The war had been ended before the last general election of the reign but, according to Whiggism, not before the possibility of a French hegemony in Europe had been eliminated. Whigs charged that the French, supposedly the losers, had gotten better concessions than the victors because Tories schemed thereby to restore the Pretender, popery, and French absolutism on the queen's death. Especially vital to Whiggism of 1713 was opposition to the trade with France which the ministry had wanted and lost in a parliamentary vote.
    • James O. Richards, Party Propaganda Under Queen Anne: The General Elections of 1702–1713 (1972), p. 155
  • Belonging to the Whig party, the aim of that party has always been my aim — 'The cause of civil and religious liberty all over the world.'
  • In the field of his foreign responsibilities Addison's views were those of a good Whig. He had always believed that England's power depended upon her wealth, her wealth upon her commerce, and her commerce upon the freedom of the seas and the checking of the power of France and Spain.
  • Indefinite as such a notion as "moral consensus" may be, this question of the limits beyond which the Englishman was not prepared to be "pushed around", and the limits beyond which authority did not dare to go, is crucial to an understanding of this period. The stance of the common Englishman was not so much democratic, in any positive sense, as anti-absolutist. He felt himself to be an individualist, with few affirmative rights, but protected by the laws against the intrusion of arbitrary power. More obscurely, he felt that the Glorious Revolution afforded a constitutional precedent for the right to riot in resistance to oppression. And this indeed was the central paradox of the 18 h century, in both intellectual and practical terms: constitutionalism was the "illusion of the epoch". Political theory, of traditionalists and reformers alike, was transfixed within the Whiggish limits established by the 1688 settlement, by Locke or by Blackstone. For Locke, the chief ends of government were the maintenance of civil peace, and the security of the person and of property. Such a theory, diluted by self-interest and prejudice, might provide the propertied classes with a sanction for the most bloody code penalising offenders against property; but it provided no sanction for arbitrary authority, intruding upon personal or property rights, and uncontrolled by the rule of law. Hence the paradox, which surprised many foreign observers, of a bloody penal code alongside a liberal and, at times, meticulous administration and interpretation of the laws. The 18th century was indeed a great century for constitutional theorists, judges and lawyers. The poor man might often feel little protection when caught up in the law's toils. But the jury system did afford a measure of protection, as Hardy, Home Tooke, Thelwall and Binns discovered. Wilkes was able to defy King, Parliament and administration—and to establish important new precedents—by using alternately the law courts and the mob. There was no droit administratif, no right of arbitrary arrest or search. Even in the 1790s, each attempt to introduce a "continental" spy system, each suspension of Habeas Corpus, each attempt to pack juries, aroused an outcry beyond the reformers' own ranks. If any—faced by the records of Tyburn and of repression—are inclined to question the value of these limits, they should contrast the trial of Hardy and his colleagues with the treatment of Muir, Gerrald, Skirving and Palmer in 1793-4 in the Scottish courts.
    • E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), pp. 79-80
  • A Tory under oppression, or out of a place, is a Whig; a Whig with power to oppress, is a Tory. The Tory damns the Whig, for maintaining a resistance, which he himself never fails to practice; and the Whig reproaches the Tory with slavish principles, yet calls him rebel if he do not practice them. The truth is, all men dread the power of oppression out of their own hands, and almost all men wish it irresistible when it is there.
  • The very name of France used to be an abomination to the Whigs: They hated the country for the sake of its government; and were eternally upbraiding the Tories with a fondness for that government. Who would have expected, after all this, that ever the Whigs, or any of them, could have spoken with patience, much less with approbation, of the French government? Any the least hint of this kind was shameful and unpardonable in a Whig.
  • The persistence of the Foxite tradition in one section of the governing class made it possible for Grey, at the end of his long career, to constitute a party in the unreformed Parliament, large enough when backed from outside by the middle and lower classes, to pass the Bill that abolished the rotten boroughs. Nothing else could have ultimately averted civil war. It was certainly inevitable, and it may have been desirable, that a great Conservative reaction should emphasise our rejection of the French doctrines. But if the whole of the privileged class had joined Pitt's anti-Jacobin bloc and had been brought up in the neo-Tory tradition, the constitution could not have been altered by legal means, and change could only have come in nineteenth-century Britain along the same violent and bloodstained path by which it has come in continental countries.
    • G. M. Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century (1782–1901) (1922), p. 69
  • The Napoleonic war (1803–15) that followed the brief interval of the Peace of Amiens, was for us a war waged in self-defence, to prevent the systematic subordination of Europe to a vigorous military despotism sworn to our destruction. A few months at the Foreign Office in 1806 and an attempt to treat with our adversary for peace, made this clear even to Fox, who had been till then singularly blind to the real character of Bonaparte. But the Whigs were only enthusiastic for the war by fits and starts. The honour of beating Napoleon fell as clearly to the Tories, as the honour of beating Louis XIV had fallen to the Whigs.
    • G. M. Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century (1782–1901) (1922), p. 108
  • The spirit of the new age in face of these new problems, formulated in theory by Bentham, was first manifested in Government action by the Liberal-Tories in Canning's day. But the monopoly of power had still been strictly preserved. To the Whigs between 1830 and 1835 belongs the credit of destroying the monopoly, reinterpreting the Constitution, and harnessing public opinion to the machine of government. Whatever some of the Whigs might say about the "finality" of their Bill, this new principle, when once admitted, could brook no limitation until complete democracy had been realised under old English forms. On the other hand the belief of the anti-Reform Tories that the Reform Bill would lead at once to the overthrow of Crown and Lords, Church and property, was the exact reverse of the truth. It was due to the Bill that England was not involved in the vicious circle of continental revolution and reaction, and that our political life kept its Anglo-Saxon moorings
    • G. M. Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century (1782–1901) (1922), p. 225

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