Established in 1834, the Whig Party was a reaction to the authoritarian policies of Andrew Jackson. “King Andrew," as his critics labeled him, had enraged his political opponents by his actions regarding the Bank of the United States, Native Americans, the Supreme Court and his use of presidential war powers. The term Whig was taken from English politics, the name of a faction that opposed royal tyranny.
Opponents who gravitated to the Whig Party included Jackson critics, states’ rights advocates, and supporters of the American System. In some respects the Whigs were the descendants of the old Federalist Party, supporting the Hamiltonian preference for strong federal action in dealing with national problems.
Other components of the emerging coalition that became the Whig Party was the Anti-Masonic Party, the stated purpose of which was to combat the purported threat of Masonic power over political and judicial institutions. William H. Seward and Thurlow Weed of New York and Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania were among the Anti-Masons who migrated to the Whig Party. Another group was the Democratic Conservatives, who opposed their party's financial policies after 1836.
Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were the unquestioned luminaries of the Whig Party. Neither was able to overcome sectional jealousies and gain the coveted presidency.
The Whigs' efforts to unify were slow and ultimately unsuccessful. Their record on the presidential level is as follows:
The Election of 1840: The famous “log cabin and hard cider" campaign yielded a Whig victory with William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. The death of Harrison only a month after taking office was a terrible blow. Tyler was a Virginia states' rights former Democrat who proceeded to veto succession of key Whig banking and tariff bills. The frustrated Whigs disowned Tyler, but they were unable to move forward with their desired "American System."
The Election of 1844: James K. Polk, the Democratic candidate, outdistanced Whig Henry Clay in a contest noted for its close popular vote. The Whigs did not believe that the result had been fair, and cited the practice of "naturalizing" immigrants almost as soon as they arrived. Daniel Webster denounced the practice and claimed that such fraudulent practices had led to the defeat of the Whig ticket in Pennsylvania and New York.
The Election of 1848: The final Whig presidential victory, in which Zachary Taylor defeated Democrat Lewis Cass primarily because of votes diverted to third party candidate Martin Van Buren. With the problems of slavery threatening the country, the party's aging leaders Clay and Webster put forward a compromise plan in 1850. President Taylor blocked their moves, but following his death on July 9, the vice president, Millard Fillmore, became president and gave the necessary support.
The Election of 1856: The two great Whig leaders Clay and Webster had both died between the nominating convention and the 1852 election. Without their dominant leadership, the Whig Party began to unravel. It was torn in two directions by the issue of slavery, with Southern Whigs trending towards what they felt were the more sympathetic Democrats. Northern Whigs had already begun to defect to the Free-Soil Party and from 1854 on to the Republicans. The Whigs made a nominal appearance with Millard Fillmore of the National American Party (garnering feeble Whig support), losing badly to Republican John C. Frémont and the victor Democrat James Buchanan.
The issue of slavery split the party. “Conscience Whigs" in the North favored the abolition of slavery and halting the institution's spread into new territories. The “Cotton Whigs" in the South took the opposite viewpoints. Following Scott’s poor showing in 1852, the southerners moved to the Democratic Party and the northerners to the newly formed Republican Party.
There was never a truly consistent Whig political philosophy, except in the negative sense of opposing excessively concentrated power in the federal government. Their objectives came about largely after their disappearance. With no Southerners in Congress and Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig from Illinois, in the White House, the Republican Party finally passed much of the economic legislation regarding banking and tariffs that had long been advocated by the Whigs.