The Party’s Development
The American national Whig Party was formed in the winter of 1833–1834 in response to what many perceived to be a series of executive power grabs by Andrew Jackson (the word Whig is short for Whiggamore, a Scottish word that originated in 1648 to describe a group that marched to Edinburgh to oppose the court party, and later represented the British political party that supported limits to royal authority). During the Nullification Crisis of 1828–1833, the federal government and South Carolina nearly came to blows over a tariff dispute that was entangled with the issue of slavery, fueling interest in a party that would emphasize the co-equal power of Congress and the rights of states. In addition, Jackson’s proactive efforts at eliminating the Second Bank of America without congressional approval led to Senate censure, catcalls of “King Andrew,” and increased pressure for more organized opposition.
The formation of the Whig Party was more than simply a rebuke of Jackson, however. Its development in Virginia, for one, reflected social and political changes in the state’s burgeoning commercial economy. Party members embraced the political ideology of “positive liberalism,” which favored government action on behalf of the common good. In practice, this meant promoting internal improvements, public education, strong banking, and high tariffs. The party’s at times moralistic belief in a government that could affect positive change was evidenced in its support of the temperance movement.
On the issue of slavery, however, the Virginia Whigs floundered in ambiguity. The party never concretely articulated a position on the controversial issue and among its members opinions varied by region and political view, with plans ranging from gradual emancipation to colonization to leaving slavery alone. While the party contained both supporters and critics of the “peculiar institution,” nearly all of Virginia’s vocal opponents of slavery came from Whig political backgrounds. These antislavery advocates based their arguments on the party’s economic philosophy, asserting that slavery contradicted their broader plan of diversified commercial prosperity through internal improvements, central banking, and industrial development.
Whig Power Grows
The first official Whig candidates in Virginia appeared on the ballot in 1834. In part by connecting local positions to broader national issues, they immediately won a majority of seats in the Virginia House of Delegates but never gained a decisive advantage over the Democratic Party. In fact, the fierce competition between Whigs and Democrats ushered in what historians now call the Second Party System (1837–1852), characterized by high levels of voter interest, partisan loyalty, and election-day turnout. For the next fifteen years, neither party managed to dominate the House, although Whigs controlled the office of governor for all but two terms from 1834 until 1843. This nearly even Whig-Democratic split, coupled with the party loyalists’ overwhelming enthusiasm, made the Second Party System in Virginia one of the most active and dynamic of the era.
Whigs were strongest in urban areas, appealing to voters in the growing commercial class, such as merchants, businessmen, and bankers. Their rural support, meanwhile, tended to come from owners of large numbers of slaves whose interests, as planters, were closely tied to the market economy. Whig bastions included the Tidewater, the Shenandoah Valley, and several counties in the far western part of the state, but the nerve center of the party was located in Richmond. There, John Minor Botts, a member of the House of Delegates (1833–1839) and the U.S. House of Representatives (1839–1843, 1847–1849), organized the working-class neighborhoods into a tightly controlled and influential political machine known by its critics as the “Botts Tail.”
In addition, the Whig Party’s power was bolstered by the success of its newspaper, the Richmond Whig, which was founded in 1824 (some sources say 1827) by John Hampden Pleasants and became the leading southern voice for the party. (Pleasants was killed in 1846 during a duel with the editor of the Richmond Enquirer, Thomas Ritchie Jr.—a gruesome encounter that involved both pistols and swords.) The Whig newspaper was a vocal opponent of secession, and on the evening of the surrender of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, in April 1861, its offices were kept symbolically dark.
The Party Fractures
The Whig Party objected to the Mexican War as having been provoked by U.S. president James K. Polk, a Democrat, in order to grab land from Mexico. When the war ended, however, the party nominated for president—and the country subsequently elected—a hero from that war, Virginian Zachary Taylor. The party had already begun to split between antislavery “Conscience Whigs” in the North and proslavery “Cotton Whigs” in the South. Taylor—”a thick-set man with stubby legs and heavy brows contracted into a perpetual frown,” in the words of historian James M. McPherson, “careless in dress, a career army officer (but not a West Pointer) with no discernable political opinions”—was seen as a concession to the South, someone who would likely support the expansion of slavery into the new territory and, in particular, California. But when elected, Taylor’s sympathies aligned with the North and a free California.
Sectional crisis resulted. After Taylor died in office, the California question was resolved with the Compromise of 1850, by which Whigs and Democrats attempted to balance the power of slave and free states. (California was admitted as a free state, slavery was not prohibited in the remaining new territory, and the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia.) The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which created the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska and allowed settlers there to determine whether those territories would be free or slave, further split the Whig Party. Southern Whigs’ fiercely proslavery arguments helped provoke the founding of the Republican Party in the North that year. What seemed most clear during these years was that American politics was no longer defined by loyalty to party but by loyalty to section. North and South, in other words, were more useful points of reference than Whig and Democrat. The Democratic Party managed to survive in the South by aligning itself with sectional interests and especially the fire-eating secessionists—the extreme proslavery politicians who advocated for secession before the Civil War—of the Deep South. The Whigs were too hopelessly split and, as a result, disappeared. Into that void, at least in the North, stepped the new Republican Party, which, in 1860, nominated for U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig.
The Party’s End in Virginia
As the national Whig Party declined, so did the state party. Virginia native Winfield Scott was beaten decisively in his run for U.S. president in 1852, and the Virginia Whigs lost several key elections, including seats in the legislature and the governorship. Their Democratic opponents identified them as weak on the slavery issue and, in some cases, even accused them of being sympathetic to abolitionists. In the context of a politics that had become more sectional than ideological, this was akin to charging treason against the South. Several Whigs defected to the Democratic Party to protect their careers, while others joined the new “Know Nothing” party. Know Nothings were virulently anti-Catholic and anti-immigration—Democrats, in the North especially, relied on the votes of recently arrived Europeans—and, to the pleasure of temperance-minded Whigs, anti-liquor.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, former Whigs such as Botts continued to function in state politics, generally in the role of moderates promoting Union and compromise. When a convention was called in February 1861 to debate secession, former party stalwarts controlled the initial proceedings, led by convention president John Janney, a former Whig and an ardent Unionist. They managed to hold off the secessionists for months, but after the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to defend the Union, the Democrats prevailed. The convention voted for secession on April 17. During the war that followed, the loyalty of many but not all former Unionist Whigs transferred to the Confederacy. Jubal A. Early, a former Whig from Franklin County, who, as a delegate to the 1861 convention, voted against secession, became a general in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Botts, on the other hand, banded together with fellow Unionists F. W. E. Lohmann, William S. Rowley, and Elizabeth Van Lew to form an underground spy network in the Confederate capital of Richmond.