What Exactly is a “Whig?”


People have used the term Whig to refer to many things. Originally the word was a shortened version of Whiggamore which meant someone from the South and West of Scotland, “Whiggam” being the word they used to drive their horses to Leith on their way to buy corn. These yokels became interested in politics during the seventeenth century and launched the “Whiggamore Raid” against nobles who supported the tyrant King Charles I in 1648. Charles I had governed without the English Parliament for many years and had attempted to become an absolute monarch (a king who ruled without the consent of the people). Because of Charles I’s actions, the people of England, led by members of Parliament, rebelled in what became known as the English Civil War, and Charles I was eventually executed for committing treason against the people of England in 1649.

Later, in 1688, the term Whig was applied to opponents of King James II of England, whom people also believed to be setting up an absolute monarchy. These Whigs supported the “Glorious Revolution” that placed King William III and Queen Mary II on the throne and established the principle that monarchs were subject to the constitution of England, rather than the other way around. In time, the term Whig came to mean the anti-establishment (or anti-court) party in England. During the course of the nineteenth century, the Whigs in the United Kingdom became known as the party of progress and the liberals as opposedin opposition to the conservative “Tories.” Yet, the Whigs, for a variety of reasons, fractured and eventually members of the party eventually joined factions of what are now the Liberal-Democrat and Labour parties in England.

In eighteenth-century America, the term Whig became synonymous with Patriot, and was applied to those who opposed the tyranny of George III and the unfair policies of the king’s ministers toward the American colonies. In fact, many of the founding fathers were called Whigs. In the same way that Kings Charles I and James II had tried to use unconstitutional means in order to achieve their goals, these early American Whigs felt that George III, too, was disregarding the constitution.

Later, in the nineteenth century, Whigs again rose to oppose what was they perceived as an unconstitutional “imperial presidency” under Andrew Jackson. In the mid nineteenth-century, with increasing tension over the issue of slavery, the election of Abraham Lincoln (himself a Whig while in Congress before running for president under the banner of the newly formed Republican party), and the Civil War, the American Whigs fractured, as theytheir English counterparts later would dodid in England, and joined with Republicans, Democrats, and other political factions. Eventually, use of the term “Whig” ceased to be used in both England and the United States.

That is, until now. In both Britain and the United States there are Whig movements. What are the issues on which these Whigs should focus? History seems to tell us that Whig movements arise at times when people feel that tyranny is being imposed upon them. Whigs rise up against political figures like Charles I, James II, George III, or and Andrew Jackson to assert that the constitution is the central law of the land, and that the constitution should protect the rights of all people, not just the privileged few.

Unfortunately, the tyrannies against the American (and British) Constitutions are many at this point in our history. Whether one wishes to discuss the oppression of elitist bureaucrats in Washington D.C. abusing their constitutional privileges against the rights reserved for state and local governments, or, whether one wishes to discuss the domination of corporations, banks, and big businesses that use their money to influence policies that benefit them against the interests of their employees, the issue, fundamentally, is the same. The rights of the people are being violated. The Constitution forbids this, and the Whigs must organize to redress this imbalance. There are many ways the Whigs have done this in the past, and the examples of those Whig pioneers can help lead the movement into the future.



 Shawn Martin is an informationist and historian who, among other things, researches 19th-century American history. Former Pennsylvania State Chair. More information about Shawn is available at https://shawnmartin.net/.

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  • jules rensch
    commented 2018-01-28 07:47:33 -0500
    I do appreciate the way Shawn Martin explains us in his article:

    “What is a Whig”.
    Might we also consider the words of Abdu’l-Baha in his description of what we might aspire to.

    “Love ye all religions and all
    races with a love that is true
    and sincere and show that
    love through deeds and not
    through the tongue; for the
    latter hath no importance, as
    the majority of men are, in
    speech, well-wishers, while
    action is the best”

    as ever, Observer Jules
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