For the record: politically, I'm an old whig; religiously, I'm a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon priest born slightly out of his due time. Neither of those is an affectation; both have specific meanings, and I mean them most specifically.It occurred to me that some people may not have a clue what a whig is, other than the name of a 19th-Century political party. So I thought I’d tell the story of Whiggery in brief.
Origins of Whiggery
When political Puritanism proved it could not govern with the consent of the people, the English Commonwealth collapsed. General Monck, militant Puritan though he was, was foremost in recalling Charles II to assume a restored monarchy. Charles was crowned, a general amnesty was proclaimed for all but seven regicides, and all Englishmen declared themselves monarchists.
Though the magic formula for Britain was now King-in-Parliament, the tug-of-war between the two continued. Charles was determined to rule as well as reign. He asserted the Divine Right of Kings, though not so loudly as to cause a breach with the legislature, as his father had done. His brother, James Duke of York, was his heir. James was as stupid and headstrong as any Stuart could be -- which is saying something – and he was determined to have his way, even more than Charles. James had openly converted to the Roman Catholic Church, and he was especially determined to see the civil liabilities laden upon Roman Catholics done away with. He pretended that as king he could dispense with the laws restricting Catholics’ participation in government and the military.
James attempted to appear even-handed by dispensing with penalties for non-Anglican Protestants as well as Roman Catholics, but this did nothing to re-assure a country traumatized by over 200 years of conflict with the Catholic powers of Europe. And when he appeared to be assembling a standing army with many Catholic officers and consisting mostly of Irish Catholic soldiers, leaders of Parliament became alarmed.
Two things came out of this conflict. One was the party labels we know as Whig and Tory. The other was the Glorious Revolution that overthrew James and established a Protestant line of succession in his stead.
James’s opponents referred to his followers as “Tories,” which was a term of abuse meaning an Irish highwayman. The term was resurrected several reigns later under the very Protestant George III, when that king attempted to dominate the government by creating a king’s faction in Parliament. In America, supporters of the king – hence, loyalists during the American Revolution – were thus also labeled, and this is the usual understanding of “Tory” in America today.
Meanwhile, James’s supporters referred to his opponents as “Whiggamores” or “Whigs.” This was an equally derogatory term of Scottish origin referring to a small-minded, bigoted Scots Covenanter. In 1689, John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, left the Scottish Convention called to elect William of Orange to the Scottish throne to fight for James. The ballad, “Bonnie Dundee,” puts these words into his mouth:
Then awa’ to the hills, to the lea and the rocks,The rise of true political parties and the idea that the leader of the party with the largest representation in Parliament would be named Prime Minister by the king (even if the king didn’t want him) was a long way in the future when William of Orange overthrew James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1689. Nevertheless, the name “Whig” stuck to those who called him over, invited him to assume the throne (along with his wife, Mary, elder daughter of James), and who as leaders of Parliament and society cooperated with him in establishing a new governing consensus. The keystone of that new consensus – a new plank in the British Constitution – was the English Bill of Rights.
Ere I own a usurper, I’ll couch wi’ the fox.
So tremble, false whigs, in the midst o’ yer glee,
For ye’ve no seen the last of my bonnets and me.
The Bill of Rights is an actual document, still in force in the UK today, limiting the government’s arbitrary power over the citizen. Jury trial, freedom of speech (for Members of Parliament), the right to keep and bear arms, the right to petition for redress of grievances, restrictions on standing armies, no excessive bail or fines are all guaranteed in it. It formed the essence of what the American colonists said were “the liberties of Englishmen.” These liberties were what they said they were standing up for during the turbulent years between the end of the French and Indian War and the beginnings of the Revolution (1763-1775). In those days, the leaders of the faction seeking redress for English high-handedness called themselves “Whigs.” Once they had gone so far as to declare themselves independent, “Whig” gave way to “Patriot,” since they had a new patria to defend.
Following the Revolution, the new nation of America found itself limping along under the Articles of Confederation. Congress authorized a convention to come up with proposals for amending the Articles. The proposal the convention came up with is our Constitution. This led to the first major division among the Patriots as a political movement. One group became the country’s first political party, the Federalists. The other, more inchoate, feared the power to be given to the new federal government. They insisted that a Bill of Rights should be added to it. They were not making that term up. They were hearkening back to the English Bill of Rights they had always assumed was at the heart of their liberty first as Englishmen, and then as Americans. In order to guarantee ratification, the framers of the Constitution agreed, and so the very first Congress under the Constitution took up as its first task the proposal of the amendments we call our Bill of Rights.
Development of Whiggery
The American War for Independence and the French Revolution that followed it threw up two great political theorists. One was Thomas Paine, who said of the American Revolution, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” In France, the revolutionary government did just that in 1793, declaring that year to be Year One. The French Revolution overthrew all the institutions of government and society, setting out to utterly remake the French state. Political murder was sanctioned in the Terror. Finally, a military dictatorship arose in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte. Thomas Paine was elected to the French National Convention, and was an enthusiastic apologist for the thoroughgoing reforms in France. Thomas Sowell sees in him the first great spokesman for the Unlimited Vision, of the idea that government can remake society; indeed, that government can remake human beings. All the successors of the French Revolution -- the Communist Revolution of 1917, the Progressive Movement in late 19th- and early 20th Century America, the Fascist and Nazi movements – share the same, unlimited vision, that all things are possible through political action.
Opposing Paine was Edmund Burke, sometime Member of Parliament. In addition to championing the ideal of a restrained government – that is, not simply electing a government that promises to act in a restrained way, but in having actual restraints put upon government’s sphere of action – which was the essence of Whiggery in both England and America, he went on to theorize about membership in society. He wrote about loyalty to one’s home, one’s neighborhood, one’s fellows in society as one actually meets them. He promoted slow and limited change as people in a society lived their way into the future. He talked about what we call “civil society” – a society that is made up of interlocking social groups, such as churches, clubs, committees, towns, neighborhoods, associations of all sorts. Most things that needed doing, he thought, should be done by or with the cooperation of these groups, not imposed by a distant government that thought it knew better what people needed than they themselves did. To Burke, limited government was not only necessary to prevent tyranny, but allowed other organs of society to do better what society needed. Sowell refers to Burke’s ideas as the Limited Vision.
At the same time that the American and French Revolutions were playing themselves out and Burke and Paine were trading jabs in print, another movement was gaining force. John Wesley was leading the Methodist Revival in the British Isles and America. His influence was helping to create the English middle class, who would take Whig principles and make them their own. They, too, came to believe that they were stakeholders in society, as Burke taught, and that their opinions mattered as much as those of Bishops and Lords and MPs. Eventually, the Whigs in Great Britain became a formal political party, called the Liberals. The political philosophy of Whiggery enunciated by Burke is today known as Burkean Conservatism or Classical Liberalism.
In America, the term “Whig” lay dormant for a while. The Federalists of Alexander Hamilton came to be opposed by the Democratic-Republicans of Thomas Jefferson. The Democratic-Republicans sympathized with France and the French Revolution. Jefferson himself seemed to believe that an agrarian society of yeoman farmers would best fit American society, but his political rhetoric was an unlimited as anything out of Tom Paine. In any case, the Dem-Reps outpoliticked the Federalists, who withered away to the status of a regional party, and then disappeared. An “Era of Good Feelings,” without strong political factions, allowed James Monroe to run unopposed for re-election in 1820. One lone Presidential Elector cast his vote for John Quincy Adams, so that only George Washington could ever be said to have been elected unanimously.
In the election of 1824, however, there were several candidates, all of them officially Democratic-Republicans. The election was decided in the House of Representatives, and John Quincy Adams, who called his faction the National Republicans, was elected. The loser, Andrew Jackson, immediately started the next political campaign. He made common cause with Martin Van Buren, the political boss of New York, and together they founded the Democratic Party. In the election of 1828, Jackson swept into power. As President, he led with a high hand. His opponents, calling him King Andrew I, got together to figure out the electioneering game the Democrats had pioneered. They formed a new political party, the Whigs, recalling the historic associations of Whiggery with opposition to tyrants (e.g., Jackson).
The Whigs contested seven presidential elections, winning two of them. Both of their elected candidates died in office, however. Their record in national leadership is mixed. And though they were always in favor of liberty in all its manifestations, in order to win elections they had to reach out to all sections of the country. This meant finessing the issue of slavery. As the nation became more and more convulsed over slavery, the Whigs found themselves unable to compete effectively with the Democrats. The Democrats, north and south, were united in favor of slavery’s existence and extension. The Whigs couldn’t effectively oppose this, since the southern Whigs wouldn’t form a united front in opposition. In the end, the Whigs fell apart. Many of the northern Whigs then joined a new political party that was organized in the 1850s, which was clear in its opposition to the extension of slavery: the Republican Party.
The Republican Party contains many elements within it, but it has usually been the home of those who continue the Whig tradition – the Burkean Conservatives, the Classical Liberals, those who believe in liberty and limited government and a society made up of many non-governmental institutions and relationships. In today’s fractious politics, where Donald Trump is the titular leader of the GOP, many Burkean Conservatives have either formally left the Republican Party, or find themselves feeling alienated from the party they have hitherto called home. Still, Whiggery remains a viable and respectable political philosophy, and those of us who hold to it continue to fight our corner, whatever politicians and parties may do.
When I say that I am an old whig and that that has a specific meaning, this is what I am referring to. I am opposed to the progressive vision that wants to streamline power and remove the roadblocks from it, that seeks to remake society by government action. That way lies not only tyranny but error, for omincompetent government always winds up being bad government, abusing its citizens not only through high-handedness but stupidity, because no central plan can cover the millions of factors millions of people take into account every day when they decide things for themselves. I don’t believe the Constitution is outdated, and I believe that it means exactly what it says. It is a very whiggish document, and I love it for that. I want to see people set free and equipped to live free, and so I want the ameliorating institutions of society – including the Church – to fire people with the vision of holiness that will lead them to use their freedom in all ways for the betterment of themselves, their children, and the rest of society – which those institutions cannot do if the government is presumed to be responsible for everything in the society.